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Apple’s Screen Time App Helped Me Apply My Kids’ Screen Limits to Myself

Want to take a harsh look in the mirror? Download's Apple's new app. For me, it was brutal.

fatherly logo The Experimental Family

I was scrolling my way through my Facebook newsfeed when the stark Apple Screen Time notification appeared on my phone — a small black hourglass against a phone-filling white field. In a small font, the phone informed me that I’d reached my screen time limit for the day. The notification felt generic and abrupt. Rude even. In stark contrast to the colorful posts and updates I’d been mindlessly consuming for the previous hour, the notification was uninteresting. I assume that was by design.

I was annoyed by this, but I had only myself to blame. After all, I was the one who set the screen time limit. I wanted to be pried from the screen. Well, the me of earlier in the week wanted that. He had strong opinions on the matter informed by an awareness of the very real harm that distracted parenting can cause. Previous me was a righteous guy and he was right, but at the moment the notice popped up, I resented him.

A week earlier, I made an attempt to quit my social feeds cold turkey. I was disheartened to discover that not only had I become emotionally dependent on social media but that I also was not that good at putting the screen away. The revelation helped me understand that what I needed were limits, similar to those I placed on my children. It was either that or throw away my phone. But I didn’t have a dude two-times my size who’d tell me to turn the thing off and threaten to send me straight to bed without a story. So I had to find a way to enforce my own limits. Lucky for me, Apple had just rolled out a solution — presumably as a corporate effort to get ahead of the research documenting the harm of phone access. It was Screen Time and it had arrived quietly in my phone settings with a recent update. I went about setting limits.

In order to properly set limits, I started by gathering some data about my usage. I was happy, if slightly uneasy, to learn my phone was already collecting this information. I was unhappy and extremely uneasy, to discover that I put in more hours on my phone every week than I did work. Over 40 hours a week? Really? How was that possible? Sure I could explain some usage away as part of my job, but not all of it.

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For instance, there were four hours of social media time on a random Tuesday. Weirdly I couldn’t remember spending that much time staring at my phone. But who else could it have been? Had I been in the bathroom? That’s a lot of time to lose to Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. I felt like a blackout drunk.

With the information in mind, I set my goal. I wanted to cut my use way below 40 hours. No more than an hour and a half of social media screen time per day, in line with my children’s screen time limits. To further synch up my screen time with my kids, I locked down use between 5:30 pm and 8:30 pm for the prime family time between the end of work and my boys’ bedtime.

One thing became abundantly clear on the first day of limits: an hour and a half is precious little time when meted out over the course of a day. Heck, browsing on the toilet during my morning “meditation” put a serious dent in my allotted time. Without thoughtful rationing, it was very easy to open my phone in the evening only to find that white screen and the hourglass.

As a result, I began to pick up my phone less. And I could see how much less in the data. By the middle of the week, I picked up my phone 10 times less on average than the previous week. I went from picking up my phone over 30 times a day to picking it up less than 20 times a day.

The awareness of the limit and the daily 5:20 pm reminder of my impending downtime made me far more conscious of my phone as an object. Where once it had been more an extension of me, finding my hand at any idle moment, I began to see the technology as separate. An unfortunate side effect of this new reality was my new reliance on Find My iPhone. But mislaying my phone felt like a champagne problem. It meant things were changing.

And they were. Setting limits and being reminded of those limits did make me more engaged in the family. I found myself helping out with homework more often, and interacting with my children face-to-face. But more importantly, that time did not feel like an inconvenience. The time with my kids didn’t feel like an interruption of the dire news of the world on Twitter. Wrestling with my boys after homework didn’t feel like it was taking me away from the “me-time” of staring at my Instagram and Facebook feeds.

By the end of the week, I didn’t feel I was losing anything by putting a digital fence around my phone use. It felt natural. And it was working. My usage from the previous week had dropped 17 percent according to the data. The problem was that I knew it could be better.

Time limit notifications are great — that little hourglass and the darkening of the app icons — but they are easily overridden. And I found myself ignoring my limits at night before bed. Despite my best intentions, my and my wife would be laying beside each other, each lost in our phones. Yes, I felt a pang of guilt every time I overrode my time limits. But that pang of guilt was never enough to make me stop. I found that I couldn’t, ultimately, be trusted with policing my own usage.

While I’m very grateful that my kids had started to see my face, rather than my phone in front of my face, I need to go further. Because the relationship with my kids isn’t the only thing affected by phone use. My marriage is too.

And that’s the next step, really. I’m resolved to have a conversation with her about putting the phones down, intentionally, in those brief hours we actually have alone. I haven’t actually had that conversation yet. Soon.

Right after I comment on the Facebook post she just put up.