Is My App Private?

A  bar chart showing the average number of SDKS in school utility apps by phone type and by public vs. private schools
Is My App Private- average # of SDKs . Source: Read their summary for how apps are categorized into 3 types.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: At my high school the principal enters her best students in an online sweepstakes. We get freebies and discounts when our name is drawn. That seems great but now I get ads on my phone from the places I visit plus emails to enlist in the military, to join climate action groups, and to even get credit cards! I am beginning to wonder whether that app is private. Meanwhile, seniors, like me, are required to use special apps if we tutor after-school. We also use the school’s choice of apps for transportation and the year-book. I have a cyber-aware friend who studies this and she says we are being sold out. Justin, Burlingame

Dear Justin: Hopefully you are only receiving a digital heap of senior year marketing. Conventionally, juniors and seniors get mountains of unsolicited mail, as the College Board and other testing services resell student names and addresses. But, why have those solicitations moved to the phone?

Gizmodo reported this week that many school utility apps were sharing some amount of data with third-party marketing companies. A non-profit called Me2ba randomly tested 73 apps from 38 schools and found that they majority of the apps added code (SDKs) that could access phone data. The code, for example, might try to record a student’s location, their contact list, photos and even Google or Iphone ad identifiers. So, the answer to ‘Is My App Private’ is a resounding ‘No.’


There’s an expression that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and that holds double when it comes to digital matters. We all know, or should know, that we pay for “free” email and “free” searches with our attention and search history. Perhaps the school administrators just didn’t know or care.

Before the Internet it was simpler: schools issued directories with students’ names, home address, and contact number. School administrators then asked parents to keep the directories private. Not everyone followed the rules. With the Internet, the scale of misuse is bigger and dangerous. Perhaps you read the story this week about the millions of fake comments on the FCC plan to scale back net neutrality in 2016. A 19 year old student was responsible for 7.7 million comments generated using websites that create names, physical addresses and email addresses!


School officials, at least the ones in your high school, are supposed to protect you and keep you safe…but they don’t seem to be aware of the risk that they might be putting you at online. That academic sweepstakes sounds particularly dodgy! The irony is that these are the same institutions that we depend on to teach digital citizenship and digital literacy.

In a previous post I gave directions for reviewing the apps on your phone, and checking their permissions. It’s a good idea to share this with other students in your school, and make them more aware of the data trail they may leave behind. I hope that you, and the friend you mentioned, go on to college and study computer science, as what you mention is a real threat for future generations.

Screen Time or School Time?

Returning to the classroom. How to wean kids from screens to school?

A cartoon of four children holding phones to text each other.  Above their head is a giant Covid like mask with an envelope!
Screentime or Schooltime?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Conflict here between school time and screen time! Finally my twins are back in middle school (yay) but they used their tablets and phones so much during the lock down that they are having a hard time giving them up. They play online games when they get up, pull phones out when they board the school bus, and then whip them out for social media when they get home. I can’t really blame them, because tablets and phones were their lifeline this past year. Lindsay, Santa Monica

Dear Lindsay: First, the big picture. You mentioned that the twins are in middle school, so they were probably born around 2008 or later. They are the first generation that will grow up with smartphones from cradle to grave. We, as adults, don’t quite know what to make of that. Imagine what it was like 100 years ago when our great-grandparents experienced an entirely new mobility, as travel transitioned from horse and buggy to cars.

I mention this so you cut them some slack. Digital tech is going to grow up alongside them and they will use it in ways that we, as elders, cannot imagine today. But, to you immediate question, how do you wean kids from screen time to school time?

It’s a dialogue

Begin with a screen time conversation with their classroom teachers, other parents, and even the middle-school principal. This was the same advice I gave this past summer when kids were schooling in pods. It’s vital that kids on the playground are talking with each other, not over their phones and text.

Some schools have successfully banned phone use during recess and lunch. During the school day, you must exercise equal restraint, and never text or phone, even if they forgot their lunch money or your afternoon pickup changes.

Of Parenting Mind

In last week’s column I mentioned two parenting tips: Try out Tiffany Shlain’s program for a family-oriented Tech Shabbat, and second, make the screen time feature on the iPhone work for you. As a parent, you need to set boundaries- so add phone time to the learning list. You can customize the app so that the twins are restricted say on Snapchat, but not on other sites.

Finally, and this is the key take away: hopefully you, or a friend, can be there for your kids after school, or have them join an outdoor activity group. As Covid winds down, we all need to make a 180 degree U-Turn, and be committed to being out- of- doors instead of inside. Here in late Spring, it’s a good time to start taking after-school bike rides, hikes, or nature walks. If you live in the city, go to the park.

Of Out of Doors

And, with summer coming and school letting out just as it got started, you don’t want them back at home, sitting on their phones and tablets. Explore a day- camp that prioritizes out-of-door activities, and specifically bans phones or collects them in Yondr bags. If you can afford it or can get a scholarship, consider a sleep-over camp with an explicit phone-off policy.

These Covid-weary kids need to be immersed in outdoor activities and learn new skills like knots, ropes, and basic survival skills. More than ever, this age group needs to discover that basic survival rests beyond their digital devices. Although they are the face of a digital future, they need to see how earlier people got by.

So, hopefully, in the wild they will learn how ancient people navigated by the stars, not by their phones. They will see memory embedded in the the rings of trees. And the phone’s vivid time-lapse photography might still pale after witnessing daybreak and a fresh morning sunrise.

How Much Screen Time?

When I get the notification of my weekly screen time I ignore it. Why?

A screen shot of the weekly Screentime reporting on an iPhone
how much screentime the past week?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Once a week (on Sundays) my iPhone sends a pop-up notification that reports how much screen time I have spent during the past week. I get a separate pop-up on my iPad. My question is not how to combine these two numbers, but rather, why is it that I ignore both of them? Kwame, San Francisco

Dear Kwame: You know, of course, you can turn this notification off, but it’s a good that you are thinking about its role. When Apple introduced this service back in 2018 on iOS 12, it was heralded as the long-awaited  tool to moderate phone use and behaviors. Screen time measures the time spent on apps and websites, how often you pick up the phone and (ironically) what  notifications are turned on.

The 2018 release was oriented towards parents: they might use it to manage their children’s content on the screen.  Although they are adults today, the offspring of both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were raised with limited access to technology. It’s noteworthy that children born after 2010 are truly the first all-phone, all-the-time generation.

Getting Accountable

In some ways, reporting the total time spent on the Internet is like stepping on a scale to get your weight. You get a measurement that you can hold yourself accountable to. And, as Apple intended, if you have young children or teens, that number could be a blunt tool:  for example, 1 hour of homework equals 20 minutes of screentime.  That said, there are many ways that clever children will find work-arounds, including downloading games to play off-line, resetting the phone’s clock, and even re-routing the family’s router. Nonetheless, boundaries and rules still count.

When I received your question, I asked adult friends why, like you, they don’t pay much attention to the weekly notification. The most common response was that a single number rolls up “good” uses of the phone, say for navigation or following  an hour-long mindfulness app, plus the “bad” uses, like scrolling on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The screen time feature  also detail  how much time was spent on each app, so technically you could do addition and subtraction.

Staying Accountable

That said, ‘time’ on device is still ‘time’ on device  Our eyes, and physical presence have to rest. We also need to change scenery, and be in the fresh air.  Significantly, we need to interact and spend time with other people, in- person. In 2013, five years before Apple introduced the Screentime measure, film-maker Tiffany Shlain, recommended that we take a Digital Sabbath, to manage our digital selves, restore our well being, and promote family togetherness. Watch the video to see her explain the value of the Digital Sabbath- a single day of the week in which we power off our electronic devices and empower ourselves.

Ironically, your own screen time notification arrives on Sunday, traditionally a day of rest. Making people more accountable and aware of their habits began with energy conservation.  Electric utilities and water companies chose to report month to month usage data. People ignored that. Then, social psychologists discovered that the numerical reporting had more impact when it compared consumption in “your home” with the average energy consumption of neighboring users.

Perhaps there is a lesson here- a social element that smartphone users might respond to.  I imagine a classroom teacher might use this to their advantage if they were teaching a course in digital literacy, and parents on Instagram could find new and clever ways to report on that site  how their child “underachieves.”