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Teens find circumventing Apple’s parental controls is child’s play

Apple’s Screen Time is meant to give customers a way to control their kids’ devices, but intrepid youngsters have exploited bugs and workarounds.

Rebecca Shelp bought her 14-year-old son an iPhone 7 in May and locked it down with Screen Time. Her son, whom The Post is not naming in accordance with Shelp's wishes, was able to bypass it by resetting the device and creating a new Apple ID. He sits for a portrait at his family's home in Littleton, Colo. (Timothy Nwachukwu for The Washington Post)

SAN FRANCISCO — Helen Glaze didn’t think anything of it when her two sons told her they were looking for ways to get around Screen Time, Apple’s built-in tool that gives parents control of their kids’ phones. Then she discovered her 9- and 12-year-olds watching “Minecraft” videos at 2 a.m. during their annual trip to Chautauqua, N.Y., this past August.

“I was horrified and really felt betrayed,” she said. And she realized she can’t count on Screen Time to keep her kids off their phones. “It really doesn’t work, and that’s really frustrating."

Kids are outsmarting an army of engineers from Cupertino, Calif., home to Apple’s headquarters in Silicon Valley. And Apple, which introduced Screen Time a year ago in response to pressure to address phone overuse by kids, has been slow to make fixes to its software that would close these loopholes. It’s causing some parents to raise questions about Apple’s commitment to safeguarding children from harmful content and smartphone addiction.

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When Screen Time blocks an app from working, it becomes grayed out, and clicking on it does nothing unless parents approve a request for more time. Or, at least, it’s supposed to work that way.

On Reddit and YouTube, kids are sharing tips and tricks that allow them to circumvent Screen Time. They download special software that can exploit Apple security flaws, disabling Screen Time or cracking their parents’ passwords. They search for bugs that make it easy to keep using their phones, unbeknown to parents, such as changing the time to trick the system or using iMessage to watch YouTube videos.

“These are not rocket science, backdoor, dark Web sort of hacks,” said Chris McKenna, founder of the Internet safety group Protect Young Eyes. “It blows me away that Apple hasn’t thought through the fact that a persistent middle school boy or girl can bang around and find them.”

McKenna said he is miffed that Apple doesn’t fix the loopholes faster, despite its size, its massive hoard of cash and its copious profits. “In one day, I’m confident Apple could clean up all these loopholes,” he said.

He recently posted a list of loopholes, which he informed Apple of when Screen Time first launched and which he has been compiling in an effort to warn parents and help them close the loopholes when possible.

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Apple spokeswoman Michele Wyman, in a statement, said the company is “committed to providing our users with powerful tools to manage their iOS devices and are always working to make them even better.” Wyman did not comment on specific bugs and workarounds in Screen Time or the speed with which Apple addresses them.

The problem has bedeviled parents who have struggled to strike a balance between allowing smartphone access for school work and basic social interactions and protecting their children from the pitfalls of the mobile world.

“I think there will always be ways that really innovative, critical-thinking children get around the controls,” said Christine Elgersma, senior editor of parent education for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit focused on how children use media and technology. “They’re usually ahead of us technologically.”

Companies with wildly popular and profitable consumer products don’t usually offer tools to help people use them less.

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But in early 2018, a pair of major shareholders urged Apple’s board of directors to do something about youth screen addiction, arguing that addressing the issue would be good for Apple’s bottom line in the long run.

Nine months later, Apple launched Screen Time as part of iOS 12. It gave parents the ability to lock down their kids’ iPhones and iPads, limiting the amount of time kids could spend using the devices overall, as well as individual apps. Google offers a suite of similar Digital Wellbeing tools, and Amazon has a kids-only subscription service called FreeTime that comes pre-installed on its kids-edition tablets. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Almost immediately, kids started finding ways to get around the controls, the same way they might look for a way to sneak out of the house while the parents are sleeping.

And parents started reporting that their kids were circumventing the newly added Screen Time restrictions. A widely publicized Reddit post, “My kid managed to pass Screen time limit,” accumulated more than 400 comments. On that post, parents reported their kids deleting and reinstalling apps and changing the clock to avoid time restrictions and using the iMessage app to watch prohibited YouTube videos. On Apple’s discussion board, there were titles such as “Child ‘hacked’ screen time limits on iOS12. Will Apple fix?”

But more than six months later, some parents were still reporting their kids using the same bugs, such as the time-change workaround. Some weren’t fixed until the new operating system, iOS 13, was launched a year later. Others, like the ability to watch YouTube videos inside iMessage, still work on the latest Apple phones and the most recent updates.

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On forums hosted on Apple’s website, parents can be seen complaining for months about the same issues and the lack of response from Apple. After the community was unable to help them with their Screen Time glitches, at least two parents were offered a nontechnical solution: punishing their kids for exploiting the bugs.

“I understand that there are ways, such as enforcing consequences, to manage my children’s usage without software help,” one commenter wrote. “However I am not seeking parenting advice, but reporting a limitation of the software which claims to perform a function that it does not.”

Some parents struggle because the Screen Time controls aren’t intuitive, tucked several layers deep into menus under Apple’s settings. And the default settings are often permissive, such as allowing adult websites unless a parent specifically blocks them.

The problem has turned Brian Walker, a 41-year-old sales engineer for an automotive supplier in Michigan, into a part-time detective. Walker has seven kids, three of whom have cellphones. To keep track of what they’re up to, he and his wife use myriad tools to monitor them. But despite his vigilance, the recidivism in his household is high.

A few weeks ago, Walker noticed his 13-year-old son sitting quietly on the couch in the basement for hours, a long time for a kid who is “kind of X-Gamish” and likes to be outside. “I was suspicious because there’s a handful of apps where he will literally just melt his brain,” Walker said. When he walked over to check, he saw his son using TikTok, an app he thought was blocked.

It turns out that because the phone was a hand-me-down from an older sister who was allowed to use that app, the 13-year-old was also able to download it and use it, despite the Screen Time restrictions. “Even with an electrical engineering background, there are still things I don’t understand about how the software works,” Walker said.

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Adam Pletter, a child psychologist who founded iParent 101 to help parents with screen-time addiction issues, said the danger for parents who use Apple’s service is that it can lull them into a false sense of security.

Parents can use alternative apps to control their kids’ smartphone usage, but those services don’t have the same access to Apple’s operating system that Screen Time enjoys, and Apple has been criticized for limiting their functionality.

Apple’s treatment of third-party screen-time apps has come under scrutiny from congressional antitrust investigators, who last month requested information from Apple on the subject.

When Helen Glaze, vacationing with her kids in New York, discovered they had hacked their phone, she confiscated it, and they confessed to their methods: While Screen Time blocked YouTube videos in Safari, the kids found that if they expanded the video to full screen before the Screen Time limit kicked in, they could watch videos continuously.

She eventually gave them back their phone, and Glaze is still using Screen Time. But she has stopped thinking she has any way to truly control her kids’ smartphone usage. “I’m not going to engage in the cat-and-mouse game,” she said. “I’m going to have to trust them to use their best judgment to know what we expect from them as kids and as people.”

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Rebecca Shelp, a stay-at-home mom in Littleton, Colo., bought her 14-year-old son a used iPhone 7 in April and set up Screen Time to limit his use of social media and other apps. But her son figured out workarounds almost immediately. By Memorial Day, he simply reset the phone, set up a new Apple ID and used whatever he wanted for as long as he wanted.

Shelp found out when she inspected his phone. She hadn’t realized that Screen Time didn’t block kids from simply resetting the phone.

But the subterfuge didn’t end there. She says her son figured out how to make Screen Time glitch out by turning the phone off and on constantly until it stopped working properly. Her son even coined a term for this: “colliding the system.”

Last month, while her son was at a sleepover, Shelp was monitoring his usage on her phone. The timer kept jumping wildly, from two hours to seven hours and back. Her conclusion: He must be “colliding the system” again.

“I can’t even tell you how many hours I spend trying to figure out what he did,” she said. After a long back-and-forth with Apple customer support, she was finally told that her son had found a known bug. Apple wouldn’t tell her whether it planned to fix it.