How can a parent effectively manage how their kids use a smartphone or tablet and get them to disconnect at appropriate times, like during meals? Using gentle coercion? Bribery? A series of ropes attached to wild horses?
A new app for Android phones and tablets called TimeAway wants to make it easier for parents to set up perimeter fences on their kids’ digital ramblings. Once installed on both a parent’s and a child’s devices, it allows Mom or Dad to do a lot of things: monitor and control device usage and app downloads; pause all devices for family events, like dinner time; set time limits for specific apps; set schedules for when kids should be doing homework or sleeping, and even block some apps that cause concern, like Snapchat.
TimeAway is made by Tamara Sanderson, an American now living in Singapore and working at Google. “I’m still at Google and was given the OK to go ahead with my app from our compliance team and my manager,” she explains. “This is my first venture, but I’m working on more at the moment.”
Sanderson says she came up with the idea when she noticed, during one of her amateur street photographer walkabouts in Singapore (she took the top photo in this article), something about what everyone around her was doing, even the kids. She explains:
Last year I was taking photos around Marina Bay Sands and couldn’t find anyone not on their phones or tablets. Everyone was physically together, but mentally separated. As a Googler, I believe in the awesome powers of the internet and our mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible, but at the same time, I think it’s just as important to have a balance between our offline and online world.
I started exploring this problem with friends and realized it was especially an issue for parents. Parents want to give their kids phones or tablets for educational opportunities and general safety – such as having Google Maps and a phone on them – but also want to prevent addiction and social isolation. I created TimeAway to solve that problem.
A new concern for “device mindfulness”
Kids are smarter with smart devices than most adults, so can’t they just delete the app from their devices or find some other subterfuge? But Sanderson has thought of that. “TimeAway is installed on both the parent and kid device and can not be removed from the kid device without the parent password,” she says. “TimeAway also locks the phone settings, so the kid cannot circumvent the time restrictions by changing the timezone. Only the parent can access the phone settings with their password.”
Sanderson recommends parents “make a verbal agreement about phone or tablet usage and then use TimeAway to enforce that verbal agreement.”
TimeAway is free right now in order to gather feedback from early users, but Sanderson is weighing up ways to monetize the app.
The Googler was recently accepted into the summer class of the Founder Institute and is working on more apps aimed at what she calls “device mindfulness”. The next one is BeAway, which is similar to TimeAway except that it’s to help adults control and set boundaries on their own digital usage. How will that be enforced? BeAway will get users to set commitments and if those are broken, the user must pay, Sanderson explains, a nominal fee to a charity or to an accountability partner, such as a spouse or friend. She’s already got Kiva as the partner charity for the app. BeAway should be out early this fall.
Parents, TimeAway is free for Android. Kids, it’s time to brush up on your password hacking skills.