We have five kids and they have an iPad that they share. We want to limit the amount of time they’re each on the iPad when they get a turn and until now we’ve had an informal process of setting a timer with Alexa or on the microwave or mom or dad’s iPhone or Watch or on the iPad itself. This has sometimes resulted in less than satisfactory outcomes. Recently the number of times they’ve “forgotten” to set a timer has become a little frequent. And the necessity of having to police them has gotten a little much.
Now, if you’re familiar with iOS/iPad OS, you’re probably already saying, “That’s what Screen Time” is for.1 You’d think so, but there’s a flaw in Screen Time in that it only envisions on user per device. If we set a limit on how long, let’s say, game apps could be used, then once the 20 minutes is up, then no other children can have a turn today. so until Apple gives us multiuser support on iPads, we need to look elsewhere.
That’s where Shortcuts Automation comes in. I adapted the following from a Shortcut I developed for my own iPad, which Isabella uses each day to do math via Khan Academy. When the Khan Academy app launches, it starts a timer and sets do not disturb for one hour (so she won’t have to see my notifications coming in while she’s working.)
By necessity, the adaptation for the kids’ iPad is a bit of a brute force approach. It would be nice to have a Shortcut Automation launch when any app of a certain category (i.e. games) or an app from a particular list is run, but it’s either not possible or I don’t know how yet. Instead, I have to have the automation run for each app that the kids use on the iPad. In our case, they have 7 apps they regularly use at the moment: LEGO Builder’s Journey, Mini Mototorways, Frogger, Crossy Castle, Sasquatch, and What The Golf.2
There is one prerequisite for this Shortcut, which is the app called Visual Task Timer. I need this app instead of just using the built-in clock/timer because it offers much more Shortcut support than Apple’s own app does. Happily, it’s free with an in-app tip jar that you should use if you use this shortcut.
So the first step is to go into the Shortcuts app and in the Automation tab, create a Personal Automation. The When trigger is “When APP is opened…” and the Do is as follows:
|1.||Visual Timer: Get status||Check to get the current status of visual timer|
|2.||Set variable TimerYes to Visual Timer: Timer Status||Create a variable named TimerYes and set it to whatever the current status of Visual Timer is|
|3.||If seconds remaining is greater than or equal to 1||Check if the timer status is at zero, i.e. expired, or if there is a currently active timer|
|4.||Open APP||If there is indeed a timer running, leave it running and open the app. This is so that when the kids switch games, it doesn’t reset the timer to 20 minutes.|
|5.||Otherwise||So if a timer is not running…|
|6.||Current Date||This is the first of three steps to set a reminder in a shared reminder list so mom and dad both get notified when the timer expires|
|7.||Add 20 minutes to Date||This creates an Adjusted Date for the time 20 minutes in the future when the timer will go off.|
|8.||Reminders: Add Kids iPad Timer to Family with Alert at Time: Adjusted Time||This adds a reminder called “Kids iPad Timer” to a Shared Reminder List. The Adjusted Date is a magic variable created automatically by the previous step.|
|9.||Visual Timer: Start countdown for 20 minutes||This starts the local timer|
|10.||Open APP||Now open the requested app.|
|11.||End if||End of the shortcut.|
Back in the automation, also make sure that “Ask Before Running” is turned off so as not to confuse the kids. Like I said, this a brute force approach and so you have to recreate this shortcut for each app the kids will play with, which is a good incentive for limiting their choices.
One caveat: If the Visual Task Timer is stopped before reaching zero and not reset to zero, it will not start the timer next run. I have not yet figured out a way around this. I wish there was a way to have the timer reset to zero after a period of time paused.
This is obviously not a perfect solution, nor is it a substitute for parental supervision. But it does provide a little help to the harried parent and it helps keep honest children honest and obedient to the rules set up for them.