Blind Bargains

A Blueprint for Time Management: A Dozen Suggestions for Improving Apple's Screen Time Feature

I am one of those rare creatures who lives on my phone. Let me clarify. This is a common criticism leveled at people my age or younger. It can be an especially pointed complaint from parents. But I think for blind people, this can be even more pronounced. It certainly is in my case.

The iPhone is simply too good at too many things. I'm using it right now to write this article. I use it for taking notes, managing a todo list, taking voice lessons, gaming, talking to friends, social media, following the news, finding recipes, identifying objects around me, and the list goes on. For reference, I regularly spend between 10 to as much as 15 hours a day on my phone. Quite simply, when I have a task to do, whatever that is, I'm most likely going to go for my iPhone to accomplish it. For me, it has simply become the most comfortable and most familiar, and in many cases, the most reliable tool I regularly use.

But there are some pitfalls to this. When everything you do is on your phone, it can be incredibly difficult to self-regulate the time spent on these devices, especially when many companies have a vested interest in maximizing our time spent in their specific app.

Recently, I've started to be more conscious of the time I spend on my phone, and to have the goal of using more of it for productivity. To do this, I need to minimize distractions while I work.

At first, I simply tried using guided access, which locks you into a specific app for a preset amount of time. This worked very well, except for one major setback.

Invoking guided access, whether you are beginning a session from settings or putting the widget in the control center, remaps the triple click side/home button gesture. This is not good. Instead of toggling VoiceOver, the gesture asks which you'd like to do- turn on VoiceOver or start guided access. This cannot be disabled. And its a huge problem, because far and away the most common reason I need to toggle VoiceOver, is that it has crashed and is not speaking. Which means, you guessed it, I can't read the prompt asking which action I'd like to perform.

I then moved to different screen management apps. I have looked at Habyt, kidslox, freedom, and of course, apple's own Screen Time feature. I'd like to be able to use Screen Time exclusively, since it is far and away the most accessible solution. So far it has been working alright, but there are several features that would take this from a usable solution to something that would really help me manage my time better.

Things I'd like to see in the next version of Screen Time

Unscheduled Downtime Sessions

Currently, the way Screen Time allows for focus is through a feature called downtime. Downtime hides notifications and allows you to time out apps so they are more difficult to use. More on this later. Apps on your "always allowed" list may be used even while in downtime.

Before getting into the specifics of how downtime works, I'd like to briefly outline what downtime gives me. Mindfulness is at the core of downtime. Intentionality behind which apps we use and how long we use them. Research shows that deep focus is linked to a flow state, where we are fully engaged with the task at hand. Frequent notifications make that much more difficult. So Downtime allows me the focus to work only within specific apps, and the security of uninterrupted time to do so.

Downtime is usually invoked via a preset schedule. Since its usually used for bedtime, its enabled by default from 11 pm to 7 am. But it is possible to implement a different schedule, say from 1-3 PM on weekdays. During this time, you can set which apps you would like to have available, writing apps and research apps, for example, and everything else will be timed out.

But rather than set downtime by schedule, I'd like to simply start a downtime session lasting for 2 hours and starting from the current time.

Currently, this is doable by manually changing your scheduled downtime for the current day, entering your passcode, if you have one, setting the start and end time, and confirming. But this is clunky. If I start a downtime session at midnight to get some work done, it will not automatically go back to my usual schedule, but will instead turn on downtime at midnight on that day of the week until it is manually changed again. This means a lot of constant fiddling with the schedule. I'd like to be able to set unscheduled downtime sessions for a given length of time, independent of the usually scheduled downtime hours. Since this feature is also often used to restrict children's access to particular apps at certain times, I also believe parents would find the ability to start an unscheduled downtime session useful.

Control Center Widget for Beginning a Downtime Session

The ability to start new sessions from the control center would really help with the number of taps needed to go from downtime being inactive to active. Do not disturb is in the control center, so this makes sense to be included alongside it, especially if the ability to set a downtime session length is also implemented.

ability to send auto replies to contacts who text during downtime

One of the features of downtime I mentioned is that it gives me the security of knowing I won't be interrupted while working. But messages are still going through, even if I am not notified of them, and sometimes, they are important or time sensitive. Usually, if I know I'm going to be absent for a long time, I try to tell the people who are most likely to need something urgent during that time. But I can't always do that. Do not disturb offers a feature to tell contacts who text while you're unavailable your driving. This would be useful for downtime as well.

Ideally, the app would notify anyone who texts during downtime hours that you are unavailable, and, optionally, also the expected time that downtime will end.

notifications at the end of a session, or 1-5 minutes before the end of session

Screen Time notifies you 5 minutes before Downtime becomes active, so that you have time to make any preparations and finish up what you are doing on the phone, get in a last 5 minutes of social media, or finish up conversations before the messages app is timed out. I would like to also be able to set up notifications for when screen Time ends, or shortly before so that I know when to start getting to a place in my writing to prepare for tomorrow's session.

However, sometimes, we get into a good flow, and wish to continue writing without notifications. Buttons to allow us to extend Downtime in time increments ranging from 5 minutes to 2 hours would be really helpful in staying involved in the active task without having to go into the Screen Time settings, select the schedule, input the passcode, select the day of the week, and then manually change the time forward another few hours or minutes.

More robust Screen Time passcode options

I'll admit, this is one of the things that really surprised me. In Screen Time, passcodes are used to request additional time in apps that are designated as off limits, whether because they are not in your always allowed list, or because you have exceeded a manual time limit you have set for an app. They are also used to adjust the downtime schedule, edit the always allowed app list, and make other changes to Screen Time operations. In cases where a parent is monitoring a child's device usage, this is not as big a problem, because the child would not know the passcode. In a case where you are managing your own screen time, this is a significant limitation. Ideally, the passcode would be something that would be a deterrent to trivially using the app, would help us maintain our own self-imposed limits and make it harder to simply re-open an app on impulse. I expected to have the option in this popup to implement a more secure, and more difficult, passcode with a passcode options button such as that found when setting up the device itself. It wasn't there. Any 4 digit passcode is at least somewhat guessable and is an ineffective deterrent to the problem of app overuse.

the ability to designate 1 apple device as the control unit over another on the same apple id

When first setting up Screen Time, I realized how easy it was to simply continue using the apps I'd designated off-limits. All that was necessary was choosing how much longer I'd like to use the app and entering the 4-digit passcode.

One solution to this is to designate another Apple ID as the parent over yours, making it so that you cannot know the passcode, cannot edit the downtime schedule, and cannot easily use timed out apps. You can still request additional screen time from a parent account, and then must wait until the request is approved.

But I have already outlined why, unless you stick to a very rigid schedule, setting and forgetting downtime isn't always doable.

I would like to see the same functionality extended across a single Apple ID, by designating one Apple device as the "parent" of another. So, for instance, I would like to be able to designate my iPad as the Screen Time control device, so that if I wanted to use a timed out app on my phone, I would need to locate my iPad and enter the (hopefully more complex password) on it to be able to do so. This would be a good middle ground between maintaining control of my own app usage, while still implementing some intentional restrictions to trivially ignoring a self-imposed limit.

More Screen Time Metrics

It would also be useful if, in the Screen Time summary, there was a way to track our Downtime metrics. In particular, I would like to see how much of my daily/weekly device usage was spent in downtime, how many exemptions were requested, and the time they took. This would provide motivation to see how much of our time was spent productively and how much was wasted.

ask for more than 1 extra 1 minute extension, and the ability to ignore all further extension requests

When you try to use an app that is timed out during downtime, you are asked to choose how much time you are requesting on the app, 1 minute, 15 minutes, 1 hour, or until end of day. The administrator of your Screen Time will then be notified of your request, and after entering the Screen Time passcode, may choose whether or not to approve it.

However, after receiving a single one-minute extension, you may only request a 15 minute extension from that point on. I believe it would be useful to continue requesting extensions by the minute in certain cases, especially if you are managing your own Screen Time use.

If you are managing your own device, the ability to continue to request additional Screen Time 1 minute at a time forces you to be more deliberate about the time you are using it outside your proscribed limits.

The option to disallow further requests would also be helpful in both cases.

better management for safari as a whole instead of by site

Unfortunately, safari is presumed off limits when downtime is active. I really can't overstate how annoying this is. In order to use safari, you must approve each site individually, as you visit it. So, for example, if you want to look something up, you might type a search phrase into the address bar, approve the use of google, and then individually approve every result link you wish to view as you view them. This is detrimental to the overall flow, and must be done every day that you wish to use the internet while downtime is active.

I would much prefer the ability to permanently allow particular websites, or better yet, simply to block others. Best of all would be including Safari in the list of apps which you can choose to either allow or time out, and it honestly seems a very bizarre omission.

It seems that previously, Safari was always included, leading to complaints that it was distracting, and, rather than opt to allow people to choose whether or not to allow safari, Apple simply opted to time out every site.

hiding inactive apps

This is a feature that Kidslox implements that I would love to see in the final version of Screen Time. When apps are timed out through Kidslox, they do not appear on your home screen at all. Apple has the ability to do this as well, as it is something that can be done in more limited ways with device restriction settings. However I would like to see this extended into Screen Time, hiding disabled apps while they are unusable, then un-hiding them after downtime is over. After all, its much easier not to open a timed out app if its icon simply isn't there.

Some work would have to be done to provide some form of override so that users can compensate for emergency situations, or a warning provided if transportation, banking, and other apps that may be needed in an emergency aren't whitelisted, but I believe that if designed with these trade offs in mind, and the restrictions were clear to end users early on, this would be an incredible tool for productivity.

Perhaps a solution might simply be to make a hardcore downtime option, also toggleable from control center.

app session Lengths, possibly as a reward

This would be, essentially, a more granular version of the time limits already in Screen Time. What I would like to see is a way to limit how long an app may be used in a single session. Currently, you can limit how much time in a day you would like to be able to use an app, twitter for no more than 30 minutes a day, for example. This would be more granular, allowing you to specify that you don't want to be able to use an app for more than 15 minutes at a time. Again using Twitter as an example, most of us recognize that scrolling our timelines for long periods of time is not usually healthy or comfortable. This would help us be more conscious, not only about how much we use an app in a given day, but also how long, in a single session, we are doing so.

For those so inclined, having the ability to allow more time on distracting apps and games after we have completed particular milestones, say, 2 hours of productivity for an additional 15 minutes of social media would be motivating.

consider making Screen Time its own standalone app

I have listed a number of possibilities here, and implementing them all would be a huge undertaking. But I believe that making Screen Time its own standalone app would give it the space to grow into the full featured solution I have outlined here, and probably in other ways as well, that I have never considered. I hope that at least some of these suggestions resonated and at least invite consideration of the idea, because I truly believe that Screen Time, whether it is expanded in big ways or small, offers so many avenues for greater productivity, more mindful and deliberate device usage, and better ways to track and understand how we use our phones

final thoughts

Many of you reading this article may find yourself thinking, why is all this necessary? or, this feels like treating ourselves like children. Perhaps. And for people who don't feel these features would be helpful for them, those are very fair criticisms. But ignoring the reality of a problem simply because it is not one you deal with can be done without denouncing the need for a solution entirely.

I have tried to give a wide array of possibilities for expansion in this article, in the hope that people with many different focus styles would find something useful. Honestly, even if only 1 or 2 of these suggestions ever make it into Screen Time, it would still be an incredible benefit. I list these things, not because I hate apple and want to see them fall, but because I believe strongly that not every change is an improvement, but every improvement is a change. Every app, every device, every task, can be improved, but only if people notice what is not there, and care enough to fix it, or suggest ideas to people who perhaps have not considered them.

When working with anything, a book, software, a piece of music, we are limited by our own perceptions, use cases, and standards. We often take our creations for granted, because we know them. Familiarity can stifle innovation simply because it builds habits, and by pointing out ways to improve, it is simply my hope to draw attention to the fact that improvement is possible.

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Tangela Mahaffey is a barely reformed English Major currently residing in Colorado. She reads entirely too many fantasy books and takes almost nothing seriously, including herself. She loves technology, music, writing, puns, and cats. She can be reached on twitter @tmmahaff

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