Screen time has been occupying headlines in recent weeks. Last month, two Apple shareholders wrote a letter to the company voicing concerns that technology might be hurting children. This past Sunday, the New York Times reported that former Facebook and Google employees are teaming up with Common Sense Media for a campaign to inform people about the dangers of technology. And on Monday, Bloomberg reported that some people in Silicon Valley are attempting to limit their use of devices via “tech diets.”
For Catherine Steiner-Adair, such concerns are not surprising. A clinical psychologist who has written about technology’s impact on children’s development, Steiner-Adair believes that devices can be particularly problematic when used as a panacea to deal with children. She tells EdSurge that when a parent gives a young child technology when he or she is emotionally upset, the parent is giving them a stimulant, rather than teaching them how to calm down.
Steiner-Adair says teachers have told her they’ve seen a huge decrease in children’s ability to stay engaged with the learning process. She also says too much technology can dampen a child’s imagination.
“When you match [a] lowercase A to [an] uppercase A on an iPad, even though it’s an educational game, you get a ping, you get butterflies, you get a stimulant to your brain,” Steiner-Adair says. “Children come to school expecting teachers to say that was great, that was fantastic, that was excellent, over and over and over, rewarding them in the same way that games reward you neurologically with stimulants.”
She calls technology the biggest experiment on a developing child’s brain without an ethical review board. While there are positive uses, she says it’s time to push the “pause button” and look at the psychological and neurological fallouts. She adds that we need to examine what non-tech tools children need to develop healthy relationships and sleep habits.
Steiner-Adair points to the Wait Until 8 movement, which calls on parents to refrain from giving their children a smartphone until at least 8th grade, as one response to concerns over technology addiction.
Roxana Marachi, an associate professor of education at San Jose State University, agrees with the waiting approach. She thinks tech companies like Google and Apple can encourage children not to be online until they’re 12 or 13 and able to “better understand what’s happening online.” But she doesn’t think that’s likely to happen. It would be helpful for parents to recognize that devices and apps have been designed for children to become addicted to them, and protect them from that at a young age, she says.
For those who prefer not to wait, here are some other ways parents and educators can monitor and manage children’s screen time on mobile devices.
While Apple was publicly called out by its shareholders, Google heard the call to address tech addiction internally—from its very own employees.
“I think it’s one of these stories where we hear a lot, actually from our own Googlers that were saying, ‘My kids are starting to get onto tablets and smartphones at earlier and earlier ages. Can we at Google do something better here for them?” says Saurabh Sharma, the Product Manager of Family Link. “A small team of us got together and...after a couple of months and a lot of user research, we kind of came up with the basics of what’s now Family Link.”
First released in March 2017, Family Link allows a parent to manage the apps a child uses, keep track of a child’s screen time, set a daily limit on usage and remotely lock the device. Parents can use the app on an iOS or Android device, but the app can only control a child’s Android device.
There’s a one cent charge that’s required to create a child’s account. A Google spokesperson says the fee serves as verification that the parent gave their consent, in line with child privacy regulations.
Parents can choose to record how much time their child is spending on certain apps. If they make that choice, Google stores that data on its servers so that they can see how much time the child is spending on certain apps.
Google still reserves the right to share content in certain circumstances. Information the company collects can include information given to it, such as a child’s birth date and about services the child uses. While a child using Family Link can still see ads, he or she will not see personalized ads. (For more information, here’s the disclosure page for Family Link.)
Sharma says he hears time and time again from parents that tools are important to manage different types of concerns on the internet, but there’s no substitute for a conversation with a child.
Apple currently doesn’t have an app akin to Google’s Family Link, although it hinted last month that it's adding additional parental control features.
For the time being, adults can make use of existing parental controls available on iOS devices. They include the ability to block or limit certain apps and features on the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.
There are other features a user can implement: Do Not Disturb mode can silence calls, alerts and notifications a user gets when their device is locked; Guided Access has the ability to temporarily restrict a device to a single app; Ask to Buy lets a parent approve new purchases and free downloads a child wants to make in iTunes, iBooks, the app store, iCloud storage or in-app. And on the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, parents can check the amount of battery used by each app to get a sense of what apps a child has been on.
Third-Party Apps and Products
There are also a number of third-party apps that let parents manage their child’s screen time.
Circle is a device that pairs with a Wi-Fi router so a parent can manage content and set time limits on apps and websites on every device that run on the household’s Wi-Fi. The device costs $99.
DinnerTime Plus is an app that lets parents monitor and control what their kids do on their devices. The app is free, but there’s an in-app purchase for parents to see detailed usage reports for their child’s device. The child’s device must be an Android smartphone or tablet, but the parent’s device can be an iOS or Android phone. DinnerTime Plus claims it does not yet support tablets for parents.
One company is trying to minimize distractions in the classroom. Flipd is an app students can use to stay off their phones in class and any time they don’t want to be interrupted, such as when they study.
According to Flipd’s co-founder Alanna Harvey, the app works like a screensaver that reminds students not to use their phones while they’re “Flipd Off.” If a student unlocks his or her phone during a Flipd session, the screen is there to remind them they shouldn’t use their phone. If a student decides to override Flipd, they’re making a conscious decision to use their phone when they know they aren’t supposed to, Harvey explains.
Professors and teachers can use Flipd to get analytics and data around the engagement of students in the class. If an instructor is using Flipd during a lecture, he or she can see how many students have activated the app, and at which point during the lesson students exited Flipd to check something on their phone.
Using Flipd is entirely the student’s choice, although many professors who use it do tie it to participation or engagement credit, Harvey says.
When Flipd was first starting off, its initial target market was as a parental control app. But Harvey says that changed when they started recognizing that students were using Flipd for themselves. Today, Flipd is mostly used in higher education, with 125 institutions having used it since fall 2016. The company is also expanding to younger grades, and currently has three K-12 pilots in California.
When All Else Fails...
If you don’t want to use tech to combat tech, there’s an extreme option: physically lock up the device. Yondr is a company that offers a pouch that locks a phone, and markets it for a wide array of use cases, including concerts and schools.
Using the Yondr pouch, the phone is placed into a case that locks. You can still feel your phone vibrate if you get, say, a call from someone, but you can’t physically access it. The only way to access your phone is to use a specialized unlocking mechanism.
Sometimes kids will find ways to outsmart that system, such as by ripping the case open, says Graham Dugoni, the CEO and founder of Yondr. “It’s a constant game of cat and mouse which we kind of find entertaining at a certain level.”
Currently, Yondr is used in roughly 600 schools. Five universities in the United States and two in Canada use Yondr for lecture halls or studies. Yondr has occasionally worked with households, but Dugoni says on a bigger level, his company is figuring out how to best help individual families implement their system.
Dugoni thinks most phone usage is primarily an impulse, and creating a physical barrier is “really all you need most of the time.”