Tools to manage screen time

Oo Gin Lee is a father of three school-going children and a former tech editor of The Straits Times. In this instalment of a bi-monthly series produced in collaboration with Singtel, he advises parents on tools to help them regulate how much time their children spend on smartphones, tablets and PCs

They can be a parent’s best friend or worst enemy.

Smartphones, tablets and PCs enable kids to explore, discover and learn about the world around them from the safety of their homes. But the infinite information on the Internet can also mean kids stumbling upon pornography, gratuitous violence and other inappropriate content that they need to be protected from.

For parents caring for indefatigable toddlers, cartoons and anime on YouTube and Netflix are a much welcome relief for those desperate for a break.

I have been guilty of using the screen as a babysitter many times in my 16-year journey of parenthood. It had always been a dilemma for me – should I let my daughter watch Paw Patrol and Little Einsteins so that I can selfishly take a nap or steal time for a game of Hearthstone while she is distracted?

I admit I have taken the easy way out too many times. But I have stuck to my guns on one point – no screen time for children younger than 18 months. That guideline comes from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which says children younger than 18 months should not get any screen time, except for video chatting.

For those between 18 and 24 months, parents should be very selective and watch programmes with them. For kids aged two to five, screen time should be limited to an hour a day. And for kids who are six and older, screen time should be balanced with sleep and social and physical activities.

The bigger concern today is over-exposure to small screens. Last year, a survey of 1,400 children aged eight and younger, by United States-based non-profit agency Common Sense Media, found that while overall time spent by kids on screen media has largely remained constant (2 min 19 sec a day last year versus 2 min 16 sec in 2011), they are spending a lot more time on mobile devices. It has gone up from five minutes a day in 2011 to 15 minutes a day in 2013 to 48 minutes a day last year.

I am too generous with Netflix time on the television for my seven-year-old, but I do not let her spend more than 30 minutes a day on the iPad or PC for entertainment.

It is without a doubt that screen time is a huge distraction for the kids of today, yet they cannot be denied their laptops and smartphones as these double as essential devices for schoolwork and communication.

Thankfully, there are tools that can help parents manage screen time for their kids.

Before my two older kids had smartphones, their main screen time was on my desktop computer. They wanted to play video games and watch Pokemon on Netflix and expert YouTube videos on Minecraft.

I relied on Windows’ built-in parental-control features to schedule their access times.

You can now set basic parental-control settings on your child’s family account, including the days and times he can access the PC. You can specify how many hours of screen time he is permitted each day of the week before he is locked out from the shared PC.

The downside, and it is a big one, is that this works only on the PC and does not let you manage his time on smartphones and tablets.

Qustodio Parental Control

Unlike Windows 10's built-in parental control which is limited to PCs, Qustodio works across multiple devices including laptops, smartphones and tablets. It works on Windows and Mac, iOS and Android.

What this means is that you can link all your child's devices - smartphone, tablet, laptop and desktop - to the same parent account.

From a single, unified dashboard, you can configure individual time settings (right top) for each device. So you can set your kid's smartphone to be accessible on weekdays from 6 to 8am (morning commute), noon to 2pm (after-school commute) and 6 to 10pm (which is when you are home from work). You can set a different set of access timings on the home PC.

Also cool is how you can simply click on the hourly boxes on the schedule and set the restricted and allowable access times for the week.

You can set daily usage limits (right above) for the child and dictate what happens when he tries to access the device during restricted hours or when his daily time limit is up - either block offline and online access or allow offline access only. The latter works great if you want to let your kid use the home PC for schoolwork, but do not want him to access the Internet without supervision or you want to disable mobile data access to stop your child from getting distracted by social media or YouTube.

Unlike Windows 10’s built-in parental control which is limited to PCs, Qustodio works across multiple devices including laptops, smartphones and tablets. It works on Windows and Mac, iOS and Android.

Lastly, you can also request to get an SMS or e-mail alert whenever your child accesses the device during restricted hours.

Setting screen-time limits is just one of many features of Qustodio. It also offers Web content filtering, app control, calls and SMS monitoring, plus GPS location tracking in a single package.

Qustodio is available as annual licences via www.qustodio.com at US$54.95 (S$72) for five devices or US$96.95 for 10.

Singtel is offering a monthly subscription of $5.90 (five devices) and $9.90 (10 devices) a month at www. singtel.com/surfschool. Get the first three months free and terminate at any time with no penalty. The deal is for Singtel customers only.

Forest

Forest is a very unusual iOS and Android app that helps kids (and even adults) to focus on their homework and not be distracted by the smartphone or tablet.

It works like a game, where the aim is to grow your seedling into a tree.

Set a time that you want to stay focused and watch the seed grow to the tune of soulful music that mimics the sounds of nature.

If you pick up your phone to launch any other app before your time is up, you end the growth process and kill your tree instantly.

It is not just for studies - adults can use it at the office and even during dinner dates, where you want to make sure you are giving your undivided attention to your companion. It is an interesting way to fight phone addiction.

The longer you stay focused, the bigger your final tree will be. You can even stay focused with friends by inviting them to "plant a tree" together.

The tree will be completed only if you and your friends stay true to the cause. All it takes is one bad apple to destroy the tree.

Surf School

Singtel Surf School promotes cyber fun, safety and education.

As part of this initiative, Singtel is offering a parental-control app, Qustodio, at an exclusive rate of $5.90 a month for use on five devices (with no contract). Enjoy three months free with no contract with Singtel for a limited time.

Here are some of the features of Qustodio:

• Connects multiple devices and accounts to a unified Web dashboard for easy parental monitoring

• Works on PC, Mac, iOS and Android

• Web filtering automatically blocks inappropriate content from your child

• Safe Search hides inappropriate results when the child does keyword searches in Google and YouTube

• You can schedule the hours and days when the child can have access to the Internet on the phone and/or the PC

• You can block specific apps from running if you feel the child is spending too much time on them

• Location tracking lets you find the last location of your child's phone

• Panic mode lets the child hit an SOS button which triggers an alert that is sent to your preset e-mail or phone number, with the last known location of the device.

For more details, go to www.singtel.com/surfschool

HOW MUCH SCREEN TIME FOR YOUR KIDS?

Tell us how you manage your children’s screen time (in not more than 300 words) and win a set of three annual Qustodio licences from Singtel. Five sets will be given out at the end of this series for selected entries, which may be published in The Sunday Times. Send your entries, with the subject header “Family & Tech”, to stlife@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 08, 2018, with the headline 'Tools to manage screen time'. Print Edition | Subscribe