In-depth with Screen Time for MacOS: What it is, who it’s for, and why you should (and shouldn’t) use it

If there’s one issue that’s managed to pull the entire tech community together it’s screen time.

With report after report (after report) connecting screen time to everything from poor sleep, to depression and lower cognitive abilities, every major company has rushed to implement their own solution.  

Apple’s Screen Time is the latest addition to this foray into digital wellness. 

First launched on iOS, Screen Time for MacOS displays your app usage and lets you set time limits and controls. It’s an exciting move from one of the world’s biggest tech companies. But will Screen Time actually help you change your digital habits? 

RescueTime launched over a decade ago to help people understand how they use their devices and build better habits. As one of the original “digital wellness” tools, we decided to do an in-depth review of Screen Time. Who it’s for, what it does well, and where Apple missed the mark. 

The final verdict:

  • Good choice for parents who want to limit certain apps or screen time for children.
  • Poor choice for time management and building better habits. The fact that Screen Time for MacOS doesn’t track specific time spent in apps (even if they’re minimized or in the background) severely limits its use as a time management tool or app for building better habits.
  • Bad for protecting focus. Too easy to ignore app limits.
  • No way to track individual websites or block distracting sites (like Facebook/Twitter/etc…) if you use a browser other than Safari.

Looking for a more powerful Screen Time alternative? Learn more about RescueTime and get started for free!

Screen Time for MacOS: What it is

Screen Time is a simple tool that shows you which apps you’re using on your phone and Mac, how long you’ve used them for, as well as the sites you visit in Safari. (Although, as we point out below, it doesn’t track time spent on each specific app but rather just the total time each app is open).

If you’re up-to-date with the latest version of iOS or MacOS, you can find it under Settings (iOS) or in your Preferences (macOS Catalina). To enable Screen Time, simply head to either of those locations and hit enable.

The goal, as Apple describes it, is to help you “make more informed decisions about how you use your devices and set limits if you’d like to.”  

There are a few key features in Screen Time that help it achieve this. 

Reports: How are you spending your time?

Screen Time’s home screen displays a simple report of how much time you spent on specific apps. You can view daily or weekly usage by app or category (for example, “Google Chrome” or “Productivity”).

Unfortunately, unless you use Safari, you won’t be able to see the specific websites you use but just a block amount of browser time.

App Limits: Block specific apps after you hit your limit

App Limits allow you to set daily, weekly, or customized limits to how much you can use a specific app. You can set these limits up in two ways: 

  1. Use the App Limits button in the sidebar and then “+” to create a new limit
  2. Create an App Limit directly from a report using the Add Limit button

Once you’ve set a limit, you’ll get a notification when you’re 5 minutes away from going over. After the limit is reached, a message will notify you that you’ve hit the limit.

At that point, you can either click OK to block the app or click Ignore to keep using it. 

(For Child accounts, Ignore is replaced by Ask For More Time to send an approval request to their parental account).

Downtime: Schedule App Limits at specific times of the day

You can also schedule specific times where app usage will be blocked or limited using Downtime.

This acts the same way as App Limits but is based on your schedule rather than actual usage.  

Content & Privacy Restrictions

Screen Time can restrict certain actions on your device (or your child’s device) including websites, apps, downloads, or privacy settings.

Screen Time for iOS: Track notifications and pick-ups 

On iOS, Screen Time shows your daily device pickups as well as the number of notifications you’ve received from each app. This is an interesting way to see what apps interrupt your focus the most.   

Who is Screen Time for?

So that’s the basic rundown of how the tool works. See reports and set limits to hopefully change your relationship with your devices.

But while Screen Time is presented as a tool for everyone, after a bit of usage it’s clear that it’s mostly meant for a specific group of users. 

1. Parents who want control over their kid’s device usage

From their marketing material, it’s clear Screen Time was mainly created as an easier way to control your child’s device time.

By creating a Child account, parents can set app limits, track how their kids are using their devices, and block content, purchases, and downloads without approval from your account. 

2. People who need to set hard limits on certain apps (like games)

Screen Time’s app-level blocking is flawed in some ways (which we’ll get into). However, it’s a valid tool for people looking to limit their time on games, news, or other apps they find addicting in nature. 

3. iOS users who want to track individual app usage

On iOS devices, Screen Time is one of the only ways to track individual app usage and time. (We’ve written before about how Apple hasn’t allowed app developers like RescueTime to access this information). 

Where Apple missed the mark with Screen Time

Unless you fit into one of the above categories, Screen Time will probably feel like a bit lacking.

This is by no means a takedown piece on Apple’s Screen Time. But there are some significant inconsistencies between how it was marketed and the reality of using it. 

Whenever a company that makes its money on how much you use their devices or services moves into the digital wellness space it raises some questions. Click To Tweet

After a few weeks with Screen Time on macOS, we noticed a few serious issues:

1. Screen Time tracks the time apps are open, not when you’re actually using them

This was such a glaring issue that it almost felt like a bug. 

Instead of recognizing when you’re actively using an app or site (like RescueTime does), Screen Time counts all time you’re using an app as active time.

In other words, as long as an app is open on your computer, Screen Time adds that time to your report. 

Umm, something doesn’t look right Screentime…

But how many people open and close apps throughout the day as they use them? 

While this might work for things like games or watching Netflix, it makes Screen Time pretty much useless for tracking your behaviors during the workday.

It also means their app time limits are just a race against the clock as soon as an app is opened, not a way to build real habits.

In RescueTime, we only track when you’re focused on specific apps and websites.

This way you get an accurate report on your actual behaviors, can dig into how you use specific apps or how much time you spent on projects, and even see how focused you are on an app at any given time.

Open Day Timer
Day Timers show you how much time you’ve spent on a certain app or activity and how focused you currently are.

There’s no way to see your larger usage trends or actively change your digital habits

While Screen Time’s app blocking—especially Down Time—can help change your device usage, it often feels like a band-aid solution rather than a meaningful way to change your habits.

As Ian Bogost writes in The Atlantic, Apple’s Screen Time not only presents information in a “disorienting” and “complex” way but its approach doesn’t actually help you actively set goals and change your habits:

“This is the worst kind of bathroom-scale experience, one that—for me, at least—just served to make me feel badly rather than to help me identify and realize goals. ‘Here’s some information,’ Screen Time says with a shrug. ‘Up to you to decide what to do with it.’” 

One of the main features of RescueTime is the ability to see in-depth reports of your device usage, productive time, and even specific websites and documents over days, weeks, months, and years.

For example, if I want to understand how I’ve been spending my writing time, I can look at my Google documents by time of day report. This shows me when I was writing, what percentage of my day is spent writing, and tons of other info.

You can then set personalized Goals and Alerts based on your actual usage trends and track your progress over time. 

My monthly Goal view as I try to hit 3 hours of writing a day.

We wanted the app to act more like a personal trainer than an angry gym-class teacher. 

It’s too easy to get around App Limits

Screen Time’s main selling feature is its ability to block apps. But its solution is still not very useful as a tool for changing your behavior (or restricting what your child can do).

The simple Ignore button makes it too easy to not hold yourself accountable to your goals.

While the Washington Post reports that kids are finding easy solutions for getting past App Limits, Downtime, and content restrictions.  

With RescueTime’s FocusTime, you can set your bling for ocked sessions to either be unblocked after a 15-second timer or not at all during focused sessions. 

Choose exactly what gets blocked and if they can be unblocked during a FocusTime session or not.

Screen Time was built as a preference menu item, not a dedicated app

Finally, the implementation of Screen Time on both iOS and macOS makes it clear that Apple sees digital wellness as secondary to how you use your devices.

Rather than a standalone app with a deep feature set, Screen Time is next to Siri and your Bluetooth settings and not even enabled by default. 

So, is Screen Time right for you? 

Whenever a company that makes its money on how much you use their devices or services moves into the digital wellness space it raises some questions.

Are these tools meant as legitimate solutions to a real, growing problem? Or are they simply ticking a box for upset parents, activist investors, and PR execs? 

With Apple’s Screen Time (at least the first version), the jury is still out. 

If you’re interested in a tool like Screen Time, why not give RescueTime a shot? 

We’ve been building tools to help you change your digital habits for the past decade. With millions of happy customers, we think we offer something unique. Start your free trial today.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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