Apple finally launches a Screen Time API for app developers

Just after the release of iOS 12 in 2018, Apple introduced its own built-in screen time tracking tools and controls. In then began cracking down on third-party apps that had implemented their own screen time systems, saying they had done so through via technologies that risked user privacy. What wasn’t available at the time? A Screen Time API that would have allowed developers to tap into Apple’s own Screen Time system and build their own experiences that augmented its capabilities. That’s now changed.

At Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference on Monday, it introduced a new Screen Time API that offers developer access to frameworks that will allow parental control experience that also maintains user privacy.

The company added three new Swift frameworks to the iOS SDK that will allow developers to create apps that help parents manage what a child can do across their devices and ensure those restrictions stay in place.

The apps that use this API will be able to set restrictions like locking accounts in place, preventing password changes, filtering web traffic, and limiting access to applications. These sorts of changes are already available through Apple’s Screen Time system, but developers can now build their own experiences where these features are offered under their own branding and where they can then expand on the functionality provided by Apple’s system.

 

Developers’ apps that take advantage of the API can also be locked in place so it can only be removed from the device with a parent’s approval.

The apps can authenticate the parents and ensure the device they’re managing belongs to a child in the family. Plus, Apple said the way the system will work lets parents choose the apps and websites they want to limit, without compromising user privacy. (The system returns only opaque tokens instead of identifiers for the apps and website URLs, Apple told developers, so the third-parties aren’t gaining access to private user data like app usage and web browsing details. This would prevent a shady company from building a Screen Time app only to collect troves of user data about app usage, for instance.)

The third-party apps can also create unique time windows for different apps or types of activities, and warn the child when time is nearly up. When it registers the time’s up, the app lock down access to websites and apps and perhaps remind the child it’s time to their homework — or whatever other experience the developer has in mind.

And on the flip side, the apps could create incentives for the child to gain screen time access after they complete some other task, like doing homework, reading or chores, or anything else.

Developers could use these features to design new experiences that Apple’s own Screen Time system doesn’t allow for today, by layering their own ideas on top of Apple’s basic set of controls. Parents would likely fork over their cash to make using Screen Time controls easier and more customized to their needs.

Other apps could tie into Screen Time too, outside of the “family” context — like those aimed at mental health and wellbeing, for example.

Of course, developers have been asking for a Screen Time API since the launch of Screen Time itself, but Apple didn’t seem to prioritize its development until the matter of Apple’s removal of rival screen time apps was brought up in an antitrust hearing last year. At the time, Apple CEO Tim Cook defended the company’s decision by explaining that apps had been using MDM (mobile device management) technology, which was designed for managing employee devices in the enterprise, not home use. This, he said, was a privacy risk.

Apple has a session during WWDC that will detail how the new API works, so we expect we’ll learn more soon as the developer info becomes more public.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

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Google’s Family Link updates reflect the pandemic’s impact on how parents view screen time

Google is making changes to its parental control system, Family Link, that aims to better reflect parents’ changing views on children’s screen time. In the pre-pandemic world, parents were more likely to see screen time as something in need of restriction — they’d rather their kids get offline or go outside to play with friends, perhaps. But the challenges of a locked-down world and the push towards virtual learning have impacted parents’ views. Google says today’s parents are more concerned about how kids are spending time on their devices, not how much time is being spent.

It’s a concession to a world where devices have become a savior of sorts to families who’ve stayed at home to avoid Covid — where they’ve been restricted from seeing extended family and friends, and where schools are closed and playdates and parties were cancelled. Parents came to realize that screen time in and of itself isn’t necessarily something to be avoided; they just wanted more control over how it’s used.

With the Family Link update, parents can now choose to make remote learning apps “always allowed,” so they don’t count toward overall screen time daily limits. This could include not only those apps that are used to attend school or communicate with teachers, but others that have popped up to help kids learn and be entertained, like the supplemental resources the school suggests — or the apps parents allow during break times from virtual class.

Parents will also now have access to more detailed daily, weekly and monthly activity reports that provide both an overview of how the child is spending their time in apps, as well as how screen time usage has changed over a week or month, and what portion of time was spent in the “always allowed” apps. This gives parents a better idea of what screen time was used for education versus play.

On Android, Family Link users will also be able to browse through a selection of teacher-recommended apps from the Google Play catalog for kids under 13 in the U.S. And parents can also now set screen time limits directly from the child’s device on Android.

Image Credits: Google

Though these updates will remain useful in a post-pandemic world where parents hold a more nuanced view of screen time, it’s unfortunate that Google waited until so late in the pandemic to roll these changes out. As more people in the U.S. are being vaccinated, restrictions are lifting — including the re-opening of schools in many places. That means parents’ stress over kids’ increased screen time usage will soon become a moot point. The devices will be replaced with in-person learning, and screen time may become villainized yet again.

Related to today’s news, Google has launched a new website for families whose kids are beginning to use technology at families.google. The company also launched a new content series with meditation app Headspace that will help families with kids practice mindfulness together. Again, that’s a resource that was desperately needed in 2020 during the pandemic’s heights, more so than it is today as the world begins reopening.

Still, the pandemic has forced families to think more about screen time and what sort of on-device experiences they want their children to have. As a result of this increased scrutiny, social apps like TikTok and Instagramthe latter just today, in fact — have rolled out more family-friendly safety features, aimed at encouraging parents to see their apps in a better light, rather than being the first to go when screen time gets locked down. It has also encouraged new hybrid learning and education startups to launch, hoping to build out a new category of edutainment apps that can avoid screen time lockdowns.

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Opal raises $4.3 million for its ‘digital well-being’ assistant for iPhone

Many people want to develop better screen-time habits, but don’t have a good set of tools to do so. A new startup, Opal, aims to help. The company, now backed by $4.3 million in seed funding, has developed a digital well-being assistant for iOS that allows you to block distracting websites and apps, set schedules around app usage, lock down apps for stricter and more focused quiet periods, and more.

The service works by way of a VPN system that limits your access to apps and sites. But unlike some VPNs on the market, Opal is committed to not collecting any personal data on its users or their private browsing data. Instead, its business model is based on paid subscriptions, not selling user data, it says.

Timed with its public debut, Opal also today announced its initial financing in a round led by Nicolas Wittenborn at Adjacent, a mobile-focused VC fund. Other investors included Harry Stebbings, Steve Schlafman, Alex Zubillaga, Kevin Carter, Thibaud Elziere, Jean-Charles Samuelian-Werve, Alban Denoyel, Isai, Secocha Ventures, Speedinvest, and others.

Image Credits: Opal, founder Kenneth Schlenker

The idea for Opal comes from Paris-based Kenneth Schlenker, a longtime technologist who previously founded and sold an art marketplace startup ArtList and later led mobility company Bird’s expansion in France.

Schlenker, who grew up in a small, quiet village in the Alps, says he got into technology at a young age.

“I sort of got obsessed, like many of us, by the potential of technology and its amazing power of attraction — making connections, learning new things, all sorts of incredible opportunities,” he explains. “But I’ve then spent the last 10 years and more trying to seek a balance between this need for connection and this need for disconnection.”

In more recent years, Schlenker came to realize that others were having the same problem, including those outside the tech industry. That drove him to build Opal, with the goal of helping people better achieve balance in their lives so they could reconnect with loved ones, spend time in nature or just generally go offline to focus on other areas of their lives.

At a basic level, Opal’s VPN allows users to block themselves from using dozens of distracting apps and sites for certain periods of time, including social media, news, productivity apps and more.

Social media, in particular, has been a huge problem in recent years, Schlenker says.

“In particular, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter — social media is where you feel like you’re learning something, and you feel like you’re connecting with people. So it’s good. But on the other hand, it’s very hard to stay intentional,” he explains. “It’s okay to pick up your phone and go to Instagram, but when you ‘wake up’ 30 minutes later, you usually feel really bad. You feel like, ‘where’s the time gone?’, ‘what did I just do?,’ ” he says.

Opal addresses this problem through a handful of features.

Image Credits: Opal

The free service allows you to block distracting websites and apps and take breaks throughout the day. By upgrading to the paid membership, Opal users can schedule time off from apps to establish recurring downtimes — whether that’s for family dinners or working hours, or anything else. They also can use a more extreme version of this feature called Focus Mode, which locks you out of apps in a way that’s not cancelable.

While the company is using a VPN to make this system work, it’s being transparent and straightforward about its data collection practices.

“There is zero private browsing data that leaves your phone,” Schlenker insists. “Anything you do on your phone outside of Opal’s app stays local on your phone and is never stored on any of our servers or any other servers. That’s very important to us,” he says.

From inside Opal’s app, the company claims it only collects usability and crash information — not browsing data. And the usability data is completely anonymized for another layer of privacy. Opal also doesn’t require an email to begin using the app. It only asks for one if you choose to pay.

Image Credits: Opal

 

These core principles are also documented on Opal’s privacy page, and are why Schlenker believes his app won’t face the challenges that other screen-time apps on the App Store have experienced in the past.

As you may recall, Apple cracked down on the screen time app industry a couple of years ago — a move Apple said was focused on protecting user privacy, but has also been raised as a possible example of anticompetitive behavior. Many of the apps at the time had been using techniques Apple claimed put consumers’ privacy and security at risk, as they gave third-parties elevated access to users’ devices. This was particularly concerning because many of the impacted apps were marketed as parental control services — meaning the end users were often children.

Opal, meanwhile, is targeting adults, and perhaps teenagers, who want to develop better screen-time habits. It is not selling this as a parental control system, however.

Image Credits: Opal

At launch, Opal can block over 100 apps and sites across several categories, including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Reddit, Pinterest, YouTube, Netflix, Twitch, Gmail, Outlook, Slack, Robinhood, WhatsApp, WeChat and others, including those in the news, adult and gambling categories.

Users can choose to block the apps for short breaks — 5, 10 or 60 minutes — throughout the day. You can also set an intention and set a timer before using an app, to help you avoid the issue of losing track of time. And you can set focus timers or scheduled times to automatically shut off app usage.

You can track your progress by viewing the “time saved” and you can share your successes across social media. In time, Schlenker plans to add more of a scoring mechanism to Opal that will help you stay accountable to your original goals.

Image Credits: Opal

Though work on the app only began in 2020, Opal began attracting attention as it publicized its plans on Twitter and ran its private beta, which grew from hundreds to thousands of users this year, saving its users an average of two hours per day.

Though Schlenker had connections with many of the angel investors who have since backed Opal, he says the interest from institutional and larger investors was all inbound.

“It was not our intention to raise so much, so early,” Schlenker notes.

The funds will be used to help Opal grow its team, particularly engineering, design as well as product. The company will also soon launch a version of Opal for Chrome and later, Android, and will experiment with more social features around sharing and hosting group sessions.

The app is currently a free download on the App Store with an optional $59.99/year subscription plan.

 

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