Taming technology distractions: Internet blocking apps for students

Do you feel like you’re always having to police your kids, telling them to put away their phone and computer so they can start their homework?

Are you concerned about how the phone and computer are affecting their ability to stay focused on their assignments, and complete their work efficiently?
Even when teens have good intentions to sit down and focus on their homework, technology is such an enormous part of students lives, is often very difficult for them to turn it off.
And for many students, turning technology off completely is impossible, because their assignments are posted online, so they need access to their computer in order to complete their work.
However, once they’re on the computer, there are about a million other things to do that are more interesting than homework.  
If only there was a way for kids to have access to the sites they need for their homework, without being distracted by everything else on their computer!
…Introducing web blocking apps
There are actually a number of apps that allow students to do exactly that — block the distracting websites & apps on their computer and phone, while giving them access to the sites they need to complete their homework. 
If this sounds like something that might be useful for your kids, here are a few options to consider:
For the computer
Cold Turkey (getcoldturkey.com) – For Windows
This program allows students to block access to websites, apps, or the entire computer during certain times.
With the scheduling feature, students can select specific hours during the week when they want certain websites to be unavailable, and can choose a different set of apps & websites to block during different times of day (e.g. school hours vs. homework time).

If you try to pull up a blocked website while it is being restricted, it will show the message “blocked by cold turkey” and prevent you from accessing the site until the time block is over.  Quitting the program won’t turn the block off…you have to wait until it expires to access the site again.

$19 for full version.  Free trial (without scheduler) available.  30 day refund.

Focus (Heyfocus.com) – For Mac
Focus has similar features to the Cold Turkey app, but for Mac computers.
It allows you to set pre-scheduled focus times, or turn on focus with one click from the menu bar.  When you try to access a blocked site, it displays one of a selection of quotes about the value of hard work.  Students can also add their own quotes, to send themselves messages about why it’s important to get on track. 
Unlike Cold Turkey, Focus has a single set of sites and applications that it blocks, and does not offer the ability to block different categories of websites during different times of the day.  
14 day free trial.  $19 to purchase.  30 day refund.
What I like about these apps…
  • Whitelisting. Some students can get distracted anywhere on the internet, so blocking only a few sites doesn’t really help them focus.  Both Cold Turkey and Focus have the ability to block the entire internet, except the websites students need for their homework.

  • Setting up a schedule in advance.  Some website blocking programs require students to manually start them when it’s time to do their homework…but that’s exactly when they’re most likely to be distracted!  Both of these programs allow students to set schedules in advance for the apps and websites they want to limit at certain times of day.

  • Block apps and websites.  Both of these programs allow the option of blocking computer applications as well as websites, which is great if the biggest computer distraction is a gaming program rather than a site on the web. 
For the phone:
UBhind (http://www.rinasoftglobal.com/) – For Android

This app allows you to track your smartphone usage, and see how much time you’re spending on certain apps.

You can manually lock your phone for a set amount of time (e.g. 30 minutes), or to set limits on the total amount of time you’re allowed to use your phone and/or particular apps each day…after which they will be blocked and unable to access.  
You can also create a pre-set schedule to block access to your phone and/or certain apps during particular times of day. 
Moment (https://inthemoment.io/) – for iPhone
Moment is an iOS app that automatically tracks how much you (and your family) use your iPhone and/or iPad each day.

If you’re using your phone too much, you can set daily limits on yourself and be notified when you go over. You can also set an option to force yourself off your device when you’re over your limit.  This does not completely lock the phone, but does create repeated pop-up reminders that will tell you to get off of your phone until the next day. 

In addition to tracking the phone’s usage, Moment also tracks where you (and your family) go with your devices over the course of the day.

Unlike UBhind, there is not an option to set a schedule of times when the phone will be blocked, to manually lock the phone for a certain amount of time, or to set time limits on specific apps. 

Less restrictive apps

These apps are less restrictive, because they don’t actually BLOCK students from using their phone.  But they DO help students build awareness of how much they are on their phone, and encourage them to put the phone down and focus on other things.

(http://www.forestapp.cc/) – for Android, iPhone, Chrome or Firefox
When you set Forest on ‘focus’ mode, a small tree will start growing.  If you focus on your work for the next 30 minutes, and avoid switching out of the focus app, your seedling will mature into a fully grown tree. But if you switch to another app, the tree will die.  

While this app doesn’t actually block you from using your phone, it does make staying focused more motivating.  And some students find that the desire to avoid killing their trees is enough of an incentive to keep them from picking up their phone while Forest is turned on.

Unplugged (App store) – For iPhone

If you want to stay focused and get more done, you can set a timer in Unplugged and put your phone on airplane mode.  The app will keep track of how long you stay focused, and encourage you to try and beat your previous best score.
This is a great option for competitive students who will be motivated by trying to beat their previous best score from day to day. 

More restrictive apps

These apps are more restrictive, because they take technology blocking out of students’ control and put it in the hands of their parents.   Parental control apps like these can be a helpful solution for younger kids, or for students who know that they won’t have the willpower to stick with limits they set for themselves without a parent to act as the enforcer.
OurPact (http://ourpact.com/) – for iOS and Android**
Free.  Set weekly schedules for device usage; grant/block access with 1 click.
OurPact is a free parental control app for iOS and Android* that makes it easy for parents to set limits on how much time kids spend on their mobile devices.  

It allows parents to create schedules in advance for when the phone will be available, and block or grant access at a moment’s notice.

The blocks in OurPact turn off access to ALL the apps and internet access at once; it’s not currently possible to block only certain apps and allow students to continue using others.  The only apps that are accessible during blocked time periods are: iMessage, Phone, and default system apps (Eg. Calendar, Calculator, Compass, Notes, Contacts, etc.). 

OurPact doesn’t have the ability to selectively block specific apps and allow others…it simply blocks access to all apps (except system apps) during the scheduled off-limits time, or during times when access is manually blocked.

* OurPact can be used to manage kids’ devices on either Android or iOS, but parents can only set them up on an iOS device (iPhone or iPad), so parents with Androids will need to look for another option.  To learn more, visit http://ourpact.com
Screen TimeScreenTime (https://screentimelabs.com/) – for iOS or Android**
Paid (14 day trial, then $3.99/month). Set weekly schedules & time limits, and reward kids for completed tasks.
Screen time allows parents to block access to students’ devices at certain times of day (e.g. during the school day, and at bedtime).  There is not currently an option to set different bedtimes on different days, but you can turn the time limits off on certain days (e.g. turning off ‘bedtime’ on the weekends).
Parents can also override the current schedule using the Play or Pause feature, which will unblock or grant access with one click.
In addition to setting scheduled off-limits times, Screen Time permits you to set a time limit for each device (e.g. 2 hours per day) after which the device will be locked and kids won’t be able to use it.
Parents can also create a list of tasks to complete, and reward kids with access to additional screen time after these tasks have been completed and approved.

Curbi (http://www.curbi.com/) – For iOS or Android**
Paid (14 day free trial, then $5.99/month).  Set customized schedules for each day, and create different schedules & time limits for different categories of apps and websites.  
Curbi provides parents with the ability to set both schedules and time limits on their kids’ device usage.  
In addition to setting an overall time limit for how much time each day that kids are able to use their device, Curbi also allows you to set up rules for different categories of apps.  So, for example, you could set a time limit of 1 hour for all games and social media during the school week. 
You can also set up a system-wide block to occur at bedtime, or during school, so no apps will be available during that time.
Unlike OurPact, Curbi allows parents to manage their kids’ profiles by logging into the website, so parents don’t need to have an iOS app to manage their kids’ access. 
** NOTE: Parental control for iOS vs Android
Because of the way iPhones, iPads, and other Apple devices are designed, there are a number of limitations on what parents can monitor and control on their kids’ devices which make parental control features for Apple devices less powerful than they are on Androids.  

For example, kids with an Android won’t be able to remove parental control apps from their devices without a parent’s permission…but kids with an Apple device will be able to delete these apps without your password (You will see a notification that they’ve uninstalled it, though!).

You will also have a greater ability to restrict access to specific apps on an Android device than you will on an Apple device. For example, ScreenTime on Androids will allow you to set time limits on certain games…but for iPads you can only set overall time limits for device usage. 

Introducing these apps to your kids
While some parents might install programs like these as a way to control their kids, my goal in presenting these programs to the students I work with is to help put THEM back in the driver’s seat, so they can control their use of technology rather than feeling like it is controlling them.
Most of the kids I work with say that they’d like to put their phone away during homework time, because they know they would focus better on their homework without it…but then when it comes time to put it away, it’s often really hard for them to follow through with their plans. 

So, if you think one of these apps would be a good idea for your kids, I would recommend talking with them about this idea before you install anything on their device. 

While you COULD set these systems up for your kids without their involvement, that doesn’t really teach them anything about how to control their own impulses or set limits for themselves.  The more you can involve your kids in this decision-making process, the better able they will be to set limits on themselves in the long term, when you’re no longer around to support them.
Ideally, I would recommend involving your kids in the process of figuring out…
  • Which of the 3 categories of programs above will work best for them
  • Which apps and sites are distracting enough to add to their ‘block’ list
  • When these blocks would be most helpful (During HW time, bedtime, etc.)
It may take a bit of trial & error to figure out what works best for them, so even after you’ve set up their system it will be important to continue checking in with them to see how it’s working, and adjust the limits as needed. 
Final thoughts…
Are these programs a complete solution?  Absolutely not.  
But especially if you get your kids on board and involve them in the process of setting them up, they can be a helpful tool for building self-awareness and supporting kids in using technology more mindfully, so they are in control of it rather than it controlling them.

About the Author:

Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school & college students achieve their academic potential by improving their organization, time management, study skills, and mindset about school. To set up a time to speak with Maggie about how to help YOUR teen develop the skills he or she needs to thrive academically, visit http://creatingpositivefutures.com/contact or email support@creatingpositivefutures.com

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