By Natasha Baker
TORONTO (Reuters) - Parents struggling to get their children away from smartphones and tablets for meals, homework, exercise and other activities can arm themselves with new apps to remotely block access to the devices.
Usage of smartphones and tablets among children has tripled since 2011, according to Common Sense Media, a San Francisco based non-profit that studies the effects of media and technology on young users.
A new app called DinnerTime Parental Control, for iPhone or Android smartphones, enables parents to restrict when children can use their smartphones and tablets.
“The price of entry level smartphones and tablets have come down a lot, and as a result, more and more kids have their own individual devices,” said Richard Sah, co-founder of DinnerTime, based in San Mateo, California.
With the free app, parents can pause activity on a child’s Android smartphone or tablet so that they can focus on things like homework, exercise and family time. Once a device has been paused, all functions on their device are blocked, including the ability to text and play with apps.
To use the app, parents install it on the child’s device and enter in their phone number to link the two devices. Parents can then set specific break times, ranging from 30 minutes to three hours, when the device will be locked. A countdown screen displayed on the child's device shows when they can use it again.
Sah said he was inspired to develop the app by the tradition of family dinners, which he thinks is being lost in the age of technology.
“Dinner time brings families together for quality time and to have lots of different conversations. We want people to come together for engaging conversations, rather than be distracted by a tablet,” he said.
DinnerTime Plus, another free app from the company, lets parents manage the apps their children use and to views the apps they are using in real time.
Parents can also purchase detailed reporting, which outlines how much time kids spend on certain apps, and how often they used them.
With another app called ScreenTime, parents can push a button on their phones to block usage on their children's devices. They can also set daily time limits for particular apps. The app, for Android, requires a subscription of $3.99 a month.
Kimberly Young, a psychologist who focuses on Internet addiction, believes parents need to control how much time their children spend on their devices. But she added an app might not be the best way to do it.
“I do not agree that any app is better than good old-fashioned parenting in terms of treating Internet addiction,” said Young, who added that she has seen children as young as 3 years old using mobile devices.
“The larger issue is how young is too young,” said Young.
Sah is also concerned about usage of devices by young children.
"Most kids can use smartphones before learning to write their names or tie their shoes,” he said.
(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Jonathan Oatis)