I know that, as a tech journalist, I’ve frequently found myself spending far too much time with my screens. I hardly stand alone in this: according to the science on the matter, an enormous number of people wish they used their various devices less. And the social apps we weld our eyeballs to make us miserable. Apple has heard of our difficulties, and included some extremely useful utilities in iOS 12 that help fight iPhone overuse.
In iOS 12, Apple released Screen Time. This application is designed to specifically help with tech overuse. It monitors app usage and can control or limit the amount of time a user spends in a particular application or class of applications. For example, if you find you tend to while away your hours on social media, you might set a 2 hour limit on social media applications each day. When you have five minutes to time left, Screen Time will notify you. When you run out of time, Screen Time will close the application. You can override this behavior with a tap, but it’s the little nudge that often helps people change their habits.
Screen Time also captures a ton of data about how you use your phone. Of special interest is the “pick ups” category. This tracks how many times you pick up your phone each day. This number might be far higher than you expect it to be: I know my number was. Screen Time will also track the amount of time spent in apps of all kinds, even if they don’t have specific time limits. Just seeing the amount of time you spend on your device each day can sometimes be enough to encourage changes in your habits.
Of course, Screen Time can passively capture data all it wants. That is unlikely to change problematic behaviors on its own. Most of us humans need a small nudge in the right direction. That’s what App Limits are for.
These limits set a cap on the amount of time you can spend within one app or category of apps. The clock runs from midnight to 11:59 PM, local time. For example, setting an App Limit for social media apps will track your usage of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and similar applications. Once you’ve spent your designated allotment for the day, the app will be blocked behind a screen informing you that you’ve reached your limit. You’ll have the option to exit the app, turn off the limit for the day, or get an additional 15 minutes of time.
Setting Single-App Limits
Categories can be blunt tools, however. If you want to set limits for specific apps, that’s easy enough. Tap on your overall time spent on your device at the top of the screen. Tap the app you want to limit, then tap “Add Limit” on the detail page. Here, you’ll be able to set a time limit for that specific app.
Whitelisting apps from limits
You might like to allow an app to always get through screen time. Maybe you want to set an overall limit for phone use, but you don’t want your GPS included in your time. Select “Always Allowed” to add apps you always need to the whitelist.
Blocking Content and Parental Controls
Screen Time also provides the interface for managing parental controls of child devices. If you have a family set up within iCloud, you can easily configure your children’s accounts to be controlled by your Screen Time limits.
Content can be restricted in the “Content & Privacy Restrictions” section, while Screen Time rules can be set in the normal way. Once set, child devices will need to ask permission from the parent device to extend their screen time. This spawns a notification on the parent device, which can be accepted or declined from that device.
All the limits mentioned already on specific apps, app categories, and times of day can be locked under Parental Controls. This gives you a digital tool that can enforce policies about no screens after 10 PM or only one hour of video watching a day.
Statistics for family devices also sync over iCloud. If you have iCloud Family Sharing set up, this will happen for all the users in your family. The family organizer will see usage statistics for everyone on the plan.
Other Options: Forest
If Screen Time isn’t your cup of tea, there are apps that approach this situation in a different way. There are many apps like Forest, but Forest is the best of the bunch. It encourages users to put down their phone by growing (and, if you’re bad, killing) cute digital trees.
When you open Forest, you set a timer and begin growing a tree. Until that timer runs out, you cannot exit the Forest application or switch to another application. If you do exit the application or switch to another application, the tree you’re growing will die.
You will see the dead tree, the tree you just killed, its bare branches hanging pathetically. Forest will insist that “you can do better.” It’s a tiny dose of empathy for a digital tree and a tiny dose of shame for yourself. Can you really not put down your phone for 30 minutes to let a stupid digital plant grow? And that’s how you end up getting away from your phone for a little while.
Smartphones are incredibly effective devices. The problem is that they’re too effective. It’s hard to use a smartphone every day without developing problematic use patterns, and many people accidentally find themselves in that position. The apps above can provide the nudge you need to get back into “tech/life balance.”
Featured image by Mirøslav Hristøff
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I’ve tried apps like this both on my phone and my computer, but they never work. I’m too weak willed and always end up overriding them. Sometimes I wish I was a kid again so I could have a parent to limit my screen time for me, since I’m apparently too dumb to do it myself.