Apple Unveils Ways to Help Limit iPhone Usage

Apple Unveils Ways to Help Limit iPhone Usage

New ‘Screen Time’ app will provide weekly reports of apps use and set time limits for use of those apps

Apple iOS 12 Includes Features to Curb iPhone Addiction

At its annual developers conference, Apple revealed Screen Time, a new feature that allows users to monitor and limit their app usage on the iPhone and iPad.

By Tripp Mickle Updated June 4, 2018 6:14 p.m. ET

Apple Inc. on Monday unveiled new controls to help people curb the amount of time they spend on iPhones and iPads, as well as allow parents to remotely track and limit their children’s use of those devices—a response to growing societal concern that adults and children are too focused on phones.

The company said a new app it will release in September called “Screen Time” will provide users with weekly reports of the apps they use and allow them to set time limits for their use of those apps. Parents will be able to use the system to remotely monitor the apps their children use and limit their time on devices.

The new features played a central role at Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference, a gathering of about 6,000 developers who create the apps for the iPhone, iPad and Mac computers. The event is designed to show off Apple’s latest software—including the newest features to further integrate into people’s digital lives.

Those new features include a new Shortcuts app that will connect the Siri voice command with certain apps—for instance, Siri could state flight and hotel information from the Kayak app with a voice command. Apple also introduced new augmented technology, such as a Measure app to capture the dimensions of objects, as well as group video chat on FaceTime.

In the middle of all these announcements to drive interactivity, Apple’s software chief, Craig Federighi, paused to talk about ways to “prevent distractions” and limit device use. Apple has been under pressure this year to address those issues. In January, the company received a letter from activist investor Jana Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, or Calstrs, which control about $2 billion of Apple shares. The letter urged the tech giant to develop new software tools that would help parents control and limit phone use more easily, and to study the impact of overuse on mental health.

On Monday, Jana and Calstrs sent a new letter to Apple to commend the moves, but also sought to continue pressing the company to work with experts in studying the impacts of phone usage.

“This must be an ongoing effort,” they wrote, according to a copy reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, adding the “ethical leadership” will create long term stock value.

Kevin Holesh, a founder of the app Moment, which helps people track their device usage, said Apple’s moves were “a good first step” and overdue. But he questioned whether setting limits on usage actually works. Among the 5.5 million users who have downloaded Moments and used the app’s own limits function, their time was only reduced by two minutes on average a day on the iPhone and iPad, he said.

“Limits are easy to turn off, and it doesn’t solve the underlying reason of why you’re picking up the phone or an app to begin with such as boredom or loneliness,” Mr. Holesh said.

The amount of time people spend on mobile devices has increased by more than an hour over the past five years to 3.3 hours a day, according to research by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. A survey sponsored by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that promotes responsible media and technology use for children, found about half of 620 families in 2016 said they felt addicted to their smartphones, and several studies have found smartphones can increase anxiety.

Apple iOS 12: The iPhone and iPad Updates You’ll Care About

The findings have fostered concern that smartphones could trigger a mental-health crisis for youth growing up with the device. It has also stoked worries, including among some iPhone creators, that adults are spending too much time on their devices and not being present enough in the everyday world.

The concerns have created a predicament for leading smartphone software developers Apple and Alphabet Inc.’s Google. They’re now trying to strike a balance between releasing exciting features that make smartphones and tablets more useful for users, potentially increasing the time they spend on those devices, with new tools that empower them to control how much they use the devices.

Google responded last month by announcing its Android mobile operating system, which has an 85% market share world-wide, according to International Data Corp., would add a new dashboard that allows users to set time limits for apps and make the screen automatically turn gray when they’re ready for bed. The company already offers a system called Family Link that allows parents to remotely track their children’s screen time.

Though Apple has offered parental controls for years, analysts say the system only allows parents to set limits on their children’s device use—not monitor it on a continuing basis. The new “Screen Time” feature changes that by giving parents those same capabilities.

A new Reports feature will detail how users spend time with the iPhone and iPad, including how often per hour they look at their devices, when they are using particular apps and what apps are sending the most notifications.

“If Apple leads the way and we do a good job of educating parents and the public about using the tools, this could be a major step forward in addressing the challenges of attention, addiction and distraction,” said Jim Steyer, founder of Common Sense Media.

Among the new software features for the company’s new mobile software, known as iOS 12, the Shortcuts app for Siri is among the most important strategically for Apple. Siri, which made its debut in 2011, has lost ground to Alexa and Google Assistant as those rival systems opened up to third-party developers, allowing users to verbally order pizza or play trivia.

Shortcuts is designed to improve Siri’s capabilities by allowing users to program their phone for specific actions. For example, a user could program a setting called “Heading Home,” and when the user says those words using Siri, it would automatically pull up National Public Radio and provide a traffic report for the drive home from work.

The custom tools show the company is in the earliest phases of a transition, seeing Siri as a platform for users rather than just another feature on its devices, said Carolina Milanesi, a technology analyst with Creative Strategies. “Until they change the way they look at Siri, it will never be able to compete with Google and Alexa,” she said.

Siri’s limitations contributed to some negative reviews of Apple’s smart speaker, the HomePod, which launched earlier this year and was faulted by reviewers for being largely limited to playing music at a time when devices like the Amazon Echo could be used to answer questions and order products like paper towels.

“Apple felt the urgency a year ago and a year later it has become even more urgent for it to catch up in this field in a decisive manner,” said Werner Goertz, a technology research director with Gartner , Inc.

Appeared in the June 5, 2018, print edition as 'Apple Targets Phone Overuse.'


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