Saturday, May 21, 2022

What is Apple Screen Time and how does it work?

Looking to address growing concerns around increasing device usage, smartphone addiction and social media impacting on mental health, Apple has announced a collection of initiatives focusing on “digital health” that is part of its iOS 12 update available from 17 September. 

Announced its developer conference in June, Apple hopes the new features will help users regain control and not be constantly lost in their phones – or at least keep Apple in the clear in the same way that its Do Not Disturb feature does when you’re driving. 

Here’s everything you need to know about Apple Screen Time.

What is Apple Screen Time?

Screen Time is a core part of iOS 12 and as such it will work will all apps without developers or individual apps having to make any changes to benefit from it.

Found in the Settings app alongside Notifications and Do Not Disturb, the feature will monitor the way you use your device, telling you everything from how long you’ve spent on certain app categories to specific apps. It will even tell you how many times you’ve picked up your iPhone in a given hour.

Once the data is collected you can then view it in a handy chart to see how much you really use your phone or tablet.

At the end of the week (on a Sunday) you’ll get a report sent to you via a notification, so you can see exactly what you’ve been doing and just how much time you wasted in certain apps.

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Reporting on app categories

Apple is able to break down the apps using the categories from the App Store so you can see whether you play a lot of games, or spend time in social media, or if you’re a utilities person.

What’s great here is that because that data is picked up from the App Store, and that’s all reviewed by a human, you shouldn’t find that a game is hiding in a work category.

What can you do with all this data?

The idea is that by understanding how you’re interacting with your phone you can then take much greater control, either by taking drastic action like removing the app completely, or by limiting how you use it by setting App Limits within iOS 12. The problem, of course, is that you’ve got to decide to make that change.

You can choose to ignore the findings or bypass them at any time.

What are App Limits?

If you’re worried about app addiction you can set yourself daily or weekly limits to curb your usage. With iOS 12 you’ll be able to set a specific amount of time in an app.

When that time limit is about to expire you’ll get a notification telling you you’ve only got 5 minutes left. When your time is up, you can choose to override it and carry on using it, but the nudge is supposed to make you realise what is happening, so you can curb your addiction.

It’s very similar to how the Do Not Disturb while driving feature works in iOS 11. You can easily choose to dismiss it, but it does make you think about what you are doing.

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Blocking specific apps at specific times with Downtime

Monitoring and reporting is one thing, but you might want to stop yourself from using a specific app at a specific time. This is where a feature called Downtime comes into play. The feature, again found in the Settings app, gives you the ability to schedule a block of time whereby only apps that you choose will work.

While the feature is likely to be used by parents to control the apps available to their children in the run up to bedtime for example, we could easily see it working to stop you from using your work email after hours or social media during work.

You’ll also be able to whitelist certain apps so you can still use the phone or messaging features for example.

Screen Time will track how many times you pick up your device

It’s not just about monitoring your app usage, but also about how much time you spend interacting with a device. Using a number of signals, Apple will also measure how many times you pick up your phone in a given hour. There is a level of engagement for it to register, but it’s about tracking how many times you pick it up.

In our time using Screen Time it’s frightening how many times we pick up the phone, and that number is likely to shock you – for the first couple of days at least. 

Screen Time works across all your devices via iCloud

Rather than be restricted to just a single device, the Screen Time feature is based on your iCloud account associated with all your devices that are running iOS 12. This means a number of things. Not only will you be able to see how you use apps across multiple devices, but also won’t be able to cheat the system by using your iPad over your iPhone when you’ve run out of time on one device.

It doesn’t work with Apple Watch, but if you’re trying to cheat the system that much, you might have bigger problems.  

You can’t have multiple users on a single device

While parental controls go a long way to delivering more granular controls, Apple still isn’t offering multiple user support on a single device like you can have on macOS, Amazon Fire or (some) Android devices.

Screen Time only works via iCloud account usage on devices. If you have a family iPad, the system will record all app usage regardless of who uses it meaning the system can be easily bypassed. The answer still appears to be that if you want to track what your kids are doing, they’ll all need their own iOS devices.

Screen Time lets parents check their kids Activity Reports

While you might want to use Screen Time to control your own use of the phone, one of the key areas that it will be used is for parents to monitor and control the apps their children are using.

Parents can access their child’s Activity Report right from their own iOS devices to understand where their child spends their time and can manage and set App Limits for them. The days of “I was just checking what homework I’ve got” are numbered.

If they’re spending hours on WhatsApp you’ll be able to see, and yes, they are.  

Screen Time lets parents set App Limits for kids’ devices

You’ll be able to schedule a block of time to limit when your child can use their iOS device, such as bedtime, and use Downtime so they don’t get bombarded with notifications.

Screen Time settings are all managed remotely via the parents device, so your kids won’t be able to bypass the features, or turn them off.

Do Not Disturb gets boosted features

The Do Not Disturb feature, already available in iOS 11, gets more features and control in iOS 12. In the next version of Apple’s mobile operating system you’ll be able to say don’t disturb me for the “next hour” or for the rest of the evening as well as the usual daily schedules. 

Do Not Disturb bedtime mode

There’s also a new Do Not Disturb bedtime mode that will not only dim the display, but also hide all notifications on the lock screen until prompted in the morning.

There’s also a new option in Control Center where in can be set to automatically end based on a specified time or location.

New Notifications controls to stop you being bothered

Siri can now intelligently make suggestions for notifications based on a number of factors including things like your location. For example, it will suggest putting your phone in to Do Not Disturb mode if it thinks you’re at the cinema.

It will also group notifications on the Lock Screen so you aren’t instantly drowned out first thing in the morning or after a long flight. For those who want even more control you’ll be able to have notifications delivered directly to the Notification Center bypassing the Lock Screen altogether.

Screen Time release date and availability

Screen Time comes as part of iOS 12 and therefore you’ll need to upgrade all the relevant devices that you plan to use to that operating system. iOS 12 will work on all devices that currently run iOS 11: that’s iPhone 5S and above.

It was released to the public in 17 September – so check your device for updates if you don’t have it..

How is Screen Time like the existing iOS and Android app Screen Time?

That’s right, there’s already an app called Screen Time from Screen Time Labs that does exactly the same thing.

Apple says that because its own Screen Time is coded in at the operating system level it can manage and monitor things a lot better. The Activity Reports can’t be turned off (although you can ignore them), and because it’s based on the iCloud account, works across devices.

Of course you won’t get cross Android, Fire and iOS support as you can with the existing Screen Time app, and the Apple features don’t go as far as letting you monitor which websites your kids are visiting.

There’s also no way to reward your children with extra time for doing chores around the house – but then the Screen Time app from Screen Time Labs is subscription-based for these more enhanced features.

In summary…

We’ve been using Screen Time over the last 2 months. The first couple of weeks are a real eye-opener and likely to really showcase that you are addicted to your phone. We were shocked at how many times we picked up the iPhone, or how quickly you can rack up time on social media like Twitter. 

The problem is that these are just tools to make you realise what is happening rather than really stopping you using your phone. Yes you can use blocks, but we found we quickly turned them off because they became annoying. We’re responsible people who use our phones responsibly, aren’t we?

Like those who need a jolt to get off the sofa and go for a run, Screen Time will certainly give iPhone users a reminder that they’ve become addicted to the devices they can no longer be with out – whether you take the next step and curb your usage is up to you.


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