Testing Apple’s new parental screen time controls: Tears came first, then frustration.

“Don’t set a time limit. I can be reasonable! pleads Tazio, 9, looking up from his iPad.

It’s not always fun to own an iPad that a parent can turn off remotely. Not easy either: trying to be a parent via the new “Screen Time” digital controls.

Coming soon to an iPad or iPhone near you, Apple’s iOS 12 adds menus, buttons and bar graphs to help monitor and control what kids (and adults) are doing with their devices. It’s a good thing that Apple, along with Amazon and Google, now recognize that technology can be disruptive, even addictive.

But anyone looking for help from this software may be surprised. This could make parenting more difficult. One example: Apple’s poor default settings let kids access NC-17 movies, explicit books, and the entire web, even if they know their exact age.

The focus on the family is long overdue. In 2017, 42% of American children ages 0-8 had their own tablets — and 78% had access to a tablet somewhere in the house, according to the nonprofit Common Sense Media. Most of them are iPads, often second-hand items, anxiously given to children that crumble like zombies or melt when taken away. Apple has already offered some parental restrictions, but they were incomplete.

Is there a childproof tablet? For the past few weeks, I’ve been conducting an experiment with Tazio, my publisher’s 9-year-old son. He wanted his first tablet – and his mother was suspicious. So I set up the family with two devices: one is a $330 iPad running a preview version of iOS 12 with Screen Time (coming widely in the coming weeks). The other is one of the iPad’s few competitors in the family market, the $200 Amazon Fire HD 10 Kids Edition tablet running Amazon’s version of Android.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, but I review all technology with the same critical eye.

Playing the role of technical advisor to meet this real family challenge, I was surprised at how difficult it was to use Apple’s parental software. Even discounting beta software bugs that Apple will hopefully squash, Screen Time is one of Apple’s weakest software launches in years. Apple treats parents like IT administrators to their kids, with a million choices to make and buttons to adjust.

Amazon’s Fire Kids Edition was designed as a product for children, and is more like a daycare center where someone else picked out the books and games, put deadbolts on all the doors, and painted the walls in electric blue. It’s a safer place to leave the kids than Appleland, but kids can get bored – and jealous of the fun friends are having elsewhere.

I don’t want to discourage parents from using these tools. But I recommend that you understand how the software works and how much it will charge you.

How Apple Screen Time works — and doesn’t
Our experience began in tears.

Tazio, my little reviewer, was setting up his iPad when his younger brother came by. He also wanted an iPad, but we only had one. An epic meltdown ensued.

Why couldn’t we share? Blame Apple, buddy: it designed iOS 12 to work with one account per device (outside of schools) and Tazio was already using it.

A child account is central to how Screen Time works. Parents create one through their own Apple ID settings, giving the child their own email address and password associated with a guardian. It gives parents the power to approve downloads and control features. (The video above shows the basics of setup.)

Here’s the next headache: even though Apple knows the child’s age, the default settings aren’t child-friendly. They don’t restrict explicit content, add privacy protections like limiting location data sharing, or save kids from annoying system questions. Yes, parents can change these settings remotely and approve media purchases, but the defaults are important.

Parents can decide which apps are available, what part of the day the iPad is off limits, and how many minutes different categories of apps (such as games) can be used. They get a bar graph reading of the child’s device usage during the current day and the previous week.

Managing settings on your own device is an operation every few months. Managing screen time for children takes a lot more work, as parenthood requires frequent negotiation. Aside from an initial setup window that covers some Screen Time functionality, controls can be buried behind half a dozen clicks in settings menus where few venture. Even I couldn’t figure out how to set a daily time limit for a specific app without asking Apple for instructions.

We also found flaws. If you watch a video on Netflix and then press the home button to make it appear as a picture-in-picture, the minutes won’t count towards your screen time limit. Junior could watch all day.

Timelines are rigid and especially annoying for kids when they’re almost at the end of a game or movie. Tazio has come to treat his limits like an allowance, guarding them carefully and using them as a bargaining tactic with mom.

Apple allows children to request time extensions, which appear as a notification on parent devices. If you think these requests could quickly become boring, you’re right.

The Amazon Alternative
Where Apple let Tazio’s mother make a lot of choices, Amazon pre-decided a lot for her – for better and for worse.

The biggest difference is that the Fire Kids Edition tablets come with one year of Amazon’s FreeTime Unlimited service, which includes access to 15,000 apps and games, videos, books, and educational content from sources like PBS Kids, Nickelodeon and Disney. (After a year, they charge $3 per month for Prime members.) Based on the age and gender of children, Amazon shows children’s content they might be interested in. Tazio has a lot of Star Wars.

Amazon says it checked all that content, removed most ads, and calls for in-app purchase upgrades (none of which were made by Apple). While kids can browse all of this content, there’s no kids mode app or bookstore. Parents can manually purchase and add additional apps, movies, and books purchased from Amazon through their own accounts.

Amazon’s tablet can also be shared by parents and multiple siblings, each getting their own age-appropriate experience by swapping IDs. (Younger brother crisis averted.)

Unlike Apple, Amazon implements additional restrictions by default for all apps running on its Kids Edition tablets. They cannot send location data to third parties. Alexa voice assistant is disabled.

With the Fire, parents access a dashboard view of their child’s account via a web link that, like Apple’s Screen Time, includes data about what they’re doing on their device that day- there and in the previous week, as well as the ability to set time restrictions. for types of activities. An app would have been superior to its website, but it offered an awesome button that Apple lacked: “Suspend Devices” now.

Amazon’s software also allows parents to encourage the behavior. We configured Tazio’s Fire tablet to allow it to play games only after completing half an hour of reading. It worked. He even got up early to burn off his readings so he could get to his game time.

The problem with all of this: Tazio could kind of tell he was getting the “Truman Show” treatment from the Fire. He wanted to be able to send messages, but Amazon doesn’t have a built-in app for that. Tazio also wanted to play Fortnite, but Amazon doesn’t carry the popular game in its app store. I don’t blame him for wanting to do the same things his friends are doing on their tablets.

And Amazon also has its flaws. Tazio discovered that he could still talk to Alexa by switching to his mother’s login screen even though he didn’t know her password. (Amazon says it will release a software update that requires a PIN code before a child can exit FreeTime mode, preventing them from accessing Alexa.) Perhaps the lesson is that tech companies cannot exceed 9 years.

Tazio’s family decided that the Amazon Fire tablet was a perfect fit for their first tablet. It was less powerful than the iPad, but also less frustrating for mom.

The decision was rooted in the amount of extra work created by Apple’s screen time. Even with my help, Mom spent hours inside, trying to adjust their rigid controls to what was really going on at home. Instead of being an electronic babysitter, the iPad has become a new project.

Apple’s approach assumes that children are all different, so it leaves all the decisions up to parents. They’re not wrong: no two 9-year-olds are alike. But so do adult laptop and phone users, and Apple designers have managed to simplify the technology by making choices that work for most of us.

Apple plans to offer in-store training for parents, along with step-by-step instructions on its parent-facing website.

What’s most important with any screen is that parents “don’t just hand it over without discussion, settings, and expectations,” Christine Elgersma of Common Sense Media told me. A parenting writer for the nonprofit, she also tested iOS 12 with Screen Time. “When I give my daughter the iPad, I always ask her ‘what are you going to do with it?'” she says. She also put in place rules on when an extension of time might be acceptable.

Getting involved in kids’ digital lives is work. If tech companies want to create software to help, they need to make sure they don’t just create more work.

© The Washington Post 2018


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