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(Pocket-lint) - Long before Apple announced Screen Time - a feature of iOS 12 - a small British company called Screen Time Labs offered a solution to managing children and their devices.

Called Screen Time (an uncomfortable coincidence, but reassuringly relevant), it's an app available for Android, iOS and Amazon Fire devices that offers parental controls. 

We've been living with Screen Time over the past year to see how it can help manage children and their devices. 

How does Screen Time work?

Screen Time is composed of a parent app and a child app. The parent installs the app on their device and sets up an account, before installing the app on the child's device (or devices). Once installed, the parent logs into the account on the child's device and then has control. The child can't uninstall or bypass the app.

Using the parent app, it's then possible to control the activity of the child device, including time restrictions, app blocking, while monitoring search history and providing usage statistics for apps (some features are Android only). 

You can install it on multiple devices and you can control it from multiple parent devices too, which makes it easy to manage in a family unit. 

Screen Time offers a basic (free) subscription and an enhanced Premium offering at £5.49 or $6.99 a month, which includes up to five devices and allows a whole lot more functionality. You might find different prices, as there was previously the option to opt-in to various elements - geolocation was previously a separate, for example.

It's worth noting that Android allow more controls through the app than Apple will, so the experience for an Android phone is better than you get on iOS.

Making time limits a doddle 

One of the big issues surrounding parenting and devices these days is screen time - the amount of time that children are spending in front of some sort of display. 

Screen Time will allow you to set limits for devices. This can be a simple thing like setting bed time - hours between which apps cannot be used - or limiting the time that a device can be used in total - or both. That means you can set it so that between 9pm and 7am, a device cannot be used.

With separate usage limits, you can have a rule that says a device can only be used for, say, 2 hours a day.

You can make exceptions to these rules, however. Send your child to a sleepover and you might want them to have the ability to phone you and message you at any time. You might agree that allowing the camera is fun, but unlimited YouTube access is not. Access to things like calendar or school homework apps might be necessary, and then can be excluded from time limits. 

New apps get automatically blocked 

Using the app blocker you get control over the apps that a child can access. That means you have to individually approve those apps, giving you the chance to see if they are appropriate.

That means that if you decide that WhatsApp isn't appropriate, you can block it and your child won't be able to use it. This doesn't block any access to app stores - they can still search and install, just won't be able to open the app.

The great thing is that new app installs are blocked by default and you'll get an alert to tell you what has been installed. By equal measure, if you allow an app and then hear something about it that you don't like, you can remotely block it.

Ultimately app blocking means that you know what's on the phone and it promotes conversation about apps and services. Note that it doesn't restrict the content of an app - so if you allow Netflix, you'd have to engage separate controls to limit the content, for example.

Cross-platform simplicity

If you've got a number of children on different types of device, then Screen Time Labs' solution is useful: as it supports Apple, Android and Fire tablets, you can use the one app for controlling multiple devices.

That not only gives you a level playing field - really handy for managing several children - but means you don't have to be changing things on different devices all the time. All the control stays on your device, so it's simple.

We've used it across Android phones and Fire tablets and found that to be really handy. Fire tablets offer a wide range of parental controls anyway - so arguably you don't need Screen Time from a content point of view if using Fire for Kids - but being able to have the same system of time limit, task setting and reward is really handy.

Rewarding tasks with screen time

Sometimes when you call your kids for dinner you get no response. You can shout and shout and you get nothing. Open up Screen Time and pause all the phones in the house and you'll get a response.

But there's another good feature that Screen Time offers and that's task and reward. If your child runs out of time, then can ask for more in return for completing tasks - home work, room tidying, whatever it might be.

Again, we've found this really useful to break the cycle of being locked into a device and battling over whether they can continue playing or not. When the time runs out, it runs out. It's then within your power to grant more, so you keep control.

Should you get Screen Time? 

Screen Time isn't the silver bullet to parental controls. The emphasis still very much lies in parents having control of their children and their device use - but it's a useful tool in management.

There's a cost involved and at the premium level we think it's fair. You get a range of functions for £5.49 a month and we've found those really useful. But it doesn't go as far as spying on messages, for example.

When it comes to things like cyberbullying, knowing what's happening in a child's digital life is important and no app will do that for you. As a parent, it's still your responsibility to make sure your child isn't sending or receiving inappropriate messages and physical intervention has to be an accepted part of digital parenting.

Of course you should use the full range of parental controls that your device already offers. That may will include some levels of control for content (Screen Time won't control the content your child can access on YouTube, for example, it would only block the app if you wanted to) and through existing parental controls you might be able to do some of the things you're being asked to pay for here. 

Apple and Google have both stepped up their own offerings, so you might you can get the controls you want free.

Importantly, it establishes a principle of control and responsibility; while the world is worrying about how much time kids are spending on devices, you can control it with a few taps.

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Writing by Chris Hall. Originally published on 4 February 2019.