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Apple’s App Crackdown Spells Trouble for Families With Autistic Children

For special needs families, Apple’s own Screen Time feature just doesn’t cut it

Credit: anucha sirivisansuwan/Getty Images

LLast week, the New York Times reported that Apple has taken action against many of the top parental control and screen time management apps: 11 of the 17 most popular apps for managing screen time have either been removed from the App Store outright, or been forced to trim their features at Apple’s request. For parents who rely on those apps to manage their kids’ access to games and other distractions, the report was a shot across the bow. “@Apple you’ve made it much harder for me to control my daughter’s screen time, just so you can extend your profits. Shame on you!” one parent tweeted.

Apple’s crackdown is even more worrying for the parents of autistic children. Special needs kids often depend on their computers and phones as assistive devices for learning and communication. And as more and more special needs families turn to homeschooling, computers and mobile devices have become crucial tools for accessing online learning opportunities. Because these kids have needs Apple’s own screen controls don’t address, their parents often turn to third-party tools. Without these tools, both the children — and their parents — suddenly face a real, tangible loss.

As the mother of an autistic 12-year-old, I know the stakes all too well. I rely on a combination of five different parental control tools to manage my son’s tech usage. In addition to Apple’s own Screen Time feature, which I use to block access to the App Store, I turn to OurPact to schedule apps for specific times of day, Qustodio to turn off my son’s Mac at other times, Circle to manage his access to the internet on a site-by-site basis, and OpenDNS to block YouTube from our home network. Since my son is highly gifted as well as autistic, it takes that many tools to keep him away from the sites and activities that trigger anxiety and meltdowns. Our setup might be extreme, but our family is by no means unique — these tools are essential to the well-being of kids like ours. But now OurPact has been barred from the App Store, and Qustodio has filed a complaint with the European Union alleging that Apple has engaged in anti-competitive practices.

Screen time management tools are important for families like ours because autistic children are particularly prone to tech addictions. “Kids on the spectrum do have this tendency to become ‘addicted’ or very preoccupied by games,” says Micah Mazurek, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who has researched the tech habits of autistic children and adults. Autistic boys spend nearly twice as much time as neurotypical boys playing video games, and both boys with autism and those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are at greater risk for problematic game use, Mazurek’s research has shown.

While the latest evidence suggests that anxieties about kids’ screen time are generally overblown, the particular vulnerabilities of autistic and ADHD kids mean that special needs families often need to carefully manage their children’s tech usage. Apple’s own Screen Time controls have improved significantly in the past year, but they’re still lacking: There’s no way to set limits on individual applications, and parents can only set limits on total time spent rather than scheduling specific limits for certain times of day.

“Parents of children with ADD, ADHD, autism, and Down syndrome face unique struggles managing screen time,” says OurPact’s Paige Mayer. “When it comes to screen time, there is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ solution.”

In order to address our son’s specific needs, my family has assembled a patchwork solution. Because our son is homeschooled, he relies on his phone and computer for distance learning opportunities like Khan Academy and Outschool. Neurotypical children may be able to access these sites without yielding to the temptations of distraction, but my son’s impulse control challenges make it hard for him to resist the allure of video games if they’re available. Cutting games entirely out of his life would be traumatic — not to mention counterproductive — so we need tools to keep him from gaming during the school day, and to prevent him from playing specific games that increase his anxiety and rigidity.

If I can’t control which applications my son can access during the day, I’ll have to cut off his access to online learning options

That’s where tools like OurPact and Qustodio come in. OurPact allows us to create schedules that limit certain apps to particular times of day: During school hours, our son can only access e-books and learning apps on his iPhone, since his games turn off between 9 a.m.and 3 p.m. Qustodio serves a similar function on his laptop. While Apple controls limit us to a single “bedtime” when his computer turns off, Qustodio lets us set multiple downtimes, so we ensure that he steps away from his computer throughout the day.

The parents of neurotypical children often ask why I don’t just tell my son to turn off his devices, or impose consequences for breaking screen time rules. That’s the approach I use with my eldest child, and it works fine. But many parents find that parental controls are essential in enforcing their screen time rules: Indeed, Qustodio counts more than 2 million families who use its software, according to a company spokesperson.

Apple claims that the technologies that enable Qustodio and OurPact pose a security risk. By allowing one device to manage another remotely — the technology that such apps rely on — Apple says users are exposing themselves to hacking. But that argument has been met with widespread skepticism. For one thing, such capabilities are widely used in Apple-approved apps for enterprise solutions that manage employee devices. Critics see the crackdown as an anti-competitive move, or a way of blocking applications that might lead people to use their phones less.

Asked about how Apple’s crackdown is affecting business, a Qustodio spokesperson says the company has had difficulties rolling out updates; the company’s CMO alleged that “Apple systematically began hostilities against companies in our category with the ultimate goal of eliminating competition and limiting customer choice to Apple services only.” OurPact was shut out of the App Store after nearly four years of successive Apple approvals. By making it harder for third-party vendors to reliably market and support their own parental controls, Apple risks destabilizing the entire ecosystem of tools that special needs (and many other) families depend on. (Apple did not respond to a request for comment.)

Apple was instrumental in creating a generation of kids who embrace gaming, online learning, and social media as part of their day-to-day lives. And parents have been lucky that third-party software developers filled a gap in the market. But those options will only be available if Apple restores the App Store access and developer support that make parental control software a viable business.

If Apple’s business practices lead to the disappearance of solutions like OurPact and Qustodio, families like ours will face very difficult choices: If I can’t control which applications my son can access during the day, I’ll have to cut off his access to online learning options (just when he is finally starting to catch up on academics) or remove all his Mac and iOS games (and face months of meltdowns and the loss of his closest, game-based friendships).

But the stakes here are even higher than what this policy change could mean for special needs kids. A world in which Apple uses its App Store to determine which parental controls live or die is a world in which it can exercise that same power over any category of software. That’s a world in which we’re all living under parental controls — with Apple itself playing Mommy and Daddy.

Author, Remote Inc: How To Thrive at Work…Wherever You Are. Tech speaker. Writer & data journalist for Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review & more.

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