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Attention, parents with “screenagers”: The U.S. government has issued a public warning that scrolling through apps like TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat may pose serious risks to your child’s mental health.
In a 19-page report, Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy said on Tuesday that while social media offered some benefits to younger people, including the ability to connect with communities, it also exposed them to potential harms, such as cyberbullying and content that promotes eating disorders, self-harm and other destructive behavior. Social media also hurts exercise, sleep and other activities, he said.
What can parents do? One is to explore potential options to limit children’s screen time. Let’s go through them.
What tools are available, and where do we get them?
Google’s and Apple’s mobile operating systems offer free tools that can be effective for restricting screen time on smartphones and tablets. These tools allow parents to monitor and set limits on their children’s devices.
For Android devices, there’s Family Link, an app that must be downloaded through the Google Play Store. From there, parents can set up a child’s Google account to be monitored with the software. For parents who use iPhones and want to manage their children’s Android phones, there is also a Family Link app for iOS.
For iPhones, Apple’s iOS includes a tool called Screen Time, which can also limit the time that someone spends on the device. It can be activated inside the iPhone’s settings app by following Apple’s instructions.
Are these tools any good?
Both have pros and cons.
Google’s Family Link has useful features, including the option to reject apps that a child is trying to download and the ability to lock down a device at specific times — between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m., for example, when the child is in bed.
But Family Link has a major limitation: When children turn 13, they can choose to “graduate,” as Google calls it, or lift the restrictions. At that age, the child reaches the minimum age requirement in the United States to create a Google account without parental consent.
One workaround for parents who want to continue using the restrictions is to go into the child’s Google account and modify the age to under 13.
We also tested Apple’s Screen Time feature in a weekslong experiment when the tool was introduced. The feature lets parents create time limits for specific apps or categories of apps, like social networking or games, on their children’s iPhones. When the child runs out of time with an app, it locks the child out. The parent can then have a conversation with the child and decide whether to allow additional time on an app.
The downside is that parents who are also using the tools to monitor their own phone use can easily bypass the restrictions using their passcode — and they may realize they are even more addicted to their screens than their children.
Are there other options?
There are also third-party Android and iOS apps that allow parents to manage screen time, though they should be used with caution. Some apps from unknown brands that are marketed as parental control apps have been used by stalkers to track the users’ locations and even eavesdrop on them through their microphones — a type of malicious software that security researchers call “stalkerware.”
Parents have plenty of resources to find reputable tools that can also work on personal computers, as well as on phones and tablets. Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that reviews products for families, found that Qustodio and NetNanny gave parents deep control of their children’s devices.
Social media companies also offer some features to remind people to stop scrolling. Instagram, for example, has a “Take a Break” reminder that can be turned on, and TikTok this year introduced its own tool for limiting time spent inside its app.
But the effectiveness of these features has been questioned. Many people, including teenagers, have found that these tools can be easily overridden.