Book hiatus: iOS 12 Screen Time is a mess.

I’ve spent about 8 weeks plugging away on one critical chapter in my iPhones for All book project on supporting independence for special needs adults. It’s a chapter on enabling safe use and it’s forced me to do a deep dive into what works and what doesn’t work with iOS 12 Screen Time.

Today I gave up. The proverbial last straw was when I used remote Screen Time to disabled “Store Purchases & Redownloads” and … nothing happened. It believe this worked before, but this time it had no effect.

I might have triggered the bug by toggling it on and off and exploring “Ask to Buy” behaviors or by switching “Content Restrictions”. I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. It’s not the only bug I’ve run into, it’s just the latest one.

iOS 12 (remote) Screen Time is a mess. I’d read that it was a rush job. I’m sure it was. I think Apple bolted it on to their problematic Family Sharing infrastructure and discovered too late that the challenge was ten times bigger than they thought it was.

I don’t know if Apple will fix Screen Time in iOS 13. I’ve seen rumors that they might redo it, but I fear the problems are too deep to be fixed in a single release iterations. I also worry that the political pressure is off of Apple.

I’m going to focus on other parts of the book project and wait and see if iOS 13 is any better.

Apple “Ask to Buy” isn’t useful for managing app installation by children or Explorers

Apple’s Family Sharing has an “Ask to Buy” option for users (Explorers) under the age of 18 [1].

It seems like a good option for managing installation of apps and media. It isn’t. It’s only a good option for managing initial purchases. 

If an app or media has been previously purchased by a family member or by the Explorer, it can be downloaded without creating a request to the Family Organizer [2]. 

Incidentally, the way Family Sharing works family members over 18 can download without Ask to Buy and the Family Organizer will be charged for the app. Apple really doesn’t want adults using Family Sharing, including dependent adults.

– fn –

[1] Most of Apple’s parental control features only work when their Apple ID birthdate gives a calculated age of under 18. A birthdate over age 13 can be changed, a birthdate under 13 cannot be changed.

[2] If you try this by the way you’ll see a longstanding problem with family sharing by the way. There’s nothing in the initial display to show that a commercial app is free to download. A family member user only learns it’s free after they request it and are told it’s available for free.

Managing iOS web restrictions – the web problem and the Chrome problem

[Special thanks to one of my Explorers for teaching me about this.]

After quite a bit of experimentation I’m sort of satisfied with a fairly simple approach to managing iOS Screen Time for everything except the web.

I start by defining all the apps that always available: email, iMessage, Calendar, Find Friends, Music and so on. It’s a list of useful but kind of boring apps that Explorers can have available anytime.

Next I set an overall daily limit for use of all apps. Lastly I set Downtime for work on day breaks. It’s not a perfect solution [1] but it covers the bases for all but the web.

The web is another story. Apple isn’t much help here and I’m not sure anything works that well. I am coming around to the idea of blocking all web access for younger or more vulnerable Explorers. To do this you have to do two things:

  1. Toggle Safari off in Content & Privacy Restrictions:Allowed Apps
  2. Set Web Content to Allowed Websites Only and delete the items on the Allowed Site list.

The second measure blocks Chrome use and I believe it will block many embedded browsers as well. 

Blocking all web access has less impact now than it would have had five years ago. A lot of functionality has moved from the web to apps.

If you want to allow web access things get complicated. Apple’s iOS 12 Web Content restrictions work for both Safari and Chrome [2], but the “Limit Adult Websites” doesn’t work very well [3], and there’s no longer a way for an Explorer to request adding a blocked site to the “Allowed Websites” list. (In prior versions of iOS an Explorer could remotely request additions. I miss that feature.)

The best I’ve been able to do with Apple’s iOS 12.2 tech is to:

  1. Set Web Content to Allowed Websites Only.
  2. If Chrome or other browser is installed set App Limit on Chrome to 1 min (we want a 0 min limit, but that’s not available). Alternatively, if you have limitations on app installation, remove Chrome and don’t authorize reinstallation.
  3. Set App Limit on problem websites to 1 min.

How do you set App Limits on individual apps or websites?

Well, thanks to Apple’s famous focus on user experience and intuitive user interfaces that’s really easy …

Hah, hah. Just kidding. It’s insanely obscure.

From a Guide’s iPhone go to the Explorer’s Screen Time settings. Enable “include website data”.  Now tap on the Report of time used. Yeah, tap on the Report of hours and minutes.

You’ll now see the Secret Power User Screen Time Controls (SPUSCTC). Look at Most Used. You can toggle between Apps & Websites and Categories. From Apps & Websites you can see individual sites visited in Safari, not in Chrome or other browsers, just Safari.  You can tap on an App like, or an individual web site, and set a limit. You can’t set a limit of 0 minutes (that would be nice), but you can choose 1 minute.

If you do this regularly for a few weeks you may be able to manage high risk web activities for a vulnerable Explore. Or you may find you just need to turn the web off.

You have to block Chrome by preventing installation or limiting use to “1 minute” because these site specific restrictions only work for Safari [4]. An Explorer who installs Chrome can bypass them all. 

PS. Dear Apple, I’d be willing to redesign your Screen Time app for very modest fee. I swear you don’t need to add a lot of new features or do anything hard.

– fn –

[1] We’d be better off if Apple added an Apple Limit Category of “All but always allowed”. That would significantly improve Screen Time use. Define always allowed, then set a time cap for everything else. I’d rather listening to music didn’t count against the time cap.

[2] You may need to toggle airplane mode on a Guide’s iPhone to see the effect of changes. Otherwise they take a while to show up.

[3] Pornhub and other well known sites are blocked, but it’s not hard to find a universe of unblocked adult sites.