Put the device down, you’ve reached your limit!

Have you ever wondered how much time you spend on your smartphone in specific apps? Much like the pedometer calculates the number of steps you take, Our Leah decided to assess and try to cure the time she spent with her smartphone in her hand, or on apps like Facebook, just for a browse. Just by knowing how much (frankly shocking, like most of us) time she spent, she managed to set aside time to do it or limit it completely. It’s been a game changer for her personally and professionally.

Along with ‘Scroll-free September’, Apple and Google have now unveiled tools to help reduce device usage. We all complain that our batteries are about to die or, inevitably do, because of the amount of time we use them in a day, but technology giants want to help you spend less time on their devices. Checking social media in the early hours, when you are nearly awake, is not healthy and can surely affect your sleep and mental wellbeing. Let’s face it, most of us don’t get up without an alarm anyway!

Google is doing something different with Android. Instead of showing you all the ways you can use its phone operating system to do more, it has created features to help you use it less.

Android’s Vice President of Product Management, Sameer Samat, says that the company has been working on these tools for a long time based on user research, not a desire to draft off the growing wave of concern about distraction. Claiming ownership, he said: ”We have 2 billion users so it’s the largest mobile operating system in the world. We are ‘the OS’, and we feel like we have a responsibility and need to do more around this area.”

Their update, ‘Android P’, has a new dashboard that tells you how often, when, and for how long you are using every app on your phone. With a function to set yourself limits, you could give yourself a half-hour of Instagram per day, etc. Once your 30 minutes is up, the icon will go from its usual eye-catching gradient to a dull grayscale, making the app - and phone - less appealing, presumably making it easier to put the phone down. A bit like when your battery dies and you feel like you can’t use your phone but still do whilst it is on charge.

The update also offers a handful of tools to help you keep your phone from bothering you, from subtle tweaks to how notifications work to literally preventing you from using it, excessively. The new usage dashboard is an app that gives you an interesting insight into amount of information about your phone usage, like: how many minutes you’ve used your phone overall per day, how many notifications you’ve received, a pie chart of how long you’ve used each app on your phone that day and how long per day you’ve used each app on your phone, broken down hour by hour.

Google’s ‘Digital Wellbeing’ and Apple’s ‘Screen Time’ are “the new tools for managing screen time” and “will let you see how often you picked up the phone after bedtime or how long you're on Instagram at work.”

Apple's tool lets you control how long your kids spend on their devices, if you're concerned that screens are taking time away from sleep, homework or exercise. As part of the free iOS 12 software update for iPhones, iPads and the iPod Touch, set up, you can use your iPhone to check when your children are on their devices and what apps or websites they are using. You can restrict particular classes of apps and even establish a quiet period when most apps shut down.

That latter ‘Downtime’ feature only lets you choose a single block of time each day, so if you're blocking late-night hours, you can't set a separate downtime for school hours. Plus, your selection applies seven days a week; you can't set different hours for weekends unless you want to manually change the settings every Friday and Monday.

A ‘Screen Time' feature lets you establish time limits for categories of app, such as entertainment or games which can be different on weekends. You can also set limits app-by-app, or for specific websites, but it's slightly more complex. (From the Screen Time settings, tap the chart at the top to get a list of apps and websites. Tap on an app or site, and look for ‘Add Limit' at the bottom) If a child has both an iPhone and an iPad, Screen Time can track time spent on both devices against your limits. You can exempt useful apps, such as e-books or homework sites from the ‘greyscale’ time’s up effect and this doesn’t happen with messaging and phone service for emergencies.

It's best to configure all this from your own device using Apple's ‘Family Sharing' feature. Like the TV parental control, you will need a passcode specifically for Screen Time, but be sure to pick one that's different from your phone's passcode, which your kids probably already know. Kids can ask for more time with a few taps. If you ignore or decline the request, Screen Time isn't supposed to let them keep asking. They can reopen the app to bug you with another request though (get ready for a digital version of “are we there yet?”)

Apple already had parental controls for blocking R-rated movies, adult websites and podcasts with explicit language, but the settings were buried. In iOS 12, they are part of Screen Time. You will need to set them on manually, or your kid can still watch R and NC-17 movies. 

What you won't get from Apple is any help in determining what kinds of limits to set. In fact, the clock is initially set to zero, forcing parents to make choices right off the bat instead of working from default limits. “Ultimately, it's best to have a conversation with your kids about screen time. Having software block an app can be easier than pulling a device out of a child's hands. It comes down to priority and discipline.”

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