‘Screen Time’ app show how long you spend on each app and lets people set daily limits
Apple has unveiled digital wellbeing tools to help people reduce the time they spend glued to their screens.
A new app called Screen Time will offer iPhone and iPad users a dashboard highlighting how much time they have spent using which apps, how many notifications they receive, how often they pick up their device and how their usage patterns compare to the average.
The app also lets users set daily time limits for individual apps, and a notification will be shown when the time limit is about to expire. Parents will be able to access their children’s activity reports from their own devices to understand and manage their browsing habits.
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“Some apps send us flurries of notifications trying to draw us in for fear of missing out,” said Apple’s senior vice-president of Software Engineering, Craig Federighi, speaking to a 6,000-strong audience at WWDC, Apple’s annual developer conference, at the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose on Monday. “For some of us it’s become such a habit we don’t even recognise just how distracted we’ve become.”
Screen Time will be available with iOS 12, the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system, which launches later this year.
Other digital wellbeing features to launch with iOS 12 include enhancements to the “do not disturb” feature, including a bedtime mode that dims the display and hides all notifications from the lock screen until prompted in the morning.
The new operating system will also let users control how notifications are delivered to reduce interruptions, including the ability to group together notifications or turn them off completely. Apple’s virtual assistant Siri will also make suggestions for notification settings based on which alerts people act upon.
The focus on digital wellbeing comes at a time when technology companies including Facebook, Twitter, Google and Apple are being scrutinised for their use of habit-forming design practices that encourage people to spend more time on their devices, such as infinite scrolling, notifications and other behavioural “nudges”.
Apple’s tools are very similar to those announced by Google last month at its own annual developer conference, Google I/O. The latest version of Google’s mobile operating system, Android P, also comes with an “app dashboard” which allows users to set time limits on individual apps as well as a wind-down mode before bedtime that stops notifications and turns the screen to greyscale.
The company also doubled down on its commitment to privacy with the introduction of tools to prevent advertisers from tracking users of Apple devices from being tracked online.
In a direct swipe at Facebook, Federighi explained how “like buttons and share buttons” and comment features can “be used to track you whether you click on them or not”.
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“This year we’re shutting that down,” he said, adding that people can interact with these features if they choose to, but they won’t be tracked by default on an Apple computer if they use the native Safari browser on the next version of its desktop operating system, macOS Mojave.
The company is also clamping down on a technique called “fingerprinting” which allows advertisers to identify and track individual web users based on the unique way their computer is set up, including the device, operating system and fonts they are using.
“Mass deployment of fingerprinting protection is a game-changer for privacy engineering, and for users,” said Dr Lukasz Olejnik, independent security and privacy researcher and consultant.
This builds on Apple’s efforts announced in 2017 to restrict web cookies, which also allow advertising companies to track users across the internet.
“Put simply, there are two big classes of tracking: cookies and fingerprinting,” added Olejnik. “It appears that Apple has set a goal to go after all techniques that may be used in third-party tracking. It’s an arms race and I believe Apple may be winning.”