Attention parents of “screenagers”: The US government has issued a public warning that scrolling through apps like TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat can pose serious risks to your child’s mental health.
In a 19-page report Tuesday, Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy said that while social media offers younger people some benefits, including the ability to connect with communities, it also exposes them to potential dangers such as cyberbullying and content promoting eating disorders, Self-harm and other destructive behavior. Social media also interferes with exercise, sleep and other activities, he said.
What can parents do? One of them is to explore possible options to limit children’s screen time. Let’s go through them.
What tools are there and where can we get them?
The mobile operating systems from Google and Apple offer free tools that can be used to effectively limit screen time on smartphones and tablets. These tools allow parents to monitor their children’s devices and set limits.
For Android devices there is Family Link, an app that needs to be downloaded from the Google Play Store. From there, parents can set up their child’s Google account to be monitored with the software. For parents who use iPhones and want to manage their kids’ Android phones, there is also a Family Link app for iOS.
For iPhones, Apple’s iOS includes a tool called Screen Time that can also limit the time someone spends on the device. It can be enabled in the iPhone’s Settings app by following Apple’s instructions.
Are these tools good?
Both have advantages and disadvantages.
Google’s Family Link has useful features, including the option to decline apps a child wants to download and the ability to lock a device at certain times — say, between 9pm and 7am when the child is in bed .
But Family Link has one major caveat: when kids turn 13, they can choose to “graduate,” as Google calls it, or lift the restrictions. At this age, the child is the legal minimum age in the United States to create a Google Account without parental consent.
A workaround for parents who want to continue using the restrictions is to change the age on the child’s Google Account to under 13.
When we launched the tool, we also tested Apple’s Screen Time feature in a week-long experiment. With this feature, parents can set time limits for certain apps or app categories like social networks or games on their kids’ iPhones. If the child runs out of time with an app, they will be locked out. Parents can then have a conversation with the child and decide if they want to set aside extra time to use an app.
The downside is that parents who also use the tools to monitor their own phone usage can easily bypass the restrictions using their passcode — and they may realize they’re even more addicted to their screens than their kids.
Are there other possibilities?
There are also third-party Android and iOS apps that parents can use to manage screen time. However, they should be used with caution. Some unknown brand apps marketed as parental control apps have been used by stalkers to track users’ location and even eavesdrop on their microphones – a type of malware that security researchers call “stalkerware”.
Parents have plenty of resources to find reputable tools that work on PCs as well as phones and tablets. Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that rates products for families, found that Qustodio and NetNanny give parents full control over their children’s devices.
Do social media companies offer features to restrict usage of their apps?
Social media companies also offer some features to remind people to stop scrolling. For example, Instagram has an toggle “Take a break” reminder, and this year TikTok introduced its own tool for limiting the time spent in its app.
However, the effectiveness of these features has been questioned. Many people, including teenagers, have found these tools to be easily overridden.