“Don’t set the time limit. I can be reasonable!” pleads 9-year-old Tazio, looking up from his iPad.
But anyone looking for help from this software may be in for a surprise. It might make parenting more difficult. One example: Apple’s bad default settings give kids access to NC-17 movies, explicit books and the entire Web — even when it knows their exact age.
A focus on the family is overdue. As of 2017, 42 percent of American kids ages 0 to 8 have their own tablets — and 78 percent have access to one somewhere in the home, according to the nonprofit Common Sense Media. Most of these are iPads, often hand-me-downs, offered with trepidation to kids who zone out like zombies or melt down when they’re taken away. Apple has previously offered parental restrictions, but they were incomplete.
Is there a kid-proof tablet? For the past few weeks, I’ve been conducting an experiment with Tazio, the 9-year-old son of my editor. He wanted his first tablet — and his mother was wary. So I set up the family with two devices: One is a $330 iPad running a pre-release version of iOS 12 with Screen Time (available widely in the coming weeks). The other is one of the iPad’s few competitors in the family market, the $200 Amazon Fire HD 10 Kids Edition tablet running Amazon’s version of Android.
Amazon CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post, but I review all technology with the same critical eye.
Playing technical adviser to navigate this real family challenge, I was surprised how difficult Apple’s parental software was to use. Even discounting for beta-software bugs Apple will hopefully squash, Screen Time is one of Apple’s weakest software launches in years. Apple treats parents like IT administrators for their kids, saddled with a zillion choices to make and knobs to adjust.
Amazon’s Fire Kids Edition was designed as a product for kids, and is more like a day care where someone else has picked the books and games, put deadbolts on all the doors and painted the walls electric blue. It’s a safer place to leave kids than Appleland, but the kids may get bored — and be jealous of the fun friends are having elsewhere.
I don’t mean to discourage parents from using these tools. But I recommend going in understanding how the software works, and how much it will require of you.
How Apple Screen Time works — and doesn’t
Our experiment began in tears.
Tazio, my pint-size reviewer, was setting up his iPad when his younger brother happened by. He wanted an iPad, too, but we had only one. An epic meltdown ensued.
Why couldn’t we share? Blame Apple, little buddy: It designed iOS 12 to work with only one account per device (outside of schools), and Tazio was already using it.
A child account is at the heart of how Screen Time works. Parents create one through their own Apple ID settings, assigning the kid his own email address and password that’s associated with a guardian. It gives parents the power to approve downloads and control functions. (The video above walks through the setup basics.)
Here’s the next head scratcher: Even though Apple knows the child’s age, the default settings are not child-appropriate. They don’t restrict explicit content, add privacy protections such as limiting sharing location data or spare kids annoying system questions. Yes, parents can remotely change these settings and approve media purchases, but defaults matter.
Parents can decide what apps are available, what chunk of the day the iPad is off limits, and how many minutes different categories of apps (such as games) can be used. They get a bar-chart readout of the child’s device use during the current day and the previous week.
Managing settings on your own device is a once-every-few-months thing. Managing Screen Time for kids is much more work, because parenting requires frequent negotiation. Aside from a first-time setup window that covers some Screen Time features, controls can be buried behind half a dozen clicks in settings menus where few venture. Even I couldn’t figure out how to set a daily time limit for a specific app without asking Apple for instructions.
We also found loopholes. If you’re watching a video on Netflix and then press the home button to make it appear as a picture-in-picture, the minutes won’t count against your Screen Time limit. Junior could watch all day long.
Time limits are rigid and especially annoying for kids when they’re almost at the end of a game or movie. Tazio came to treat his limits like an allowance, guarding them carefully and using them as a negotiating tactic with his mom.
Apple does let kids request time extensions, which pop up as a notification on parents’ devices. If you’re thinking those requests might get annoying quickly, you’re right.
The Amazon Alternative
Where Apple left Tazio’s mom to make lots of choices, Amazon pre-decided many for her — for better and worse.
The biggest difference is that Fire Kids Edition tablets come with a year’s worth of Amazon’s FreeTime Unlimited service, which includes access to 15,000 apps and games, videos, books and educational content from sources including PBS Kids, Nickelodeon and Disney. (After a year, it charges $3 per month for Prime members.) Based on the kids’ age and gender, Amazon shows the kids content it thinks they might be interested in. Tazio got a lot of Star Wars.
Amazon says it has vetted all that content, had most ads removed, as well as removed appeals for in-app purchase upgrades (none of which Apple did). While kids can peruse all that content, there’s no app or bookstore in the kids mode. Parents can buy and manually add in other apps, movies and books purchased from Amazon via their own accounts.
Amazon’s tablet can also be shared by parents and multiple siblings, each of whom get their own age-tailored experience by swapping log-ins. (Younger brother crisis averted.)
Also unlike Apple, Amazon by default puts additional restrictions in place for all apps that run in its Kids Edition tablets. They can’t send location data to third parties. Talking assistant Alexa is turned off.
With the Fire, parents access a dashboard view of their child’s account through a Web link that, like Apple’s Screen Time, includes data about what he’s doing on his device that day and over the previous week, as well as the ability to set time restrictions for types of activity. An app would have been superior to its website, but it did offer an awesome button missing from Apple: “Pause devices” now.
Amazon’s software also allows parents to incentivize behavior. We set Tazio’s Fire tablet to allow him to play games only after he had completed a half-hour of reading. It worked. He even woke up early to burn through his reading so he could get to his game time.
The problem with all this: Tazio could sort of tell he was getting the “Truman Show” treatment from the Fire. He wanted to be able to send messages, but Amazon doesn’t have a built-in app for that. Tazio also wanted to play Fortnite, but Amazon doesn’t offer the popular game in its app store. I don’t blame him for wanting to do the same things his friends do on their tablets.
And Amazon has its loopholes, too. Tazio discovered he could still talk to Alexa by switching to his mom’s log-in screen even though he didn’t know her passcode. (Amazon says it’s going to issue a software update that requires a PIN before a child can exit FreeTime mode, preventing them from accessing Alexa.) Perhaps the lesson is tech companies can’t get much past 9-year-olds.
Tazio’s family decided that the Amazon Fire tablet was the right fit for his first tablet. It was less powerful than the iPad, but also less frustrating for mom.
The decision was rooted in how much extra work Apple’s Screen Time created. Even with my assistance, mom spent hours inside settings, attempting to adjust their rigid controls to what was actually happening at home. Instead of being an electronic babysitter, the iPad became a new project.
Apple’s approach assumes kids are all different, so it leaves all the decisions to parents. They’re not wrong: No two 9-year-olds are alike. But so are adult users of laptops and phones, and Apple’s designers have been successful at making tech simpler by making choices that suit most of us.
Apple plans to offer training in stores for parents, as well as detailed instructions on its parents website.
What’s most important with any screen is for parents to “not just hand it over without discussion, parameters and expectations,” Christine Elgersma of Common Sense Media told me. A parenting editor for the nonprofit organization, she’s also been testing iOS 12 with Screen Time. “When I hand over the iPad to my daughter, I still ask her, ‘What are you going to do with it?’ ” she says. She also has rules in place about when a time extension might be acceptable.
Being involved in kids’ digital lives is work. If tech companies are going to make software to help, they need to make sure they’re not just creating more work.
Read more tech reviews and analysis from Geoffrey A. Fowler: