Services & Software

Apple's Screen Time feature saves parents from being the "bad guy"

It's OK to be more lenient about screen time on the weekends, but it's best to set limits at some point.

Getting sucked in? Use Screen Time on your iPhone, iPad or Mac to cut down on how much time you spend on your device. 
Angela Lang/CNET

Even a little time off from school and work can turn into a phone fest. If the kids are spending more time glued to their screens than they are with the rest of the family, it may be time to set some limits. Sure, in the age of the pandemic, parents might've relaxed rules in response to being at home more. But there has to be some limit to the number of YouTube videos a kid can watch in a day, right?

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Enter Apple's Screen Time feature for iPhone, iPad and Mac. It's built in, tracks and monitors how much time you spend on your devices -- and can lock you or the kids out of apps after you've reached a set amount of time. You can even block access to your kid's Apple device at a specific time each night, preventing them from staying up past their bedtime playing their favorite games under the covers. 

Before you start monitoring a child's device use, try out Screen Time on your own devices to familiarize yourself with the feature. Screen Time is somewhat complex and has many settings and features tucked away in various menus. 

Turn on Screen Time for yourself

Screen Time will monitor and help you track or limit your usage on iPhone, iPad and Mac. You'll need to set up the service on each device you use. For a complete picture of total usage, make sure to turn on Screen Time and the Share Across Devices option. That will ensure that time spent on your iPhone, iPad and Mac is calculated together.

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Turn on Screen Time with just a few taps.

Screenshots by Jason Cipriani/CNET

Setting up Screen Time on iPhone or iPad

1. Open the Settings app.

2. Select Screen Time.

3. Tap Turn On Screen Time.

4. When prompted, select This is my iPhone/iPad.

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The Mac version of Screen Time is found in System Preferences. 

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/CNET

Set up Screen Time on Mac

1. Open System Preferences.

2. Select Screen Time.

3. Read the short prompt explaining what Screen Time does and click Continue

4. If more than one person uses your device, make sure your name is selected in the drop-down below your user profile photo.

5. Select Turn On.

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You may want to sit down before reading your Screen Time stats for the first time. 

Jason Cipriani/CNET

Use Screen Time for your child

In order to use Screen Time to monitor and control a child's device use, you'll first need to set up Apple's Family Sharing service. There are many benefits to Family Sharing, one of which is saving you money by sharing purchases between members. If you haven't used it yet, take a few minutes to activate it using our complete Family Sharing guide.

With Family Sharing turned on and your kids' accounts added, you can remotely activate Screen Time on their device(s). On your iPhone or iPad, that can be done by going to Settings > Screen Time > select your child's name > Turn on Screen Time. On a Mac, go to System Preferences > Screen Time > select your child's name from the drop-down > Turn on Screen Time.

Make sure you create a Screen Time Passcode when asked. Don't skip this step. This passcode is what's used to prevent a child from disabling Screen Time or changing your parental control settings. It's also worth pointing out that you shouldn't pick a passcode your kids can easily guess -- I made that mistake the first time I set up Screen Time and could not figure out why it kept getting disabled on my kid's iPod touch. Kids are smart. 

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Screen Time will break down all of your device usage, across all of your devices. 

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/CNET

What to do after Screen Time is turned on

After turning on Screen Time, you'll immediately see a graph tracking how much time you spend in an app or on a website. Tap on See All Activity for a breakdown of the current day, the past seven days, which apps you spent your time in, the number of times you pick up your phone each day and how many notifications you receive -- and from which apps. Every Sunday you will receive an alert with your stats and trends. 

Below the activity graph, there are several different categories within Screen Time that you can tailor to meet your personal goals, or help curb your child's device usage. Here's a quick breakdown of what each one does:

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Take a few minutes to go through the various categories, adjusting settings and getting an idea for what each one does. 

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/CNET

Downtime: When turned on, only the apps listed in Always Allowed and phone calls will be accessible. Create a custom schedule to turn on Downtime close to bedtime, for example, so you can begin to disconnect and unwind. 

App Limits: Set daily time limits for specific apps or app categories. Once the time limit is reached, the app will show a splash screen letting you know your time limit has been reached. Don't worry, you can override the limit or your child can send a request for more time if more time is needed. 

Communication Limits: You can control who your child talks to and for how long, on a daily basis. This setting applies to Phone, FaceTime, Messages and iCloud contacts. 

Always Allowed: Select the apps you want to always be available, even during Downtime. By default, Phone, Messages, FaceTime and Maps are marked as always allowed. 

Content & Privacy Restrictions: This is where you go to block mature content, require purchase approval on a child's device, restrict downloads and adjust privacy settings. 

Take a few minutes to go through each section and familiarize yourself with its options. 

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Angela Lang/CNET

A note about parental controls

Getting the right combination of these settings right will take some time, especially for your kid's account. When I first started using Screen Time to disable my kids' devices at bedtime, I left Messages marked as an always allowed app. At the time, they were only messaging each other, my wife and myself. 

What I didn't realize or even think about was the fact that meant they had access to iMessage apps like Game Pigeon -- an app that lets you play turn-based games inside an iMessage conversation. It took a few weeks for me to realize the reason they were using Messages well past their bedtime is because they were actually gaming. 

Now, they're limited to Podcasts and Music when Downtime turns on at bedtime. 

Another hiccup I've run into with one of their accounts is that the Screen Time settings I set on my device did not sync to their devices. I still have yet to figure out why, but I have figured out a workaround should you run into the same issue. First, turn off Screen Time for their account on your device, then go through Screen Time setup using their device. When asked, select This Is My Child's device, set your passcode and adjust their settings. 

After mastering Screen Time, make sure to check out our guide to hidden iOS 15 features. And for more online security, we'll show you how to set up parental controls on your router.