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Tech companies are adding new parental controls amid a virus-fueled surge in screen time

TikTok, Netflix and Google introduced new tools for parents, but some critics say it’s too little, too late.

Netflix, along with TikTok and Google, has enhanced tools for parents and kids just as children spend more time on screens during the coronavirus pandemic. (Olivier Douliery/Afp Via Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s the era of coronavirus screen time, and some tech companies are rolling out new tools to help parents better monitor what their kids are watching and doing online.

TikTok, a social media video app heavily used by teens, this week introduced ways for parents to limit time on the app, while Google rolled out a new Play Store tab to highlight apps approved and rated by teachers. Last week, Netflix introduced a way to add a pin code to access content.

Any safety controls are helpful, experts say, and the new tools are a step in the right direction. But tech companies should be thinking through these issues and launching tools to better protect children with the advent of the app, not after.

“Unfortunately a lot of these things happen in retrospect, as a Band-Aid,” said Christine Elgersma, senior editor of social media and instructional resources at Common Sense Media, an advocacy organization for kids’ safe use of technology.

‘Screen time’ has gone from sin to survival tool

Parents have struggled with managing their kids and technology for decades, implementing time limits on phones and trying to restrict what websites their children can see. But those issues have taken on an added urgency amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in the closure of schools and social distancing.

Kids are spending more time on iPads and other devices to complete schoolwork and entertain themselves, as entire families up their screen time at home. Comcast has said its peak network traffic is up as much as 60 percent in some regions, while Verizon says overall network traffic for video games is up 102 percent.

Courtney Ellis, a Mission Viejo, Calif.-based author and mother of three, says her kids have seen a big uptick in TV watching and other screen time while stuck at home. “There are no rules,” she said, a stark change from before. She carefully monitors their usage of technology, though, and plans to turn on parental controls and talk with them about safety online as they get older.

The need for tech companies to better protect children has been a hot-button issue for years — one that landed Google-owned YouTube with a $170 million fine last year to settle charges it breached kids’ privacy, and saddled the app now known as TikTok with a $5.7 million charge for similar offenses.

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“I think there’s a lot of pressure on the tech companies to provide better controls,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the advocacy group Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood. The best way, he noted, was for companies to turn on restrictions by default, rather than making parents go in and switch them on.

“I think a lot of these things are things that should have been done a long time ago,” he added.

Google spokeswoman Kaori Miyake said the company moved up the launch of its new teacher-approved tab from its planned release later this year because kids are spending more time at home right now. TikTok and Netflix pointed to company blog posts announcing the changes.

TikTok’s changes in particular were a leap forward for parents. The app features short-form videos, many of which are people performing choreographed dances or lip syncing to famous movie and TV clips. The app has surged in popularity among younger users. Many of the most popular TikTok creators are teens, racking up millions of views on every video.

TikTok will now allow parents to decide how long their kids can stay on the app, restrict them from sending direct messages and hide some videos from their view. Parents must first pair their own app with their child’s to access the controls.

The app also said it would turn off all direct messaging for users younger than 16 starting at the end of this month.

Apple says its App Store is ‘a safe and trusted place.’ We found 1,500 reports of unwanted sexual behavior on six apps, some targeting minors.

Netflix similarly expanded control for parents, adding a feature that allows adults’ accounts to be protected with a pin code. Parents can also remove specific movies or shows from their kids’ accounts. Previously, the company allowed parents to set up accounts for their children with limited content, but there was no way to prevent them from navigating back to an adult’s profile.

Google updated a program last year to put stricter requirements in place for app developers who indicate their app is made for kids. The company has also been expanding its YouTube Kids features.

Parental controls can be useful, said Matt Olson, a software engineer and father of two teenagers in Mill Valley, Calif. But they also create a game of cat and mouse between parents and kids.

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Recently, his kids found ways to change their ages on their iPhones to make Apple think they were over 18, and therefore not in need of parental screen-time controls. Olson found his kids’ solution and circumvented it.

“It’s a constant arms race between parents and children,” he said. “We are currently slightly ahead.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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