A Two-Way Street: Kids Notice Their Parents’ Phone Habits Too

by Screen Time Team on 22/01/2020

Every parent has had that awkward moment where the kids imitate something they say or do without understanding the context, like a word blurted out in a moment of temper. Children tend to follow the cues of their parents in what they do, behavior that can endure for far longer than either side realizes. This makes parents “walking the walk” a fundamental part of helping their kids develop better phone habits.

Do As I Say…

To be fair, many adults are fully aware that they spend too much time on their phones. One survey found that a bare majority of parents felt they could leave the smartphone in the drawer most often. Yet that creates a real problem when talking with kids about their phone use.

The problem is most visible to kids as they get older and their attitude towards their phones changes. Teenagers, in particular, are more likely to use a smartphone as a tool, much the same as an adult, and will have pointed questions about commonplace misuses of smartphones.

But younger kids can pick up habits, good and bad, just by watching. Keep in mind, your children will spend time with you every day from birth. They’re going to have a good sense of how you use, or misuse, everything around you. This makes good phone habits important right from the start.

Child yelling at mom while she is looking at her parental control app on her phone.

Setting An Example

Before you set any family rules, start by examining your own behavior. Very few of us do anything outright dangerous, like text while driving, yet you may be surprised by how often you can drift into staring at a screen. Using a time tracking app, for example, can tell you how much time you spend on social media.

It’s also important to sort “screen time” from “usage.” If your phone is sending a podcast to your car stereo or you’re getting walking directions, that’s different from endlessly scrolling through social media. Ask yourself what uses the rest of the family may put the phone to, and sort that from the screen overuse you’re worried about.

Next, consider how rules you’re considering will apply to the entire family, not just your kids. If you want kids to stop using their phones at bedtime, can you implement a rule where everybody charges their phones in the living room, for example?

Finally, have logic behind the rules. We’ve all run into what appears to be an arbitrary rule and found it a frustrating experience. Kids are no different, and being able to explain to them why you’re concerned about this use of the phone but not that one can be useful for ensuring everyone’s on the same page. It also sets up a framework to request changes to the rules.

Part of that should be a third-party parental control app. Even the best kids will, at some point, push the boundaries of the rules. A third-party app will give you the control you need to keep malware and socially toxic apps off phones and enforce the rules, while also giving you the flexibility to grow with your kids. To learn more, sign up today!

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My Child Made Expensive In-App Purchases. What Should I Do?

by Screen Time Team on 15/01/2020

While parents can do quite a bit to block in-app purchases, sometimes kids get a new device, log into a different one, or just press the wrong button with the wrong setting enabled. Suddenly there’s an extra zero on your credit card bill and a big problem. Don’t despair, though; you’ve got more than one tool to fight inappropriate in-app purchases.

Block the App

Start with ensuring the app doesn’t charge your card again. Make sure it’s added to both your operating system level controls and your third-party parental control app, either as a blocked app or as one that can’t make in-app purchases without your consent. You should also go through and change your passwords, PINs, and other controls in case that’s the problem.

Also, run a malware check to ensure that the issue doesn’t lie in the code of the game itself. Malicious actors are perfectly happy to make it look like kids are misbehaving in order to cover their tracks. If this is a separate system, you might even consider disconnecting your credit card.

Request A Refund

Both Apple and Google have refund forms you can fill out. They do, unfortunately, have time limits, generally between two hours and two days depending on the purchase, so you’ll have to act quickly once you learn about the purchase.

In some cases, you may need to request a refund directly from the developer. This generally will go through their website but check the app to ensure there’s no refund button or similar feature available.

Woman speaking on the phone with her child nearby.

Challenge The Charges

In some cases, you may be able to fight the charges on your credit card statement. If you can’t get a refund from the store, or the developer, call your credit card company and explain the situation. They may accept the reversal, and you can also work with them to flag the merchant code, so charges don’t automatically go through.

Be aware, though, that financial institutions generally treat this as credit card fraud beyond a certain point and you may need to stop the process at a certain point. Ask what other options you have available to flag these charges or even prevent them from being put on your bill.

Educate, Educate, Educate

Many apps will properly represent their in-app charges, but this doesn’t mean that kids will fully understand the connection between pressing the button and that money comes out of an account somewhere. Sit your family down and discuss, in detail, what in-app purchases are, how they work, and which are acceptable and which aren’t. 

For example, if somebody wants to buy a book for school, that’s usually acceptable, but buying a power-up in a game probably isn’t. Walk kids through how to spot in-app purchases, and how to sort out normal requests from a game, like opening a power-up, from options that will cost money.

Ensuring that your family understands in-app purchases and what they can do will be an ongoing discussion. Third-party parental control apps can help kids stick to the rules and better understand why those rules are in place. To learn more, try our parental control app for free!

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New Year, New Phone: What’s Changed and How Parents Can Cope

by Screen Time Team on 08/01/2020

Technology moves quickly, and parents can struggle to keep up. There are two major changes coming in particular in 2020; the expansion of both 5G and the “Internet of Things,” abbreviated as “IoT.” Here’s what parents need to know.

5G And Security

The fifth generation of mobile connection standards, hence “5G” for “fifth generation,” has a lot of promise as a technology to change how we access the internet. As fast as home broadband, 5G will make the internet in our pockets even faster.

It’s also, unfortunately, vulnerable to possible problems. While 5G addresses some security problems with the current standard, 4G, among the issues that have been found include using “temporary” requests on the network to find and track phones. Conversely, it will make people who send harassing messages, and know what they’re doing, harder to track, since 5G relies on “antenna density,” essentially nailing an antenna to anything that won’t move in the foreseeable future. Nor will faster speeds solve basic social problems phones introduce.

The good news is that very few phones, likely including the one that was under the Christmas tree, are likely to have 5G radios. Similarly, 5G networks don’t have the spread of 4G yet, so this is more a concern to keep an eye on. If your kids do have 5G phones, parental control apps can help keep kids safe by blocking malware and keeping track of phones independently of internal systems.

Two teens sitting together looking at their phones and smiling.

The Internet of Things And Safety

The exact role of IoT in our daily lives is still an open question. Anybody who’s played with a Google Home Mini or Amazon Echo has probably found that it’s more fun than useful. Still, as processors become cheaper and the internet more ubiquitous, many more items will become “smart,” whether we want them to or not.

This comes with risks. While stories about surveillance cameras being compromised by hackers may draw the headlines, the real risks are much more prosaic. Poorly secured gadgets connected to your WiFi can be used to get into your computer or tablet and steal your credit card numbers, for example. While hackers screaming abuse at children through tools designed to protect them is worrying, it’s far more likely the hackers in question are just interested in using your kids to loot your bank account by breaching their tablets and phones or using them as a stepping stone to your laptop.

Parental control apps can help by keeping apps from being installed without your, or your children’s, knowledge, for example, and it’s equally important kids understand social engineering. If an adult is asking them to delete an app, turn on a device, or change something’s settings via social media or a video game, they should know to stop talking to that person and come to you.

Keeping Pace

Keeping up with changing technology involves keeping a good toolkit in place. Family agreements, discussions of being safe online and how to deal with strangers on the internet are all going to be key to family safety as the world changes ever more quickly. To learn how parental control apps can help, sign up today!

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Which Android Devices Are Best for My Children?

by Screen Time Team on 02/01/2020

Android is an “open source” operating system, which allows developers to build tablets with kids and their safety in mind. Yet not all tablets are created equal, and any tablet will have limitations you’ll need to address. Here are the best, and how to make them better.

The Best Tablets For Kids

Pre-K to Elementary: Leapfrog LeapPad

A tablet designed entirely with kids in mind, the Leapfrog is built for education and offers a largely “closed” ecosystem of tools designed to get kids learning. That said, it’s a tablet designed for kids 3-6, and won’t really grow with kids beyond a certain point.

Elementary to Preteen: Amazon Fire Kids 7”, 8” and 10”

Built expressly for children, right down to the case, Amazon’s tablets are built to be both easy to use and able to withstand the worst abuses kids will put them through. One downside for parents, however, is that they’re tied intimately with Amazon’s retail ecosystem, which may limit certain apps or tools.

Preteen: Barnes and Noble Nook 10.1” 

The most size for the buck, and designed for reading, the one trade-off is that it’s built to sell books on Barnes and Noble’s book platform. It will play nice with other apps, but it may take some work to properly configure.

Teens: Samsung Galaxy Tab Active

For teens who are responsible enough for a more open device, but perhaps might still put a tablet through some tough times, the Tab Active series comes with a rugged case. However, it’s also intended for all audiences, so there will be fewer controls.

Young teen sitting on the grass using a tablet.

Built-In Controls And Options

Which controls will be available will depend on the device and the manufacturer.  Before handing over a tablet:

– Familiarize yourself with each device’s internal controls. Set up any parental controls on the Google Play store, for example, and see if third-party apps can be installed.
– Replace apps aimed at adults as well as kids with versions that are kid-only, such as YouTube Kids.
– Set specific rules for devices that apply to the entire family.

Keep in mind, these tools will necessarily be limited, and the decisions are driven by what the manufacturer wants, not the parent. For example, Amazon offers tools to track how often a tablet is used and which can independently block or approve in-app purchases, but the Fire tablets will never let you permanently block in-app purchases. That’s contrary to what Amazon wants. Also remember that the manufacturer can change their settings and standards at any time, so what’s a “safe” device today may not be one tomorrow.

Installing Third-Party Parental Control Apps

A third-party parental control app can offer a degree of control that manufacturers simply cannot. Screen Time, for example, includes features like Instant Pause to enforce rules, and will let you set a specific schedule for when a tablet can be available, blocking off bedtimes and homework times. It also allows you to whitelist or blacklist certain apps, so you can discuss what kids want to install and allow or not depending on what you perceive as the value. To learn more about parental control apps, try it for free!

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How to Keep Your Child from Spending 2020 Glued to Their Phone

by Screen Time Team on 26/12/2019

Many families are resolving to use their phones less in 2020 as part of their New Year’s resolution to be closer. But that can be tough to do since exciting and useful features are always being added to phones. Here’s how to create a resolution that sticks.

Talk About Why

Research into habits has told us that you only change a habit when you truly examine the motives behind it. The people who start going to the gym to get a six-pack drop away quickly, but the people doing it for deeper motives, like personal health or to support a family member, persevere. So talk about why you want the whole family to use screens in a more healthy manner, and lead by example.

Define Healthy Screen Time

The average adult spends three hours a day looking at their phone, but not all looks are created equal. Kids, in particular, may be expected to use their screens to do homework, to coordinate projects, for tutoring, and in the case of teens, to pick up shifts at their jobs. So defining what you mean by “screen time,” such as social media, goofing off on texts with friends, and so on, will be important to your resolution.

Tidy Up Your Phones And Chargers

Part of the reason we spend so much time on our phones is that our phones demand all our time. If you let them, they will constantly beep, buzz, shake, and otherwise try to summon you to look at the screen. But – and this is important – you don’t have to let them. Sit down as a family and go app-by-app, shutting off notifications that aren’t necessary such as those in games, social media apps, and other non-essentials. Removing temptation, after all, is the best way not to give in.

Glass table with multiple phones charging.

While you’re at it, place only useful items upfront on the home screen; tuck social media, games, and other unnecessary apps in folders. Apps you haven’t used in a while should be deleted, period, and consider removing social media apps and only logging into them through browsers. Finally, set up a family charging area, away from beds, desks, and other places where kids and adults need to focus on other things.

Install Controls

You don’t have to rely on the built-in parental controls on phones to enforce the rules. While those should also be put into place, a third-party parental control app offers more features and will allow you to limit certain behaviors as needed. Be transparent about why it’s being put in place, and why it’s on the phone.

Check-In With Family Members Regularly

No resolution is “set it and forget it.” Accountability, discussion, and planning are going to be an ongoing feature, and kids need to learn to engage with potentially difficult parts of the internet. Talking with your kids about what they’re doing online, who they’re doing it with, and how they feel about it is a good way to both teach lessons about dealing with others and changing the rules as needed.

Screens don’t have to absorb every waking moment of your children’s time. To learn more about how to balance real life with the temptations of screens, try it for free!

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Buying Your Kid a Smartphone for Christmas? Read this First.

by Screen Time Team on 18/12/2019

Smartphones will be under many trees this Christmas with a child’s name on the tag. Before they’re unwrapped, though, you’ll need to make a few decisions about how you’re going to manage how it’s used, and why.

Look At How You Use Phones

Good smartphone use starts with good role models. Write out the rules you want your kids to comply with, and ask yourself if this is a “do as I say, not as I do” situation. This is particularly true around scheduling and timing. If you use your phone in bed, or at the dinner table, start by putting it down. If you expect phones to be left in a specific room to charge, set up a little family phone area now to place chargers and wires.

Understand The Psychology

The world of apps can be intimidating, and kids getting “hooked” on apps is a real concern. Understand the signs and how apps can drive certain behaviors, so you can spot, and stop it, ahead of time.

Draft A Family Agreement

A family agreement about smartphone use is a good way to open a conversation about what you expect with the new smartphone, and just as importantly, why you expect it. If children understand the logic behind the rules, they’re more likely to abide by them. It should also include the costs of breaking the rules, such as limited phone time.

The agreement should cover both specific expectations, such as phone-free times and expectations around homework and personal projects, and a broader consideration of situations that might come up in the future. For example, if you’re getting your teen a smartphone, are they allowed to turn it on if they’re driving, or do they have to leave it off?

Teen sitting next to a Christmas tree looking at his phone.

Set Up Operating System Controls

Operating system-level controls, such as built-in iPhone parental controls, are limited in what they can do. This is often by design, as including the features parents most want may risk compromising the devices for adults in certain ways. But while the set of tools is limited, they’re usually simple to set up and do offer some valuable protections, such as preventing in-app transactions and blocking certain apps from being downloaded.

Install Parental Control Apps

Parental control apps allow far more control over how kids use phones. They let you set a specific schedule, keep phones from being used during certain periods such as bedtime or quiet time at school, block specific apps, remove “bloatware” that nobody and more. This is particularly important because it gives you a “clean” start with the device, ensuring you don’t need to check for apps kids might hide or malware hiding on the device.

Follow Up

Once they have the phone, talk with them about what they’re doing with it. What apps are they using? What people are they interacting with? Make sure to leave the door open for them to come to you when they have a concern, and make sure they’re educated about thieves, predators, and just general bad actors and abusive people.

Kids need to develop healthy attitudes toward screens as early as possible, and their first smartphone is a good way to introduce them. To learn more, try it for free!

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How to Use a Smartphone Tracker to Protect your Kids on Social Media

by Screen Time Team on 11/12/2019

Social media is a fact of life, and it can be a great thing. It lets us stay in touch with friends and family, gives us leads on jobs, and helps us coordinate big events. But there’s a dark side to everybody being in touch with everyone else, and it needs to be kept in check.

A Riot Of Social Media

Social media is an app hothouse. No sooner do parents hear about a new social media app before it runs its course with young people and becomes “uncool.” Worse, there’s a limit to what these apps can do to prevent abusive behavior or dangerous individuals from signing on. Many simply don’t have the money or staff to police their users, especially if their user base grows rapidly.

Add to this that criminals often know their targets, and you have a serious social media problem. Few kids are likely to trust a total stranger asking them to meet them at the mall without their parents, but what about somebody they interact with every day?

There are steps you can, and should, take to increase social media safety, such as regularly talking with your kids about what they’re using and why, and teaching them to spot manipulators. But rather than attempt to track individual apps, or looking through their phone, it makes more sense to track them at the platform on which the apps are used.

Teen looking at her phone.

A tracker can also be used to make sure kids are where they’re supposed to be throughout the day. That said, a tracker can only track the device as long as its enabled, and the location of a device is not necessarily the location of its owner.

Action, though, is better than reaction. Parental control apps can be used to shut down messaging apps and social media sites, keep them from being downloaded or accessed, or limit how much time is spent on them. Some apps also are “unzipped,” meaning that functions such as messaging are on separate apps, so you can let teens onto Facebook while shutting off Messenger.

However, both trackers and apps are only a back-up to honest, open communication and education. Parents and kids need to have a discussion about the rules, why they’re in place, and what kids need to look out for when they’re on the internet. Make sure that kids know:

  • How manipulators operate and how to spot them
  • How to “trust but verify” with relatives and family friends
  • When to come to you when they feel there’s a problem or point of concern
  • How to handle abusive or rude people
  • What to do when somebody asks them to meet them in a public place away from their parents

Part of growing up is learning how to engage with the world. Smartphone trackers and parental control apps can serve as “training wheels” for developing good judgment. To learn more about Screen Time and smartphone tracking, try it for free!

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Does your Child use a Kindle Fire? Here’s a Parental Control Guide.

by Screen Time Team on 06/11/2019

Contrary to popular belief, kids read more than adults, in part because they’re expected to and in part because they have more time to sit down with a good book. That said, parents are reasonably concerned about how much time kids spend watching TV, playing games, and otherwise engaged with screens. 

The Kindle Fire can be a useful device for kids, since it’s tied directly to your Amazon account, giving you more control over content. But to get the most out of it, and to keep kids away from shows and books they probably shouldn’t experience yet, you should both use the parental controls the device offers and implement your own.

The Kindle Fire’s Parental Controls

Amazon allows parents to configure parental controls from anywhere, including your personal phone. The Parent Dashboard lets you track what they’re watching, reading, and playing, and how much time they’re spending doing it. You also can set filters for content, whitelist apps to allow them to do things, set time limits and a bedtime for the device, and give your kids educational challenges.

Sound great? Unfortunately, there’s a catch: Amazon wants $3 a month (from Prime members) to $5 a month (non-members) for the service. There’s also a yearly price available. And it is worth remembering that this is Amazon’s program on Amazon’s device; if the company is faced with a situation where it needs to choose between parents’ interest and profit, they’re likely to put their own concerns first.

Besides, you need to have more than one tool to enforce the rules. This is why every Kindle Fire should have a third-party parental control app installed.

Kindle Fire And Third-Party Parental Control Apps

Teenager looking intently at his phone.

Installing third-party parental control apps can help you keep a handle on the Kindle. In addition to features like instant pause, third-party apps serve as a backup to parental controls. They’re also not beholden to content companies or the device manufacturer, so you have an impartial moderator for content.

In Amazon’s case, you also don’t have to subscribe to a separate service and then pay on top of that. Some parents may not be comfortable at being forced to pay a device manufacturer for the right to assert control over something they own. Considering the history of ad-blockers, where sites rapidly began paying to have their ads excepted from the program, third-party apps may be a simpler approach in the long term.

Parental control apps also give you the ability to ease kids into responsible screen use. It’s great that you can challenge your kids via their Kindle, but what really matters is that they understand why they’re learning and why it’s important to put their screen down. 

And as kids grow, go to school, and develop more interest in different topics, you need to be able to change the rules to accommodate that growth. The more adaptable the app, and the more tools you have to work with your kids on these questions, the easier that process will be.

Parental control apps help parents and kids get a handle on the ever-more-complicated world of devices, apps, and the internet. To learn more, sign up today!

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Samsung Users: Here’s Your Parental Control Guide

by Screen Time Team on 23/10/2019

When it comes to Android devices, Samsung is undeniably the world leader, not just in phones, but in tablets, televisions, and a host of other devices driven by Android as well. That presents a challenge for parents, since they need to enforce the rules when it comes to apps and screen time. Here’s how to prepare a Samsung device for family use.

What To Know

Unfortunately, there are no Android-level controls on your phone, unlike iOS. While iOS hardly offers the most comprehensive set of tools for parents to keep track of kids, the lack of tools at the operating system level on Android means you’ll need to download and install a third-party parental control app to be absolutely sure kids are following the rules. As a back-up to this app, you’ll need to set Google Play to prevent app downloading and in-app purchases.

Those rules, and what you’re doing to put them in place, should be completely clear. Family contracts, written rules, and discussions about why the rules are in place will be important. If kids understand what you’re worried about, they’re more likely to consider their behavior. Parental control apps are, in the end, just a way to enforce the rules. The best way to make sure kids develop safe and healthy relationships with their screens and the people they meet using them is with open communication and understanding.

Young teen lying down looking at her phone.

Google Play Services Parental Controls

This setting won’t affect any content on your children’s devices before you implemented the settings. Also, it won’t filter the content of apps, such as messaging apps, or allow you to set any device restrictions beyond app downloading and in-app purchases.

It’s also important to know that these settings are not automatically uploaded to the apps you allow to be downloaded. While Google Play will block in-app purchases on any app, you’ll need to set parental settings on each new app you allow your kids to download. It’s advisable to download apps like YouTube Kids and delete the “full” versions of these apps before you reconfigure Google Play. Here’s what to do.

  • Open the Google Play Store and press the menu button in the upper left-hand corner. It will be an icon with three lines, next to the search box.
  • This will open a menu on the side. Scroll down and choose Settings.
  • On the page that opens, choose Parental Controls.
  • On the next page, toggle Parental Controls to “On,” and create a PIN. Use a PIN you’ll remember, and that your children won’t guess. 

Then configure apps, movies, films, TV, and magazines to the appropriate maturity level.

Installing A Parental Control App

For any features beyond apps, you’ll need to install a third-party parental control app on your children’s device to have control over the type of content they access. No major phone manufacturer is currently including the features that parents demand. 

Android parental controls are a good start, but they generally don’t provide the level of protection most parents want for their kids on mobile devices. Screen Time is a parental control app that you can install on all your kids’ devices and customize to the level of protection that is appropriate. To learn more about our parental control app, try it for free!

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Is New Instagram ‘Threads’ App Safer Than Snapchat?

by Screen Time Team on 16/10/2019

Stealing is the highest form of flattery, and Snapchat must feel incredibly flattered lately, because Facebook has just announced Threads, an app for Instagram that sounds, looks, and feels suspiciously like Snapchat. But there are a few important differences between it and Snapchat (the “self-destructing” image app) that parents should know about.

What Is Threads?

In Facebook’s words, Threads is a photo-sharing app for your Close Friends, that is, the people you’ve designated as a Close Friend on Instagram. In reality, it’s basically another messaging app, just more photography-based and tied to Instagram. Threads is as much a reaction to “finstas” or fake Instagrams – accounts that users share only with actual close friends – as it is to Snapchat.

Is Threads Safe?

Whether Threads is safe depends on your definition of “safe.” Leaving aside the fact that there are risks inherent to all social media, there are a few particular points of concern for parents. The first is “Auto Status,” an optional setting that will update a person’s list by drawing from location data, movement, and network connections to tell friends where a person is, in vague terms. The example Facebook gave was if you go to a coffee shop, Auto Status would update to “At a cafe” rather than giving a specific address.

The second concern is that friends’ lists aren’t shared with other users unless you tell them in person. If you’re worried about your teen’s less pleasant friends, this may be a way they talk to them without your knowing, for example. It is also not clear at this point whether Threads will share Snapchat’s parental controls.

That said, there are some upsides to the app. For example, users can’t contact users they’re not “Close Friends” with, so there’s no spam to deal with. And so far, there are no addictive features like Snapstreaks. But these advantages may not outweigh the downsides, for many parents.

Girl holding a pumpkin.

Should Parents Worry About Threads?

Worry? Probably not, but it’s worth looking at the settings of your parental control app and asking yourself whether Threads contradicts your family’s general rules. The app, in a broader sense, may not be around for long because the history of Facebook is littered with failed messaging apps. Remember the now-defunct Notify or Facebook Email? Still, however, parents should know what Threads is so they can decide if it’s acceptable for their kids to use.

It’s more a question of how it’s used and how that may intersect with your broader family agreement about phones, messaging, and media that should concern you. If there are certain people you don’t want your kids to talk to, Threads could be a problem. But Threads is designed to be curated, so if children are willing to share who their “Close Friends” are with you, then this may be a good introduction to the wider world of photo social media.

Finally, parents should consider the matter of privacy. One of the virtues of parental control apps is that they give kids a measure of personal freedom that’s lacking when you’re constantly looking over their shoulder. Instead of a guard, they have boundaries they can’t cross, and this can more effective in many families. Everyone needs some degree of emotional space, especially online, and Threads may be a useful way to grant it, within reason.

If you want to learn how to balance your kids’ smartphone usage against their other responsibilities,  sign up for Screen Time.

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