How I use Screen Time on iOS 12 to Fight iPhone Distraction

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I’ve previously written on Smart Phones and Distraction and How to make your iPhone read Kindle books to you. I also recently gave my picks for the top 10 iPhone apps for Christians. In light of this, some might say I write too much about the iPhone. But I’ve just got to talk about this new Screen Time feature in iOS 12.

Apple has just released the latest version of their iOS operating system for iPhones, iPads, et al (full feature list). While there are many exciting new features in iOS 12, the feature which most excites me is called Screen Time.

Screen Time promo image
Designed for parents to use with their kids, Screen Time offers help for adults too.

According to Apple, “Screen Time helps give you a better understanding of the time you and your kids spend using apps, visiting websites, and on your devices overall.”

Here’s the full list of Screen Time features:

iOS 12 Screen Time feature list.

Now, I’m not sure that Screen Time was designed specifically for Christian productivity. It seems like it might be more about empowering parents to manage how their kids use their devices. And that’s really great! But methinks there’s a lot of potential help for adults here too. For productive Christians on the fence about switching from a smartphone to a dumb phone because of distraction, Apple may have just handed us an answer.

Here are a few ways Screen Time can help you in your quest for Christian productivity.

Screen Time Helps in Self-Assessing

When someone asks me how they can become more productive with their time, I give them an assignment. The first thing I recommend is to carry around a notepad for a week. On that notepad, I tell them, write down how you spend every single hour of your day. Sleeping, eating, what you’re doing at work each hour, and most importantly how you spend your leisure time.

After this exercise is done and the numbers are tallied up, people are usually shocked by how many hours they throw away to television, Facebook, or other unproductive activities. There is a problem, however, with this type of assessment. Though we may log a lot of hours in our notebooks for “on the computer” or “on iPhone,” it is difficult to analyze exactly how we are using that Screen Time.

Good & Bad Screen Time

Services like Rescue Time have offered some help in assessing how we spend our time on the computer. But when it comes to the iPhone, there has been no good way to tally up exactly which apps are being used for how long. And that’s a problem.

Some screen time is wasted time, but some of it is actually very productive. I may spend an hour on my phone, but if I’m listening to audiobooks, or writing blog posts in Ulysses, or reading on my Bible app, that’s good. I don’t want to necessarily cut down on positive screen time.

That is why I love this first Screen Time feature. Even if you don’t want to use any of the Screen Time restrictions, just having the data on how you are using your time on your phone can be incredibly beneficial.

Screen Time dashboard on iOS 12

In the Screen Time activity report apps are chunked into categories and plotted on a colored bar graph based on how much time you have given to each. At a glance, you can get a general sense of how many minutes a day you are dedicating to “social media” versus “productivity.”

This is really helpful data for assessing the productivity of my time on my phone. But Screen Time offers so much more than just self-assessment is can also help us to be self-limiting with our phones.

Screen Time Helps in Self-Limiting

For my purposes, I like that Screen Time gives me… let’s call it self-control assistance.

Like digital crutches for the fruit of the Spirit, Screen Time offers granular controls to limit access to certain apps, types of content, or to almost the entire phone for a set period of time.

The Screen Time menu on iOS 12
The four main features of Screen Time are Downtime, App Limits, Always Allowed, and Content & Privacy Restrictions.


The first option you will see is Downtime. This allows you to schedule a certain duration for which your phone is almost entirely unusable.

Menu for Downtime feature in Screen Time on iOS 12
Downtime leaves the ability for you to receive and send phone calls, and it also will leave on any apps you specify in “Always Available”

I’ve chosen to limit my access to my phone between 6:00 PM and 7:00 AM. I really don’t want to be on my phone after work or in the morning when I’m going through my morning routine.

App Limits

Another great feature I’ve been using to help keep myself focused without eliminating the use of my iPhone entirely is App Limits. This feature allows users to set a daily time limit for certain app categories. It is like Downtime but much more granular.

App Limits menu in Screen Time on iOS 12
I put a 1-hour restriction on social networking and entertainment. So apps like Facebook and Twitter will be inaccessible after an hour of use. And after an hour of YouTube and Netflix the entertainment group will be inaccessible also.

The number tallies up throughout the day—5 minutes here, 17 minutes there, but when you hit that 1-hour mark, you cannot access the apps in that category without using the Screen Time passcode (which is different from your normal phone passcode). I talk more about strategies for managing your Screen Time passcode at the end of the article.

iOS 11 had some limited restriction ability. But one of the problems I ran into with my previous iPhone strategy was that I would block certain distracting websites or leave the apps off the phone entirely. But when I needed to look up how to videos for fixing my car on YouTube for example—a very productive use of YouTube!—I was out of luck.

Setting an app limit allows me to have these normally distracting apps, but just add that extra obstacle in case I’m tempted to use them too much.

Always Allowed

The always allowed section works in conjunction with Downtime. It gives you the option to exempt certain apps from being disabled during downtime. So, even if you selected to disable all social media apps during a certain time, if you had Twitter in your always allowed list, it would still work during downtime.

List of Always Allowed apps in the Screen Time feature of iOS 12

I left a few apps on there that were more crucial as well as some of the more noble apps I use. So even if I do use the phone during Downtime at least I’m reading the Bible or a Kindle book.

Longer list of Always Allowed apps in the Screen Time feature of iOS 12
This is the rest of my Always Allowed list.

Content & Privacy Restrictions

The last section of Screen Time is the content & privacy restrictions area which allows you to restrict what you have access to all the time. This was available in some form in previous versions of iOS. I haven’t really touched any of this except for the web content settings.

Content Restrictions menu in Screen Time on iOS 12

You should definitely set Web Content to “Limit Adult Websites” I can’t think of a good reason for a Christian not to use this feature. You can also select certain sites to whitelist or blacklist. I blocked Reddit because it’s just a time sink for me. I’m sure there will be other sites I add to this list in the future.

Web Content menu in Screen Time on iOS 12

This is a strategy of exclusion, but the allows you to also use a strategy of inclusion. You can set up web content to only allow certain specific websites that you specify in the allow list. If you find yourself mindlessly surfing the web on your phone this may be a good option for you.

How to Make Screen Time Work for You

So, those are the basics. Now I want to talk about how to use this new feature strategically. Here’s what I’ve tried so far.

At first, I blocked everything, and that got ridiculous fast. Might as well get rid of the phone entirely. So, now I’ve set it up as I described above. But one thing I haven’t decided on yet is how I am really going to keep myself honest.

Currently, I know the Screen Time password, so if I want to use an app, I just type it in. It’s kind of a hassle, but it’s a pretty low fence, to be honest.

It’s definitely helped a little, because even the prompt to enter the password at least serves as second conscience which asks “do you really want to waste time on that?”

I think after a bit more trial and error I will have my settings just how I want them. At that point, I will have my wife change the Screen Time password. Just so I have the added inconvenience of having to bother her to use the apps which are not really beneficial to me anyway. I’ll let you know how that works.

Remember, you want to make discipline as simple as possible while adding as many obstacles to distraction as you can.

What about you? Have you tried Screen Time yet? Any tips on how to best utilize this new tool for Christian productivity?

To read more on fighting iPhone distraction checkout Smartphones and Distraction: Sheathing the Double-Edge Sword.

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