What Are Push Notifications? And How Do I Use Them?

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Getty Images / Alistair Berg

A push notification is a way for an app to send you a message or to notify you without you actually opening the app. The notification is "pushed" to you without you needing to do anything. You can think of it like the app sending you a text message, although notifications can take on several different forms. One common push notification takes the form of a red circle with a number in it that appears on the corner of the app's icon. This number alerts you to a number of events or messages within the app.

It seems just about every app we install these days asks about sending notifications, including games. But should we say yes to all of them? Decline? Be choosy? Do we really want push notifications interrupting us throughout the day?

Push notifications can be a great way to keep track of what is happening on our iPhone or iPad, but they can also become a drain on our productivity. Notifications on an email app or a social media app like Linked In can be very important, but notifications on a casual game we are playing can easily become a distraction.

How to View Your Notifications 

If you missed a notification, you can view it in the notification center. This is a special area of the iPhone or iPad designed to give you important updates. You can open the notification center by swiping down from the very top edge of the device's screen. The trick is to start at the very edge of the screen where the time is usually displayed. As you move your finger down, the notification center will reveal itself. By default, the notification center will be available on your lock screen, so you can check notifications without unlocking your iPad. 

You can also tell Siri to "read my notifications." This is a great option if you find it difficult to read, but if you are regularly going to listen to notifications, you may want to further customize which apps show up in the notifications center.

When you have the notification center on the screen, you can clear a notification by swiping from right to left on it. This will unveil the options to view the entire notification or "clear" it, which deletes it from your iPhone or iPad. You can also clear an entire group by tapping the "X" button above them. Notifications are generally grouped by app and by day.

You can exit the notification center by sliding it back up to the top of the screen or clicking the Home Button.

How to Customize or Turn Off Notifications

There is no way to turn off all notifications. Notifications are dealt with on an app-by-app basis rather than a global switch. Most apps will ask you for permission before turning push notifications on, but if you want to customize the type of notification you get, you will need 

Notifications come in many different forms. The default notification will display a message on the screen. The most unobtrusive is the Badge notification, which is the red circle badge at the corner of the app icon displaying the number of notifications. Push notifications can also be sent to the notification center without a pop-up message. You can change the notification behavior in settings.

  1. First, open the iPhone or iPad's settings app. This is the app icon with gears turning on it.
  2. On the left-side menu, locate and tap Notifications.
  3. The Notification settings will list all apps on your device that are capable of sending push notifications. Scroll down and select the app whose notification style you want to change or that you want to turn notifications on or off.

This screen may seem a little overwhelming at first because of all of the options.  If you just want to turn off notifications for the app, simply tap the on-off switch to the right of Allow Notifications.  The other options allow you to fine tune how you receive notifications.  

  • Tap Sounds will enable or disable the sound of the notification coming through on the device.
  • Badge App Icon is the red circle with the number in it that can be displayed on the app's icon.  This is a great way to be alerted to a notification without being bothered by it.
  • Show on Lock Screen allows you to disable notifications when the device is locked, which is great if you want to disable sensitive information from being displayed to the world.
  • Show in History will allow you to block the notification from showing up in the notification center.  This means the app will still pop up a notification or show a number in the badge, but it won't show up in the list of notifications when you swipe down from the top of the screen.
  • Show as Banners allows you to toggle the pop-up message on or off.  You can choose to show a banner as temporary, which will display and then automatically hide after a few seconds, or persistent, which will stay until dismissed.  
  • Show Previews is an option just below the alerts. Push notifications can be 'previewed', which basically means giving you more information and sometimes even the ability to respond without actually opening the app.  For example, a text message can be previewed on the lock screen and you can reply to it without launching the Messages app. Be default, an app's notification can be previewed even if the device is locked, but you can choose for previews to only show when unlocked or to never show.  Don't worry, not all apps support notification previews.