Over the last two weeks, I’ve been trialing an app called Screen Time that manages the activity on mobile devices, specifically those used by children.
The growing use of mobile technology by children on one hand is encouraging, as they have use of devices, user experiences and gestures that would have been completely alien to myself growing up in the eighties. However, as I write this, the sun is setting on what was a bright warm day where you want your children outside the house and doing anything but hunched up over a small screen.
And that’s before you start to question what they’re actually looking at on their devices. Safety is key to their digital development, but instead of trying to manually meter their time and nag them to come off their tablet before dinner, Screen Time offers a way to do all these in one go.
Offered for iOS and Android, there’s a free trial for 14-days (6 months is 14.99 GBP and a year 29.99 GBP) so a risk-free way to start. The clever thing about the pricing is that it’s per family, so you can have unlimited children and devices added to your account. After adding your children, you can set up parents or carers as managers, and then install Screen Time on the children’s devices. Note that the app asks for lots of permissions because it needs to control the whole device. After linking these together, you’re all set:
Screen Time does two major things: the first is control the time spent on the device by your child. You can set this up as either a total number of hours a day, or between fixed hours, so for our two sons, we decided to allow a total of 90 minutes each weekday (2.5 hours at weekends) to be spent how they choose. But we’ve set the operating window from which they can use it, so, for instance, their devices stop at 8am to allow them to finish getting ready for school as shown above.
The bedtime mode has a further interesting feature. Assuming your child hasn’t used up their allocation, you can set a separate, restricted list of apps to use before lights-out. So for our eldest, he’s allowed to access Google Newstand to read his magazines, but he can’t play any games. This screen shows the bedtime settings:
Note that the Play and Pause buttons at the bottom activate and deactivate access for all devices in one go. When pausing, the kids get a 20 second warning that the tablet will stop – enough time to pause or save what they’re doing. We’ve learnt that our boys are gradually accepting the idea that whatever they do on their device is monitored.
The second main feature is reporting what your children are actually doing. This is in the form of selectable notifications and emails. So when my eldest Cameron reached his daily limit, I get an email, like this:
You can open up access to certain apps, such as Chrome, for short periods of time. This helps for things like homework research if needed, while web searches are also recorded. You also get a daily emailed report of what apps they’ve been using too:
It’s possible to restrict access to any app they’ve installed remotely by blocking it, and, if you’ve given them permission to install apps themselves, you get notified:
A neat feature is the ability to reward your offspring with additional time on their device for completing tasks. Tasks can be anything you like – they are free to define. This gamifies the whole experience but really switches the obligation from one generation to the next. You can set a number of chores for completion, and then your kids can take a photo and beg for more time!
This can also be a notification on my phone:
The first few of these requests were met with some humour, but over the weeks, my two sons have stuck to it and I regularly get requests for more device time in return for tidier bedrooms.
Most notable about this experiment was other parents’ reactions when you explain the trial – there’s real interest, and a sign that while the concern persists, many don’t really know what to begin. Certainly, until we’d started this trial, it looked both complicated and requiring a lot of effort.
Screen Time works really well, and we decided to take up the 6 month purchase option. If it’s still working for us after six months, we’re certain to go for the year. There’s such a wide variety of features and controls that aren’t too taxing to use, but allow fine control for all family situations.