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Home / Features / Screen Time = scream time. Parents need more human device tracking

Screen Time = scream time. Parents need more human device tracking

Back in my day, screen time involved your parents pulling your Atari’s lead out because Crossroads was on

Screen Time

This house is full of devices, and it’s the school holidays. I find myself in the company of a nine-year-old immersed in the gloomiest, rainiest summer she’s experienced. With these constituent parts in place, the demand for screen time is sky-high.

Given that I’m surrounded by screens in my day job, I see their benefits. I don’t grumble about the ‘good old days’ and demand my child play with sticks. On a day when her parents are working and no friends are available, she’s well occupied spending time exploring in A Short Hike, causing mischief in Untitled Goose Game, or trying the latest titles on Apple Arcade. Add in the potential for making music, creating art and coding, and you’ve devices that do a whole lot more than what I had at her age.

But managing screen time is nonetheless a constant challenge. And it doesn’t help that Screen Time – the one with the capital letters, designed by Apple – appears to have been designed by people who don’t have children, and possibly don’t even know what a child is. Trying to track my daughter’s activities is an exercise in frustration. Sometimes Screen Time works on my iPhone. Sometimes it doesn’t. Mostly it doesn’t, preferring to offer an endlessly spinning wheel of doom.

Time bandits

A parent, preparing to fend off multiple Minecraft-near-bedtime tantrums.

For reasons unknown, Screen Time does cooperate on my iPad, but the averages presented make little sense. Safari is listed as having been used for four hours yesterday, despite my daughter not having access to the iPad for that long. Unless she’s a secret ninja, who can sneak a tablet away unnoticed, and fashion an invisibility cloak with an outer layer that makes it look like she’s playing Lego when she’s deeply immersed in Scratch or Minecraft.

There are good bits though. Downtime can make devices off-limits in a granular way, and specific apps can be added to an always-available list. But there’s a tendency for the system to be robotic and clinical, rather than human – Apple has form here. There’s no nuclear SHUT IT ALL DOWN NOW button, which I can guarantee every parent would pay for, to the degree it would bump Apple’s services revenue by 50%. 

The ‘extra time’ dialog could do with extra work as well. Right now, it’s a guillotine with the option to delay a cut-off by a minute, 15 minutes or indefinitely. 

Big brother

Swipe. Swipe. Sigh. Swipe. Swipe. Gnash. Snarl. Sigh again.

What we really need is an intelligent Screen Time system that spots when a game is ongoing (and then leaves the kid be, because tantrums), unless it’ll take ages (add a polite warning and countdown) or it’s endless (hereafter known as the “You do realise a creative mode Minecraft game has no end, right?” alert. Failing that – because, let’s face it, AI is failing everyone, how about three new options:

  • Make futile attempt to stop bedtime meltdown (5 mins, recurring multiple times)
  • Let daddy and his headache have a little lie down (1 hour)
  • Have at it – your parents have given up today (ignore limit entirely)

I did wonder if things were better elsewhere. My kid got a Switch for her birthday, and its app-based parental controls initially looked promising. But it’s all surface. Rather than serve up information quickly, you end up slowly swiping between game covers in the daily stats to discover how long your child spent playing each title. The monthly summary resembles a celebration of gaming rather than a tool for time tracking. And the play limit is universal, rather than per account.

So if my daughter runs up against that – or we both do after using her account for multiplayer bouts – and I fancy a go on Tetris Effect to calm my frayed nerves post-bedtime battle, I have to override the restrictions. Which inevitably means I’ll forget to turn on the screen time system the next day – at which point chaos ensues.

Hmm. Where did I put those sticks again?

Profile image of Craig Grannell Craig Grannell Contributor


I’m a regular contributor to Stuff magazine and Stuff.tv, covering apps, games, Apple kit, Android, Lego, retro gaming and other interesting oddities. I also pen opinion pieces when the editor lets me, getting all serious about accessibility and predicting when sentient AI smart cookware will take over the world, in a terrifying mix of Bake Off and Terminator.

Areas of expertise

Mobile apps and games, Macs, iOS and tvOS devices, Android, retro games, crowdfunding, design, how to fight off an enraged smart saucepan with a massive stick.

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