Bug or Feature? Screen Time on macOS Catalina Isn’t Reporting Actual App Usage

Screen Time is a feature that Apple added to iOS 12, which allows you to keep track of how much time you spend on each app you use, how many times you wake up your iOS device, and how many notifications you receive. This data can help you cut down on your device usage, and you can use Screen Time to set limits for your kids.

Screen Time was also added to macOS Catalina, with the same features. However, it doesn’t seem to work correctly. Rather than showing which apps are frontmost when you work, it shows how long apps are open:

Screen time 1

I keep a number of apps open all the time: Mail, Messages, Fantastical, Omni Focus, Music, and a few others. So counting them as actual “screen time” makes no sense.

In the above example, all these apps were open all day – obviously, the Finder is always “open” – so the data is essentially useless. Is this a bug or a feature? I would think that Screen Time should only record that time when apps are frontmost.

Screen Time also records “Pickups.” While this makes sense for an iOS device – how many times you picked up your iPhone and woke it up – it really makes little sense on the Mac. A pickup on the Mac is the number of times you woke the device from sleep, or restarted it.

Screen time 2

And the apps listed in the lower pane are supposed to be the first app that you used when you awakened the Mac, but seem to be just the frontmost apps when the Mac is awakened. So if I put my Mac to sleep with Safari frontmost, when I wake it up, it will be counted as a pickup. On iOS this makes sense, because when you wake up your iOS device, you are on the home screen, so you have to actively choose which app you are going to use. Also, it doesn’t seem to be reliably updating on the Mac; right now, I’ve put my Mac to sleep a couple of times yet when I awaken it, it doesn’t add to the number of pickups. And it’s not counting the System Preferences app, which I’ve used several times after waking up my Mac to view Screen Time.

Finally, it records notifications, as does iOS. While iOS notifications can be a disturbance, since they appear on the device when it’s not in use, this isn’t the case on the Mac. If the Mac is asleep, notifications won’t display; they will, however, if your screen is dimmed, or if a screen saver is active. In any case, is there any value to counting these notifications, especially here where I have Music set to notify me of track changes?

Screen time 3

While Screen Time is a useful feature, notably for setting limits for kids, its information isn’t very reliable. Say you have a child who has a game open in a window, or hidden, but isn’t playing; in the meantime, they’re working on their homework. All the time the app is running counts as usage time. There’s really no way to get any reliable information about which apps are really used.

And, for example, I might want to track my time using certain apps to bill clients, but with Screen Time, I’d have to remember to quit the apps when I switch to another app, and that is somewhat futile, because I certainly won’t remember.

It’s worth pointing out that Many Tricks’ Time Sink does this quite efficiently: by app, but also by window, so you can easily record exactly what you’re doing, especially if you are billing clients by the time you spent working for them.

10 thoughts on “Bug or Feature? Screen Time on macOS Catalina Isn’t Reporting Actual App Usage

  1. This doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. What did surprise me was that Apple added this “feature” to MacOS. As a desktop user who leaves email and a couple other programs open all the time, I can honestly testify that I don’t sit in front of my Mac all day and stare at it. iPhones are only “on” when we use them. Macs are often on when not being directly used. “Screen time” makes no sense for a Mac.

  2. I could not believe it when screen time told me my multi-hour usage times for programs that I probably glance at 10 minutes a day. Useless for stat tracking, doubly useless for anything you want to set an app limit for. I had to set up Marco Arment’s Quitter to automatically quit any program I want an app limit on, lest its time limit be reached before I even use the thing in the morning.

  3. You are using your Mac wrong 🙂

    Jokes aside, this is the first iteration of Screen Time on desktop and it’s still really buggy as are many other “features” of the half-baked Catalina. Let’s give it some time.

    • I don’t know, I kind of expect it when they release a feature it works instead of being totally useless. But whatevs.

  4. I don’t think it’s totally useless. I use it to ensure I’m putting in enough hours at work.

    The only type of apps I have on my work Mac are work apps, thus any app counts as work.

    I do wish there was a manual refresh button though.

  5. That’s really weird. It’s like they did a direct port from iOS to the Mac and then called it quits, without changing anything to account for the Mac being a different platform. They didn’t even bother to update any of the terminology or icons (“Pickups” with an icon of a phone?).

    At an absolute minimum, Screen Time on macOS should only log time against an app if it’s in the foreground. That’s not perfect – for example, you could be playing music while the Music app is in the background and/or has no open windows – but it would certainly be much more reflective of actual usage.

    Interestingly, Apple’s marketing screenshots of Screen Time on macOS suggest that it does work how you would expect: apps like Finder are excluded, while other apps display unique usage times. So hopefully this means they’ll address these issues in a software update.

    I don’t get why they even shipped it in its current state, though. The whole purpose of the feature is to track your app usage, but the data it presents is so inaccurate that it’s effectively useless. Why not just hold off on Screen Time for macOS entirely and then ship it the “right” way in 10.15.1 or 10.15.2?

  6. I been using RescueTime on macOS for the last few years (it’s free) to track my app and browser usage. Thought I could use Screen Time to verify how accurate the stats are but in this case it seems pretty useless.

    Apple should of hold off on releasing this feature until it’s actually tested and more thought out. Hopefully they’ll eventually update the app and fix the issues mention in this article, in the mean time I’m sticking with RescueTime.

  7. There’s another problem with Screen Time for macOS which still hasn’t been fixed in 10.15.2:

    Open it once and you’ll most likely get data that has been updated hours ago.
    Close it and open it for a second time, and NOW the data is current.

    And if you leave Screen Time open in the background to keep the data current, it closes by itself automatically after an undetermined amount of time. Would it hurt Apple to either 1) automatically update all data on open or 2) have a Refresh button in the bottom right corner?

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