By Larry Magid
As the founder of SafeKids.com and co-founder of ConnectSafely.org, I’ve written volumes about parental controls that help parents limit what their kids can do online or with mobile devices. Apple already offers optional parental controls for iPhones and iPads, but with the upcoming release of its new mobile operating system, iOS 12, the company is enhancing those controls and — more interesting — extending them to adult users.
Don’t worry grown-ups, you still have control over what you can do with your devices, but with a new feature called Screen Time along with updates to notifications and Do Not Disturb, the company is doing a lot more to encourage breaks and help users understand how much they are using their devices and apps.
Google also offers parental controls on its Android phones and, in May, introduced its own set of “wind down” features for adults.
What sets Apple apart is that the tools for parents and children are similar to the ones for adults. The main difference is that the parental version allows parents to monitor and limit their kids’ usage.
I applaud Google and Apple for helping us put a bit more thought into how much we use our devices, but I’m especially pleased by Apple’s approach of creating similar tools for both kids and adults. I say that mostly because it makes taking breaks and getting usage reports a family affair.
I hope these tools encourage families to review reports together — and by that, I mean let the kids see and discuss the parents’ report.
It’s known that parents are concerned about their kids’ use of tech, but what may come as a surprise is that a lot of kids are concerned about their parents’ use.
In February at the Safer Internet Day event in Austin, Texas, a group of elementary school students told ConnectSafely’s education director Kerry Gallagher that they’re concerned about how much time their parents spend with devices. One child said that when her parents do a search or check an email, they wind up spending far too much time looking at the screen instead of interacting with family. I wonder if some of these kids would be interested in installing controls on their parents devices, putting kids in charge of setting parental limits.
To me, the parental controls are less about setting limits and more about setting reminders and developing good habits that can last a lifetime. For more of my advice on this topic, see “What parents should think about when using or considering parental controls,” at connectsafely.org/parental-controls.
Screen Time for adults and kids
Apple’s Screen Time feature gives you a detailed report of what you or your kids are doing with your devices and how long you’re using each app. You can track your usage by day, week or month and can sync these features across devices in case you try to sneak a peek at your Instagram account on your iPad after reaching the limit on your phone.
There is an option that lets you set limits, which you can override, on how much time you spend using specific apps. The Downtime feature allows parents to control when their kids can use their devices. They also can exempt certain apps from limitations, such as the ability to make phone calls or apps that help with homework.
Updates to Apple’s notification management tools provide new ways to limit those pesky beeps or even onscreen notices that interrupt us during the day and, sometimes, even when we sleep.
One of the things that annoys me about notifications in both iOS and Android is how hard it is to shut them down. With iOS 12 you’ll be able to manage notifications from the lock screen by sending a specific app’s notifications to the Notification Center or turning it off completely. I have an Android phone and have spent a considerable amount of time in the Apps and Notifications setting area, painstakingly reviewing and adjusting the setting for each of my many apps. Apple said that Siri, on iOS 12, will make “intelligent suggestions about your alerts based on how you interact with them.”
Apple is improving its Do Not Disturb function to allow you to turn it on while you’re in a meeting or at a location and have it automatically turn off when the event ends or when you leave that location.
A new Do Not Disturb at bedtime setting will basically turn the phone into a clock while you’re in bed with a screen that’s free of notification and app icons that might otherwise tempt you to interact with the phone rather than with your pillow.
Some find it ironic that some tech companies are starting to encourage us to use their products less, but I think it’s good business and good politics at a time when our country is going through a bit of a tech backlash in the wake of all sorts of revelations about how tech — as great as it is — can have some unintended consequences.
Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit internet safety organization that receives financial support from Facebook, Snapchat and other tech companies.