Everything you need to know about Apple's iOS 12 Screen Time beta

Apple's new iOS Screen Time feature aims to help us become aware of our digital habits as a first step to empowering us to control them.

Apple, WWDC, iOS, iOS 12, Screen time
Apple

Apple listens. It has heard the complaints that people and their children are spending more time glued to their digital devices than they do to each other. And at WWDC, it introduced its new iOS Screen Time feature aims to help us become aware of our digital habits as a first step to empowering us to control them.

What is Screen Time?

Set to ship in the fall with iOS 12, Screen Time is Apple’s first attempt at dealing with the emerging problem of digital addiction.

It consists of tools to help expose how long you spend using your device and the apps you use when doing so, as well as controls to limit this use.

Apple theorizes — correctly — that people must first understand their own use of digital devices in order to successfully manage any addiction they may have to that use. Did you know the average time spent using smartphones is 171 minutes a day?

NB: Screen Time is currently in beta. How it works may change by the time iOS 12 ships. The software may also gain or lose additional features by the time it ships. Now we have that warning out of the way, let’s figure out how to use it:

Where to find Screen Time?

You’ll find Screen Time in Settings on an iPhone or iPad running iOS 12. You can also ask Siri to open it for you by saying, “Hey, Siri, open Screen Time.” You can put controls in place for all the devices registered to your iTunes account or to an entire family set of devices using Screen Time for Family.

What will I find in Screen Time?

When you first open Screen Time you may be prompted to create a Screen Time passcode. This is designed to prevent others with access to your device from subverting the controls you have put in place.

Once inside, you’ll find the Screen Time page divides into the following zones:

  • Activity Graph
  • App Limit controls (including Downtime, App Limits, Always Allowed and Content & Privacy Restrictions.)
  • Use/Disable Screen Time Passcode
  • Turn Off Screen Time
  • Set Up Screen Time for Family
  • Clear Usage Data

We go into more depth on each of these below:

Understand Activity Graph

Apple has designed the app to show data around the current device at the top of the screen. This takes the form of a seven-day or one-day graph that shows your use of the device: Messages, Music, Entertainment and Other, for example.

This information will break down to show average use time, the longest sessions, after bedtime use, the most used apps, and even how many times you pick up your device. It will show you how long you have spent on each listed function.

Tap the graph to access more detailed usage information representing how much time you spend using each app.

You will see a small, gray egg-timer icon to the right of the data pertaining to each app. Tap this to access, set, and edit App Limits (explained below).

You will also find data to show how many Notifications you receive and how often you receive these from each app. This helps you identify if any particular app is demanding too much of your time — are you really spending over an hour each day using Facebook? (The average use spends over an hour each day using social media, according to data from BankMyCell.)

Understand and use App Limits

Apple now lets you set limits on the apps you use. You can choose to limit how much time you spend using certain families of app, or set limits on certain individual apps.

There are two primary ways to set these limits:

1. Tap the name of the device you are using to access more detailed usage information, and tap the egg-timer icon to set limits in that view.

2. Tap the App Limits item on the primary Screen Time page and then tap Add Limit to access a slightly different set of controls that enable you to define limits that may not be available on detailed page.

In both cases, once you select an item to limit, you will be presented with tools to set the duration of permitted use and the capacity to set different time limits for different days.

You can use App Limits to prevent yourself from:

  • Spending too much time in social media
  • Playing your favorite game too extensively

You may even choose to disable all your Productivity apps at the weekend so your boss stops exploiting digital transformation to make you work harder at home.

Once you put them in place, App Limits reset every day at midnight and apply to all devices signed into your account on iCloud. You can identify what limits are in place by the presence of an orange egg timer icon beside their name.

App Limit controls

Underneath the main data graph you’ll find a series of App Limit controls: Downtime, App Limits, Always Allowed, and Content & Privacy Restrictions. Some are self-explanatory, and we discussed App Limits in the previous section, but what do the other items do?

DowntimeYou can schedule times when you do not want to use your device at all. You may use this to prevent yourself from reaching for your iPhone when you wake up during the night. During scheduled Downtime, only apps that you choose to allow and phone calls will be made available. You won’t even receive Notifications, though they will still be there for you after Downtime expires. To enable the feature, toggle the switch to on (green) and set the Start and End time in which you want to shut your iOS device up.

Always Allowed: This important feature lets you choose the apps you want at all times. They will always be available during Downtime or if you selected the “All Apps and Categories” app limit. This takes the form of a list. To remove items from the list, tap the red minus button to the left of the app name. To add them, you should tap the green plus button, also to the left.

Content & Privacy restrictions

This important section will be of particular use to parents hoping to control their children’s use of an iPhone or iPad.

You access these tools by entering both your device and your Screen Time password.

Once inside, you can choose to put restrictions in place by toggling the Content & Privacy detail at the top. You can then define the following categories of appropriate/inappropriate use:

  • iTunes & App Store Purchases
  • Allowed Apps
  • Content Restrictions
  • Location Sharing
  • Privacy

You can also choose to limit what can and cannot be changed on the device, such as preventing changes being made to the device passcode, accounts, or volume limits.

Set up Screen Time for Family

This feature works with Family Sharing. This lets up to six people in your family share each other’s iTunes, Apple Books, and App Store purchases without sharing the same account.

It enables you (as what Apple calls the “family organizer” to control what features are shared and enables you to set App Limits on your children’s devices remotely. You will also be provided with weekly reports to show what your family is doing with their devices.

(That way you will quickly find out if your child has been quietly waiting until App Controls re-set at midnight to get back onto social media or to play their favourite game.)

What I think about Screen Time

I’m not about to review a beta feature, but what I like about Screen Time is that in its approach, it is not judgemental, paternalistic or prescriptive.

Apple is not working from a premise that it knows better than you what is good for you, but instead it takes the approach of empowering its customers to make informed decisions about how much time they want to spend using their devices.

It does this in the first instance by providing us with accurate information concerning our current use of our iOS devices. It then also provides us with the tools we need to actively choose to change those patterns.

That’s a sensible approach when you begin to address any form of addiction, digital or otherwise. Insight informs action.

The approach also marries Apple’s emerging message around iOS 12 app design.

The company appears to be on a mission to foster the development of apps that are simple to use, get things done, and don’t demand too much user time or user data.

It seems clear that the days in which user attention transmutes into giant profits for sinister surveillance capitalists are numbered, at least as far as Apple is concerned.

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