Why did Apple hobble parent control apps?



Last December I reviewed a number of options for parents looking to manage their kids’ screen time. One of the options that struck me as most useful was OurPact, an app that allows parents to limit their kids’ phone use by setting time limits, bed times, completely restricting certain apps, etc.  Or at least, OurPact used to be able to do these things, before Apple took those abilities away.

OurPact is not the only app to be affected by this – several parental control apps have been restricted or removed since Apple released their own screen monitoring app last year.

Apple puts third-party screen time apps on notice

From TechCrunch:

A number of app developers building third-party screen time trackers and parental control applications are worried that Apple’s increased scrutiny of their apps in recent weeks is not a coincidence. With Apple’s launch of iOS 12, the company has implemented its own built-in screen time tracking tools and controls. Not long after, developers’ third-party screen time apps came under increased review from Apple, and, in some cases, rejections and removals from the App Store.

One case in point is OurPact (specifically, its OurPact Jr. product), an app that leverages MDM technology to allow parents to control if and when kids can use certain apps on their phone, block texting, filter the web and much more. Its apps — one designed for the parent and the other for the child — have been live for four years. OurPact now says that Apple will no longer allow the company to use MDM for its purposes.

“Our team has received confirmation from Apple that managing application access and content outside of iOS Screen Time will not be permitted in the Apple device ecosystem,” says Amir Moussavian of OurPact parent company Eturi Corp., in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “It’s incredibly disappointing that Apple is choosing to dissolve the iOS parental control market at a time when childhood and adolescent screen time management is finally being understood as a necessity.”

The issue with this change is that Apple’s new app seems much less usable than the OurPact app that was available previously.  With OurPact, you could control your kids’ phone from anywhere.  Your kid is at a friend’s house and you decide to change his phone settings – no problem at all.  Maybe you decide to give your kid an extra hour of TV time because tomorrow is a holiday – no problem.  Or your child has a big project or test to prepare for, so you decide to block the whole phone for the night – easily done.

But with the Apple Screen Time app you can only make changes by physically holding your kids’ phone in your hands, and making changes through the phone’s general settings.  That may still be useful, but not nearly as useful as the apps it is replacing.

There are a few reasons why Apple may have made these changes.  These parent control apps had to use workarounds to function, and often violated Apple’s terms and service by doing so.  So it might just be a way of making sure everyone is in line with Apple’s rules.

Again from TechCrunch:

Some of the developers, we understand, were told they were in violation of App Store developer guideline 2.5.4, which specifies when multitasking apps are allowed to use background location. Specifically, developers were told they were “misusing background location mode for purposes other than location-related features.”

Others were told their app violated developer guideline 2.5.1, which references using public APIs in an unapproved manner.

But it might also be that Apple is just cracking down on apps that duplicate their own new app:

And others, still, were told the way they’ve implemented screen time and parental controls was no longer permitted.

I have not actually compared the effectiveness of the OurPact app with the new Screen Time app with respect to limiting kids’ screen time.  So I could be wrong, and the new app could be just as good or better than the apps that were previously out there.  But it certainly seems like a step back.

As TechCrunch notes, the timing is odd, given the current level of interest in screens and kids’ health.  I was one of the people who were quite pleased that Apple had integrated their Screen Time app within their new iOS.   But this is the moment when we need more, not less, options for parents who want to control their kids’ screen use.

For more details, please read the full TechCrunch piece, available here.

Travis



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