Using Parental Controls Effectively: iOS’s Screen Time Feature

Liz Repking, Cyber Safety Consultant, BECO Ambassador

February 2021

Liz Repking Article2

In the previous article, Using Parental Controls Effectively with Kids, we began examining parental control options and settings. As a starting point, we discussed some general fundamentals of monitoring to consider:

    • Monitoring does not replace parenting
    • No monitoring settings or software is perfect
    • There is no substitute for education and conversation

I believe that it is important to add another consideration to this list as we look at the pros and cons of monitoring our kids’ devices:

    • Overt monitoring trumps covert monitoring! The goal of monitoring kids’ technology use is to both ensure their safety AND build their skills toward self-protection and self-regulation when they are online. To this end, the goal is not to ‘catch’ them doing something wrong. Rather, we want them to learn what is poor online behavior while encouraging and discussing what positive online behavior looks like. When you talk about time limits, web filtering, and settings that you are engaging, this can lead to productive conversation while you are in a position of educating and ensuring safety. When the monitoring is done covertly, the opportunity to engage in positive conversation is greatly diminished or possibly eliminated completely.


We started by examining settings, Google Safe Search and YouTube Restricted Mode, that limit or filter inappropriate content and can be set on all devices. Another effective tool that may provide peace of mind is the Apple Screen Time feature. One advantage of this feature is it is native to the device (found under Settings), which ideally, lends to ease of use and increased effectiveness.

If you are familiar with the previous Restrictions settings on Apple devices, you will find these settings and much more contained in Screen Time. This is available on iPhone, iPad, Mac and iTouch devices. This feature was included in the 2018 iOS 12 release. If your child’s device does not have the feature, you may have to update the iOS.

When setting this up, you can manage your child’s device remotely through Family Sharing, or you can simply set screen limits directly on the child’s device. If you set it on their device, you will be asked to establish a passcode specifically for Screen Time settings. The specific settings you establish can only be changed or overridden with the code. Note: this is a different code than the screen lock passcode that your child has. You do not want to share this code with your child.

So, what settings are available to you with the Screen Time feature?

    • Weekly Activity Reports – This reporting feature displays daily and weekly screen time amounts. Total usage time for the device is tracked as well as time by app category (social, games, etc.). Additionally, you can also see the amount of time by specific app (Instagram, Tik Tok, Facetime, etc.)
    • Downtime – This feature allows for specific times to be defined for device shutdown and startup. When Downtime is active, the device is disabled, with the exception of phone calls and apps that have been listed as ‘available’ (see Communication Limits).
    • App Limits – This feature allows for time limits to be set for both category of app as well as specific app. For example, if your child is struggling to manage their use of social media, you can set a time limit for the day which will aggregate all social apps. More specifically, if your child is struggling to manage their use of TikTok, you can set a time limit for only that app. These limits reset at midnight each day.
    • Communication Limits – This allows you to define who your child can communicate with both when the device is fully enabled (not on Downtime) and when the phone is in a Downtime situation. This is a great safety feature; your child will still be able to get in touch with defined contacts (like parents) when the phone is in a Downtime situation.
    • Content and Privacy – This feature contains the old version of restriction settings which allow for content filtering, managing the installation and deletion of apps, purchases, and downloads. This is where you can set age limits for content for music, TV shows, apps, movies, web content, multiplayer games, etc. The default settings are the most inclusive like Unrestricted and Explicit. If content is a concern, be sure to look through these settings.

There are many ways that you can take advantage of these settings. The most obvious way is to mange time limits around your child’s use and limit content. The setting of these features can also be a source of great conversation. Consider walking through all the settings with your child. Talk through what reasonable limits might be. As always, you, as the parent, are the ultimate decision maker. However, it can often be a smoother transition with better buy in if your child feels that he has had a voice in the limits and filtering being established. It also opens the communication lines to deeper conversations around technology use. Another suggestion would be to engage in the limits as a family. For example, perhaps you agree to limit your total screen time or have a shared app time limit.

Take some time to familiarize with this feature. Even if you choose not to utilize it from a parental controls perspective, it can be fun to track your weekly use. As I always tell the students I speak with “The first step to responsible device usage is mindfulness of how you are using the device and evaluate if and what changes can be made.”

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