I took a deep breath and handed my husband my phone. “Here goes nothing,” I thought. He typed in his Google password, and that was it – fairly painless, yet somehow annoyingly shameful. “No one has to know, I guess,” even though I knew I would overshare this new personal endeavor with my friends and family within the hour.
I’ve been on a quest for screen health for over two years now. I’ve tried focus apps, a dumb phone, a minimalist phone, deleting social media, a phone key, and now my latest experiment: parental controls. All of them have their strengths and weaknesses, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the best tools to combat screen addiction are the ones you actually use.
“I don’t need a mini-computer, I need a phone,” was my mantra while I was trying out the Light Phone II, but it turns out that mine is one of the few professions that specifically needs a mini-computer: mom. As a nursing mother with two preschoolers underfoot, I need to be able to do things one-handed, and most likely with voice-to-text enabled, or I end up not doing them.
Why I’m Trying Parental Controls
I’m trying out Google’s Parental Controls because, quite simply, I only have one life, and to experience it well, I need to have ample time in the real, raw, visceral, physical present. I’m also aware of the significant drawbacks of the overuse of screens; researchers continue to print bleak outlooks on the effect that unchecked screen time has on our physical and mental health. Coupling that with my own anecdotal evidence of being strung out and horrible to be around when I’m interrupted during a screen binge on my phone, I understand the need to take control and get on with my life. But there are parts of smartphone usage that help me do just that: taking control of and moving on with my life.
I only have one life, and to experience it well, I need to have ample time in the raw, visceral present.
Certain apps have been life-changing for me: Instacart makes me less likely to pawn grocery shopping off on my husband coming home from work, America’s Test Kitchen helps me get food on the table for my family when I’m staring blankly into my fridge, and Google Maps takes one or two stressful steps out of outings so I can save my energy for car seat wrangling. Then there’s FatSecret, which is the only way I’ve been able to stick to calorie counting, and Google Duo that connects us with family far away. Could I technically use all of these services on a laptop? Yes. Could I do them one-handed with one free thumb? No.
What about all the smartphone features that you’ve forgotten don’t exist on a dumb phone? Things like the swipe-able QWERTY keyboard, voice-to-text, group texting, sending photos, GIFs, and videos through text, conference calling, transcribed voicemails, setting multiple alarms, having a useable camera for photos and video, calendar reminders, and did I mention voice-to-text? And then there are the social media apps like Instagram and TikTok and the various recording and editing apps I use to promote my band.
At one point I thought the answer to staying present was deleting all social media, but since moving into the position of creator, as opposed to lurker, I’ve realized that phone locked time limits would help me prioritize using these apps as powerful promotional tools first, and then I could use the leftover time within the limit to enjoy minimal distraction.
I come downstairs visibly annoyed. “I need your phone,” I say curtly to my husband. He raises his eyebrow and sighs; he’s growing tired of my tinkering with the “particulars” of this experiment. Silently, I thank God that I have such a patient, phlegmatic, kind husband who only pretends to “lord it over me” as a joke. It makes being vulnerable way easier when I know that my husband would be super annoyed if he had to see me as any less than an equal, because who has time for a kid that’s not an actual kid? He’s got enough of those as it is.
My “accountability buddy” is standing right next to me, which makes me less likely to throw in the towel.
I go to the parental control app settings and add 10 minutes to the limit on Instagram so that I can post the reel that I had been finishing up as it timed out. This is one of the benefits of this type of tool, personal engagement. There’s something about Google’s command, “Go find your parent,” every time I want to use an app after the limit has expired that makes me throw up a little in my mouth, and I think really hard about whether or not it’s worth it. Also, the fact that my “accountability buddy” is standing right next to me makes me less likely to throw in the towel and remove all restrictions when I make small allowances like this.
My Current “Parental” Control Settings
I’ll say this for Google, the parental controls are surprisingly well thought out. There are options for parental check-ins before downloading apps, before in-app purchases, and before signing in on any other devices, so you can track there too if needed. These were unnecessary for my purposes, so I turned them all off on my husband’s phone. You can block or add time limits to individual apps, as well as a daily limit on overall screen time, and a daily schedule such that the phone locks during the “off” hours (and only allows for emergency calling).
Currently, I have YouTube and Chrome blocked. The Google Search Bar is unblockable on my Pixel 6, but this works perfectly for me. I’m prone to rabbit-hole “research,” so this allows me to get my pressing questions about FedEx’s store hours, the latest on the Marilyn Manson sexual allegations, or neck moles answered by whatever comes up on the Google search page, but if I want to visit any of the links that come up I have to use my computer. I suppose I could get around this by downloading another search engine’s app, but the different interfaces are just annoying enough that I haven’t done that yet. If I feel tempted to do this in the future I can block them on my husband’s phone. Not having full access to a search engine also means that if someone sends me a link, I have to email it to myself, but I’ve grown used to this inconvenience.
The best tools to combat screen addiction are the ones you actually use.
I used to have Instagram (my Achilles heel) blocked, but because I can’t upload reels or stories for my band on the Instagram computer app, I chose to do a daily limit instead. Currently, both Instagram and TikTok are set at one hour. I don’t have an overall daily limit for screen time set, but I do use the schedule. I know that at 9pm exactly, my phone will lock and say “Time for Bed, Come back at 6 am,” which helps me to get an hour of winding down and one-on-one time with my husband without blue light before bedtime. And this is a very comprehensive lock system. I do not even get notified of texts or calls after 9pm, and only receive them in the morning when my phone unlocks.
I’ve been using husband-as-proxy parental controls on my phone for about three months now, and I don’t think I’ll be stopping anytime soon. I enjoy the ease in being able to do the things I need to do, like online grocery shopping and answering the eternal question “What’s for dinner?”, as well as having the flexibility and power to promote my music, capture precious moments, and “see” family. The blocks and limits help me avoid unnecessary rabbit-holes on Google, mindless scrolling, and video-watching, while the apps I’ve intentionally chosen help me avoid going off my diet or driving in the wrong direction down the highway for an hour (yes, I’ve done this).
I like that this method is completely customizable, but doesn’t rely solely on my own willpower, because my husband either gets a notification or needs to input his password with every change I make. This amount of oversight is barely noticeable most days, but truthfully, not wanting to fail in front of him is what keeps me from giving in. I’m sure I’ll be making tweaks to avoid the ever-increasing options my mini-computer provides to escape from real life, but overall, having everything I need at my fingertips, and nothing that I don’t, feels refreshing and sustainable.
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