Grace introduces privacy-focused parental controls for iOS devices built with Apple's Screen Time API

Grace introduces privacy-focused parental controls for iOS devices built with Apple’s Screen Time API

A new startup called Grace is launching to make it easier for parents to monitor and manage their kids’ screen time and app usage on iOS devices. Although Apple offers built-in parental controls, many parents would prefer an app-based solution rather than having to dig around in settings for Apple’s tools. In addition, Grace offers more customization options for children’s screen schedules. For example, Apple’s controls allow parents to only configure “downtime” start and stop times, rather than specifying other times when they want to limit app usage, like school hours, family dinners, homework time, and more.

Grace also stands out for being one of the first to feature Apple’s Screen Time API, which was unveiled at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference last year. The new API allows developers to create an interface that works with Apple’s built-in tools to extend their functionality.

To use Grace, parents install the app on both their own devices and their children’s iPhones or iPads. You can then configure a variety of screen time controls remotely in an intuitive interface, including things like daily screen time limits, app time limits, in-app purchase limits, and can block time-wasting apps, among others. Helpfully, they can also create Screen Schedules that better reflect a family’s own rules about how and when children should be using their devices.

Photo credit: Gracefulness

For example, if you want to block TikTok and Snapchat both at bedtime and during school hours, there’s no way to do it today using just Apple’s own tools. Instead, Apple’s Screen Time controls allow parents to set time-based app limits, or “downtime” — a time when kids can only use parent-approved apps and communicate with those they’ve allowed, like Mom or Dad, via phone calls and texts. In practice, this means parents can configure downtime to start at bedtime and extend into the night to prevent kids from staying up late on their devices, or they can choose to only use it during the school day to activate. In any case, this solution does not fully meet the needs of the family.

Grace, on the other hand, allows parents to create all kinds of schedules for their kids, not just a downtime schedule. That means parents can limit screen time for different types of apps at different times. At school, kids might be allowed to access educational apps and the web browser, but maybe not entertainment apps, social media, or games. All distractions could be eliminated during the family dinner. Parents may also want to configure other screen schedules related to their own family rules, like bedtime routines, screen-free weekends, vacations, or anything else they choose.

Photo credit: Gracefulness

Another benefit of Grace is that it offers improved website blocking with built-in filters that automatically block over 50,000 adult, gambling, gun, alcohol and drug related websites, and this list is updated regularly. Apple’s own Screen Time tools only focus on blocking adult websites.

Grace also adds quick action buttons that parents can use to pause restrictions (“Pause”) or block all apps (“Lock phone”) without having to turn off Screen Time settings entirely. Any parent using Apple’s Screen Time will understand the benefit here. Oftentimes, families find themselves in a situation where the usual rules are suspended — such as when the child stays up late at a slumber party, when it’s school holidays, when they’re home sick, or when they’ve earned extra screen time, some sort of compensation scheme, among other things. But at other times, parents might want to ground a child by restricting access to their device — but don’t actually need to take the phone away, as it’s also a way for them to communicate in an emergency. However, banning you from all apps would serve as punishment.

Photo credit: Gracefulness

Grace’s app was created by co-founders Liana Khanova (product and design) and Salavat Khanov (software development), both of whom bring relevant experience to their new venture. Khanova previously worked on her startup, which focused on reducing children’s phone addiction by engaging in interactive children’s books that use AR. Khanov had worked on the ad blocker and privacy tool 1Blocker. They find that their new app is bootstrapped and completely independent.

The team hopes Apple will update the API so they can be even more competitive with the built-in Screen Time tools. They said that today the API is not able to show users how much time they have left and how much time they have used. They’d also like to see an improved app picker – like the one offered by Apple with a search box. And they want the API to also provide the ability to set communication limits like Apple’s own tools can.

“Despite all these limitations, I think this solution is still better for parental controls compared to MDM-based apps,” Khanova said of why Grace is a better option over existing apps that use MDM solutions because of an early workaround missing API access used by third party Screen Time tools. “[MDM apps’] Servers could be hacked and sensitive data could be leaked — like your kid’s phone number, websites visited, search queries, installed apps, etc. The attacker could also wipe the device remotely,” she said. Also, “these companies can collect a lot of data and sell it to advertisers,” Khanova warned.

Photo credit: Gracefulness

Screen time management tools for iOS have a complicated history.

Shortly after the release of iOS 12 in 2018, Apple introduced its own built-in Screen Time tracking tools and controls. But the tech giant then began a widespread crackdown on third-party apps that implemented their own Screen Time systems, saying those apps did so in a way that compromised users’ privacy. The earlier apps had come up with creative solutions to meet users’ parental control needs – like using VPNs or MDM (mobile device management) technologies – the latter were designed for enterprise use, not consumer-facing apps. MDM-based tools could access a device’s location, control app usage, and set various permissions—all useful for locking down employee devices. However, Apple argued that the same tools posed a risk to children’s privacy. While it was right, it was also unfair to immediately stop these companies from continuing to operate once their own first-party solution became available, instead of allowing them to transition to a more secure solution like an API.

Not to mention that Apple had given the same Screen Time apps and their subsequent updates the green light for years, allowing developers to build businesses that were then destroyed by Apple’s policy changes. Apple CEO Tim Cook was even questioned about the decision during an antitrust hearing before Congress in July 2020, where the chief executive again defended the decision in the context of consumer privacy.

Apple’s solution was the eventual release of a Screen Time API in 2021 that would allow developers to build on top of Apple’s existing capabilities in a secure, MDM-free way. It was arguably the type of technology to be introduced Next policy enforcement, rather than years later.

Now that it’s available, apps like Grace can emerge without fear of removal.

Additionally, at the recent Apple Worldwide Developer Conference, the company unveiled some new Screen Time API capabilities, including the ability to display application and device usage data in a more privacy-friendly way, which Grace says it will use to draw charts and show activities that are similar to Apple’s own Screen Time system. It’s also now possible to manage screen time and restrictions not just within a parent-child relationship, but for yourself as well — another capability Grace plans to adopt later this fall.

Grace will also later introduce lock screen widgets to see how much screen time kids have been using, new app shortcuts for quick actions, and support for the Mac.

Grace is currently a free download with advanced features available through a $19.99/year subscription.

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