The Questions Awaken

A few weeks ago my 6-year-old daughter watched The Force Awakens for the first time (she loved it!) I suspected she might have a few questions during the movie, so I wrote down every single one she asked and then did some text analysis on them just for fun.

Here is the full list of questions she asked me:

  • Why does Kylo Ren have a mask and cloak like Vader?
  • Why?
  • What’s a whereabout?
  • Is that an X-Wing, Daddy?
  • Is that a Luggabeast?
  • What’s that?
  • What’s that thing?
  • Is that Kylo Ren?
  • Is that big Kylo Ren?
  • What’s that Daddy?
  • What’s that little monster that peeked out from the fan?
  • What’s that Daddy?
  • What’s that?
  • Is that Rey?
  • Is that Rey Daddy?
  • Does Rey live on a hill of the sand?
  • Where are the people who trade her for food?
  • Why does she have a whole board of marks?
  • Why does she have that?
  • What’s that Daddy?
  • What is that place Dada?
  • Where did Poe go Daddy?
  • Did Rey find the old TIE fighter and fix it?
  • What was FN2187’s name before he joined the First Order ?
  • Is Finn taking off all his Storm Trooper stuff now?
  • Is he going towards Rey’s little cabin?
  • Is that the town where Rey lives?
  • Why does his voice have to sound muffled?
  • Where’s my tiny little flamingo?
  • Why are there so many weird little monsters?
  • What is that Daddy?
  • Why are those guys trying to capture Rey and the droid? 
  • Is that the guy who trades Rey for food?
  • Where’s Maz?
  • How did it go dark?
  • Did it run out of battery?
  • Huh?
  • What’s he now?
  • Is that the cargo they took aboard the Millennium Falcon?
  • Is that the Guavian Death Gang?
  • Is that the place for hurt people?
  • Do the gangs belong to Snoke and Kylo Ren?
  • Where is the part where Rey becomes the Jedi ?
  • Is that Earth daddy?
  • What if the old Star Destroyer blew up that Earth?
  • What’s that, Daddy?
  • Why does Maz have so many weird creatures in her castle?
  • Who was the guy in the black suit?
  • What did he say?
  • Is she pretending to live in Maz’s castle?
  • Is that Vader?
  • Where’s Leia again?
  • Does Finn go to the rebel base?
  • What was that thing that was doing that thing like an elephant?
  • Where is she?
  • Is that Luke’s old lightsaber case?
  • Is that the super weapon?
  • Where are they taking Finn?
  • What does that light do?
  • Dad where are the X-Wings?
  • Is Poe the rebel who took Luke’s old X-Wing?
  • Who’s flying the Falcon?
  • Whose ship is that?
  • What’s that fire?
  • What was that golden Storm Trooper?
  • But what’s its name?
  • But why is she golden instead of white?
  • Does Luke die?
  • Does Luke die in the Last Jedi?
  • Is Padme in this one?
  • Was she in Revenge of the Sith?
  • How did she die?
  • Does this really happen?
  • What’s that beeping noise?
  • Where are they?
  • What’s Chewie doing?
  • And why does Chewie have to have that strap on him?
  • Are all those red spots the explosive charges?
  • Why did Rey have to take Finn’s jacket?
  • And Finn wasn’t?
  • Are they blowing up the planet with Luke?
  • When does Chewie come in?
  • Is Kylo Ren alive?
  • Is Luke at the top?
  • Is Luke at the very very top?

The Sad State of Parental Controls on Apple iOS

A few weeks ago I wrote about the bad shape of parental controls on Amazon Fire tablets, but it would be a mistake to assume Apple does much better with iOS. In fact, in some ways Apple is still far behind Amazon on this front, but it’s fair to say both companies could stand to invest time in improving the parental control experience.

Back to Apple — if you haven’t dug into this, iOS provides two different methods of controlling device usage:

  • Guided Access: Restricts screen time and device controls (volume, sleep, keyboard, touch), but locks the user in to a single app.
  • Restrictions: Controls which system apps and settings are accessible. Can also limit movie, TV, book, app, and Siri content by rating levels.

In the end, neither is ideal for our primary use case: allow some freedom, but ultimately control overall screen time and which applications are accessible.

I will admit that when the kids were super young (let’s say one – three-ish-years-old) Guided Access was a really great approach for the times we wanted to deliver a bit of screen time. You could open an app geared towards identifying colors, shapes, numbers, or barnyard animals and lock them into that single app for a specified period of time. They stayed in that app no matter which buttons they clicked or how they tried to mash the screen, and the volume never changed. It was a great option for that age.

But as they’ve grown older we’ve found Guided Access to be too restrictive, and the native Restrictions feature to be too open-ended. I think Restrictions probably makes a lot of sense for a teenager audience when the device is something they can always access, but we’re far from that point and it definitely doesn’t meet our needs right now.

Major Leaps Forward

I think there are two key improvements Apple could make to really enhance the current experience.

Overall Screen Time Limits

This already exists in Guided Access and should also be a feature of Restrictions for the younger age groups. I know Amazon uses the different user profiles to count usage and that iOS doesn’t have a multi-user concept, but I think it would be feasible to expose a daily time restriction which could be temporarily overridden with a PIN entry. Or even have this work the same way Guided Access does today and let the parent start the timer for a specified duration, but allow the user to switch apps.

Flexible Content Restrictions

I know this sounds like an oxymoron, but this where where I think Apple could leapfrog (that’s a parental pun) Amazon. The Fire tablet content restrictions are done simply by type — where books, video, and apps are your only separation points. What I ultimately want is the ability to group applications myself and then set time restrictions on those groups.

For example, it would be great to assign different daily time limits to each of these:

  • Games which are just for fun and don’t provide much educational value.
  • Apps which the parents believe help develop reading, writing or math.
  • Apps which are just eBooks or eBook readers we’ve populated with content.

An overall screen time limit is a good start, but it’s not helpful if the kids just spend the entire allotment cutting hair (they love those Toca Boca hair salon apps for some reason.) I’m okay letting them play that for a bit, but I’d like the ability to funnel them back towards books or apps like Endless Numbers when fun time ends. A crude way to do this would be time limits by app folders, but I’d take anything at this point.

The most critical piece here is to allow parents the ability to define these groups of apps because the groupings are going to vary from family to family and can’t just be defined by a content type third-party rating. What Apple (or the developer) believes to qualify as educational or useful in the App Store isn’t going to be consistent across each family. We love a lot of the PBS programming, but crap like the whiny Calliou kid doesn’t fly in our house even though it technically has the same content rating as other shows we do allow.

Nitpicking

As we explored using an old iPad Mini 4 (the best!) as the primary kid device I ran into a few quirks which definitely aren’t dealbreakers, but sure were annoying and caught me by surprise.

Restrictions Reset

You can turn Restrictions on or off as needed, but the specific settings you select will reset each time. There are 42 (!) different options to configure as of this writing, and you’ll need to redo all of them each time you disable and re-enable Restrictions at the top level.

Fun fact: one of the restrictions you can enable is to block App Store downloads. In order to download a new app you might naturally choose to temporarily disable Restrictions at the top level, which means you have to reset all of your other Restrictions when you turn them back on. It’s a vicious cycle which could be solved if iOS remembered your previous settings.

Touch ID Access Levels

I wanted the kids to be able to use Touch ID to access the iPad — the amount of food on their sticky fingers usually prevents this from working and provides an additional checkpoint — so it wasn’t totally open to anyone, but enrolling their fingerprint automatically meant they could access my entire 1Password vault since the app is not controlled by the Restrictions feature. I needed 1Password to be there so I could paste my Apple ID password as needed, but I also wanted to make sure the kids couldn’t get at that app and somehow trash all of our saved login information. I ultimately disabled Touch ID usage in the 1Password app settings, but that just meant I had to type my ridiculous master password every time I wanted to get at my Apple ID password to install a new app. It just feels like a step back after becoming accustomed to using Touch ID for everything. I’m not sure what the cleanest way to solve this problem is, but maybe have an option for which apps can use Touch ID when Restrictions are enabled?

After going through this process with both a Kindle Fire and iPad I’m really hopeful that Apple can move ahead in this space with iOS 12 or 13. I don’t think Amazon has much incentive to provide more granularity within the FreeTime Unlimited product and expect their inflexible controls will remain as-is for the foreseeable future. If Apple can provide parents — especially those who have already invested in the Apple ecosystem with multiple iPhones or iPads in the house — with more flexible controls, I think there’s a market which will see value in the higher price point for a low-end iPad over a Fire tablet which requires new accounts, apps, and management.

Hope these two articles helped out!

The Sad State of Parental Controls on Amazon Fire Tablets

I’m truly curious if the team responsible for designing the Amazon Fire tablet parental controls has any parents on staff because the current iteration of their work is downright terrible. I’m no expert — our kids are just getting to the point where I’m starting to pay attention to these safety nets — but it seems like it should be way easier than what Amazon provides today.

This January we allowed our kids (almost 4 and almost 6) to use their Christmas money to each purchase a Kids Edition Amazon Kindle Fire 7. The Kids Edition comes with a generous warranty for any damage and one year of Amazon’s FreeTime Unlimited Service — a huge library of books, videos, and apps/games for kids. After we brought the tablets home and opened up the boxes I got to work trying to configure what we thought were a reasonable set of restrictions:

  • Tablet usage is limited each day both by overall screen time and time of day.
  • The kids can use the allotted screen time to read as many books as they want.
  • Specific educational games or apps can be used during that overall screen time period for a more limited set of time.
  • Videos are available only when Mom and Dad want to allow it.

We thought this would be pretty easy to accomplish. We thought wrong.

A lot of the problems stem from two terrible design decisions around Amazon’s time and content controls which I’ll detail here.

Time Restrictions

The Fire makes a decent effort at providing a way to manage tablet usage and gives you two options:

  • An overall limit for all screen time, inclusive of all activities.
  • Time limits broken down by activity type — reading books, watching videos, or using apps/games.

The second option looks appealing, but Amazon decided the limits in this mode should be additive. So you can specify kids can read books for 60 minutes and use apps/games for 30, but that grants 90 minutes of total screen time. There’s no way to set an overall limit of 60 minutes and also restrict a specific activity like apps/games to be only a 30 minute subset of the overall limit.

Cramming thousands of kids books into a small portable device was the primary reason we allowed the purchase, but we incorrectly assumed we could find a way to let the kids have some control over how they spent their screen time. We figured they could use as much of the screen time as they wanted for books, but optionally use up to 30 minutes for approved apps/games.

The problems with the time limitations are annoying, but there are some pretty obvious workarounds for fixing those gaps:

  • Fiddle with the timers whenever you hand the tablet over to the kid each day.
  • Set your own timer on a phone and physically take the device away after the time ends.

Both are fairly inconvenient for a product which already has time restrictions built in, but it’s a workable solution. The bigger problem is in how Amazon FreeTime content restrictions work.

Content Restrictions

This is where it really hurts. Amazon provides 3 ways to manage the content your kid can access during screen time:

  • Smart filters: These allow you to select an age range for the content Amazon considers appropriate to show to your kid. I’ll pass.
  • Add Content: You can select books, videos, or apps/games already installed on the Fire tablet and publish it to the kid’s profile. They’ll see that content available within the FreeTime application.
  • Remove Content: Allows you to remove content you’ve added via the Add Content feature, or remove unwanted FreeTime Unlimited items.

In our case we wanted to remove a lot pretty much all of the FreeTime Unlimited app/game content so I dug into the Remove Content feature.

Here’s where I think Amazon started down the wrong path: instead of picking which FreeTime Unlimited apps you want to allow the kids to play, you have to select which ones you don’t want them to use. Okay, fine. That’s mildly infuriating, but I can live with it.

And here’s where it all goes to hell: there are over a thousand apps available and there is no “Select All” option. That means the poor parent who wants to vet and pick a few approved apps or games has to individually select and exclude every other app they don’t want to show. And let’s face it — the Fire doesn’t have the most responsive screen so excluding all that unwanted content will literally take hours of your time. This action also has to be repeated regularly as Amazon adds new content to the FreeTime Unlimited library.

Fuck.

Okay — maybe there’s a way to use the Add Content feature to select specific FreeTime Unlimited content you want to allow, right? Nope. You’re welcome to browse the Store for additional kids games or apps, but there’s no way to access the content already included within the FreeTime Unlimited subscription.

Apps/games you push to the kid profile via the Add Content option are also not differentiated from the FreeTime Unlimited Content. So while I might find an app from the Store which I want my kid to use within the device time limits, you still have to manually exclude all the FreeTime Unlimited content. Apps/games you manually push into their profile are subject to the same restrictions as FreeTime Unlimited apps/games.

How Amazon Can Fix This

It’s not hard. Amazon has the right intent, but can significantly improve the quality of their controls with a few changes (and by hiring some actual parents):

  1. FreeTime Unlimited content should have an option to disable all content unless manually approved. Essentially the exact opposite of how it works today, but this would make managing the FreeTime Unlimited content significantly easier. At least give us the option.
  2. Allow parents to set an overall screen time limit and a breakdown by activity type. This allows parents to control the maximum amount of screen time — arguably the most important control — and also provide rails for how kids use that time.
  3. FreeTime Unlimited content management should be separated from the books, videos, and apps/games the parents manually add. For example, I might want to allow my kid to play the educational games I personally added for up to 30 minutes, but I only want them to be able to play those half-assed Dora the Explorer FreeTime Unlimited games for up to 15 minutes.