Apple throws a lifeline to a parent drowning in digital screen time

Maybe I should log off after finishing this story.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
6 min read

When my 4-year-old daughter told me she couldn't get into bed without her "phone," I knew it was time to rethink my own phone habits.

Of course, she doesn't have a real phone. It's a plastic pink phone that came in a purple purse, with fake lipstick, a compact and fake car keys. It's a toy designed for imaginative play while she role plays being mommy. And since my daughter, Margot, has Down syndrome, which comes with some developmental and language delays, seeing her use such a toy appropriately felt like a small victory.

That is, until I realized what she was role playing was me being totally obsessed with my phone.

Is this really how she sees me?

Winter in Moscow

Digital addiction experts warn parents about modeling healthy smartphone and internet usage habits. 

Valery Sharifulin

I doubt I'm alone in this scenario. Heck, I'm probably hitting that average of checking my phone 47 times a day, according to gadget reseller site Bank My Cell. That's 17,155 times a year. Throw in a job that compels me to constantly be on Slack and Gmail -- even while in the parking lot of my kids' preschool -- and a tendency to indulge in mindless Facebook scrolling and Twitter rabbit-holing, and I probably spend more time with a screen in my face than I would like to admit.

Still, I need to do better, especially the part about doing this all in front of my two preschoolers.

"The minute your kid is born you should be concerned about how exposure to technology will affect them," said David Greenfield, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and author of the book Virtual Addiction, which warned of the dangers of tech addiction almost 20 years ago. "The main thing to think about is your own use of technology and what you're modeling for your kids."

This is where Apple and other tech companies, like Google, say they're trying to help. On Monday, at its Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, California, Apple unveiled new features in iOS 12, the latest version of its mobile software, that let users monitor how much time they spend on their device and applications such as Facebook or Instagram.

The new iOS features come as Apple faces backlash from investors and users over concerns about phone addiction among children. Two of Apple's major shareholders published an open letter in January that asked Apple to take a socially responsible approach toward children's device use. It cited concerns about mental health problems and other issues that come from heavy phone use. The announcements on Monday mark Apple making good on a vow to better allow us to manage our device usage.

Read more: Screen time is ruining us. Here are 11 ways to cut back

The new features give insight into how you use your Apple devices, offering breakdowns of how often you're picking up your phone and which apps are sending you the most notifications. The software also lets you track how much time you're spending on your phone and which apps you're using the most. You can also set a limit on how much you use your phone, which will cut you off when you've reached it. It's kind of like a Weight Watchers app for a digital diet.

A good first step

Parents will particularly appreciate a new tool called "Screen Time," which offers a summary of how much time kids are using their devices and how much time is spent on which apps. They can access a feature called "Downtime" that allows them to go app by app and cut off access entirely or set time limits by day on how much a given app can be used.

They can also permanently white-list some apps, such as an app that's used for school. When kids are getting close to reaching a parent's specified time limit for access, they get screen warnings and the icon eventually is greyed out if time has been exceeded or the app is blocked. Kids can ask for permission to have their limit extended, and parents can remotely grant access.

Here are the biggest iOS 12 features Apple announced at WWDC 2018

See all photos

Charles Penner, a partner at Jana Partners, one of the investors who pushed Apple to address this issue, said Apple's efforts are a "fantastic start" and the company "has shown real commitment and leadership" in addressing the concerns.  He said the biggest benefits will come from the new parental controls that will help better protect children "whose brains are still developing."

"Think about future generations who grow up only using social media a small amount each day because that's what they got used to as kids," he said in an email. "Parents have a whole new array of options for engaging with their kids about their digital habits, which should be incredibly impactful for society in the long term."  

Tackling addiction head-on

Addiction experts like Greenfield and Nicholas Kardaras, a psychologist specializing in digital addiction and author of Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction is Hijacking Our Kids, say making people aware of their usage is certainly a good start and setting limits for kids is important.

But they'd like to see the industry get more proactive in educating the public about the dangers of tech addiction and funding research on the effects of technology overuse. They'd also like to see companies hiring consultants in this field to help them make their products and services less addictive.

"These companies make billions in profit each year," Greenfield said. "I don't think it's unreasonable to expect them to put a fraction of that into making sure the technology they're developing isn't hurting people."

Apple declined to comment.

They agree kids are the most vulnerable to the negative effects. And while they commend Apple for giving parents better tools to limit use, they say the best protection is for parents to delay access to any kind of screen for as long as possible.

That means even pushing back against schools that are increasingly using tablets and laptops in the classroom. Even so-called educational apps can be overstimulating for little brains and can lead to harmful effects, like attention disorders, they say.

"Parents have been conned into thinking that kids need exposure to technology early or they'll fall behind," Kardaras said. "It's just not true. Our schools are becoming digital drug dealers."

I know how most parents reading this will take this advice. It's a nice idea but impossible in practice, right? Screens are literally everywhere.

Watch this: Can iOS 12 curb your addiction to your iPhone? (The 3:59, Ep. 408)

Digital discipline

Before you go labeling me as one of "those moms," let me set the record straight. I'm no helicopter parent. I don't hover on the playground or micromanage my kids' playdates. My children have had all their vaccines. We eat gluten. I'm too cheap to buy organic. When my kids play in the backyard, I spray them with real bug spray -- the kind with deet.

Suffice to say, I don't buy into a lot of the extreme parenting trends of my generation. But when it comes to technology and the effects of overuse, I'm concerned.

Apparently, I'm in good company, as several former and current tech giants, like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Tim Cook have all talked publicly about how they've limited tech for their children and loved ones. And then there are private schools where bigwigs in Silicon Valley send their kids, like the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, in Los Altos, California, where elementary age students use chalkboards and No. 2 pencils. Screen-based devices aren't introduced until kids reach eighth grade, according to a recent Business Insider feature article.

I'm convinced. The best way for me to prevent my kids from becoming slaves to screens is to curb my own compulsions. So sign me up, Apple. Let's do this. I'm ready for my digital diet.

CNET's Shara Tibken contributed to this report.

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