To put Family Setup to the test I enlisted the help of my 14-year-old daughter; let’s call her Venus, her codename when she was young and we didn’t want her to know we were talking about her (she has an older brother, Mars). Venus has an iPad but doesn’t yet own a smartphone.
Truth be told, Venus is actually banned from wearing a cellular smartwatch to high school but she managed to fly under the radar for a week, swapping her FitBit Ionic for an Apple Watch SE.
In an effort to appease schools, Apple has introduced a School Time setting which can automatically block all features during school hours; turning the watch face yellow to indicate it’s enabled. Of course good luck explaining this to the teacher.
If I call or text Venus during the day, she isn’t notified until School Time is deactivated, but I can override that by calling three times, similar to Apple’s Do Not Disturb rules. There’s nothing stopping Venus manually disabling School Time in class, so it’s perfectly understandable that schools might not want to grant Apple Watches an exemption to the ban.
When it comes to privacy, Apple strikes a good balance. When setting up the watch, Venus and I were encouraged to go through the Family Setup process together and I couldn’t even start until she entered her Apple ID password.
Thankfully there’s a lot of granular control because some options would empower helicopter parents. Along with limiting who Venus can call and text, I can also access her health data right down to checking how well she’s washing her hands.
Then there’s a wealth of real-time location features. I can receive alerts when she arrives at or leaves set locations, or when she’s not where she’s supposed to be; such as missing after school sports practice.
To be honest, at Venus’ age I’d sneak down to the shops at lunch for hot chips and smoke with my school friends. Perhaps not the best life choices, but is it fair to hover so closely that I deny her the chance to make those choices for herself?
That said, I might think differently if Venus was commuting across town and coming home to an empty house, or if she was stuck in the middle of a nasty custody dispute.
The flip side is that this kind of technology can be used to surreptitiously stalk people. Once again, Apple has clearly given this some thought. When recurring location-based alerts tell me Venus has left the house each morning, they also pop up on the watch so she knows I’m tracking her movements.
Many families will find some aspects of Apple’s Family Setup useful, but it’s important to establish a baseline of trust and set boundaries; not just for children but also for parents.
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Adam Turner is an award-winning Australian technology journalist and co-host of weekly podcast Vertical Hold: Behind The Tech News.