Does Apple’s “Screen Time” Accurately Measure Screen Time? – Some Thoughts For Consideration!

April 12, 2024

In today’s onlife world, parents are understandably concerned about the amount of time their children spend on their devices. With smartphones, tablets, computers, and other devices becoming increasingly integrated into our daily lives, it’s natural to seek tools to monitor and manage tech use. Apple’s “Screen Time” feature, which was introduced by Apple in 2018, was designed to help users understand and control their device usage, which seemed like the perfect solution for concerned parents. However, relying solely on this tool to measure your child’s actual screen time can be a deceptive oversimplification of what this function actually measures, and can sometimes lead to unwarranted concerns.

Not long ago, we heard an educator who mentioned observing a middle school student’s screen time data indicating they had spent 23 hours on their device over a weekend. Understandably, this would raise alarm for a parent, caregiver, or educator. However, understanding the typical usage patterns among teens, this figure didn’t particularly surprise us, and here are the reasons why.

While Screen Time offers valuable insights into device usage, it’s essential for parents, caregivers, and educators to recognize its limitations and understand why it might not provide contextually, a complete picture of your child’s tech time habits.

Apple’s Screen Time relies on data collected directly from iOS devices such as an iPhone, iPad, or iWatch. It tracks the time spent on each app or category of apps, as well as the number of pickups and notifications received, even when the phone is not in the possession of the child. This is but one example of where the number of hours shown can be skewed. As an example, if a teen is listening to music while doing chores or other hobbies those hours are counted. Another example, many teens will stay connected to a Discord channel to show support for a Discord user, even though they may not be listening to or watching the Discord channel directly – these hours would also be collected by Apple’s Screen Time. In our last example, one of our followers informed us about their employer providing an app for work purposes. The employer encourages both full-time and part-time employees to keep the app “open” on their phones. As a result, the follower experienced a sudden increase in screen time, reaching 23 hours in a single day.

Also, screen time metrics alone do not capture the quality of screen time, the content being consumed, and the context of its consumption. Not all screen time is created equal. For example, educational apps or creative activities on a device can offer valuable learning experiences, while mindlessly scrolling through social media would likely have less educational value. Without context, simply looking at the total screen time number does not differentiate between the two and therefore can be misleading.

Even if your child spends a significant amount of time on a device, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are engaged the entire time – as an example, leaving apps open in the background while doing other activities as mentioned earlier. Conversely, a shorter duration of focused, interactive screen time could be more beneficial than prolonged but passive usage.

Every child is different, and what works for one may not work for another. Some children may naturally self-regulate their screen time and balance it with other activities, while others may need more guidance and structure. Using a one-size-fits-all approach based solely on screen time data may overlook the unique needs and preferences of each child.

“In his book ‘Unlocked,’ Dr. Etchells, a psychologist specializing in the study of technology and human interaction, stated…”

“So, like anything in psychology, the science of screens needs to be examined with the wider context of the rest of our lifestyle.  Screen use doesn’t occur in isolation – it happens alongside work, play, relaxation, major life events, minor life events, and everything in between, all of which may be moderated, in some way, by our use of screens.  And vice versa; our attitudes and approaches towards our own screen time are very likely impacted by the day-to-day situations we find ourselves in.”

Rather than relying solely on digital tools, effective screen usage management requires open communication and active parental involvement. Engage with your child to understand their interests, set clear expectations and boundaries, and encourage a healthy balance between tech use and other activities such as outdoor play, hobbies, and family time.

Don’t get us wrong, while Apple’s Screen Time feature can be a useful tool for parents and caregivers to gain insights into device usage patterns, it’s also important to recognize its limitations and supplement it with other strategies for managing tech use effectively – dig deeper into the screen time number, context is everything. By understanding the nuances of tech use and fostering open communication with your children, parents can empower them to develop healthy digital habits that support their overall well-being and development.

Digital Food For Thought 

The White Hatter

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