What Is Screen Overlay?

This Android feature can be helpful...sometimes

Screen overlay is a feature of modern Android smartphones and tablets that allows compatible applications to appear on top of other ones. It's most commonly seen in applications like Facebook Messenger, where chat heads can appear when you receive a message, and apps like Twilight, which run coloring filters over the display to ease eye strain and block out harmful blue light late at night.

Is Screen Overlay a Good Thing?

Screen overlay has its uses and many of the more advanced features of modern applications wouldn’t be able to run without it. It enables them to “draw” over the application you’re using.

A screenshot of how screen overlay appears on Android.

Screen overlays enable apps to do more than simply send you notifications and continue to interact with you and be interacted with, no matter what you're doing on your device. Without that capability, if you wanted to receive updates from that app, you'd have to open it manually; apps that make visual tweaks to your phone wouldn't work at all.

However, there are instances where a screen overlay could be used maliciously. If a permissions dialogue appeared but with an obfuscating screen overlay on top, a user could be tricked into agreeing to something they weren't aware of.

To prevent that, when performing certain functions, Android devices will warn the user a screen overlay is being used and will block them from continuing. In those cases, a warning appears and users will need to turn off the screen overlay function to continue.

What Devices Are Affected?

Screen overlay and its associated problems aren't limited to any particular devices. The most common errors are found on Samsung and Lenovo devices, but there's no inherent problem with those devices. Just because those devices are more popular than others doesn’t mean issues can't arise on other, more niche Android devices.

If a device can support screen overlay, it’s as susceptible to the screen overlay detected error as any other.

Android Screen Overlay Detected

The most common issue experienced by Android users when it comes to screen overlay is the "Screen overlay detected" error. It appears when you try to use the Google Play Store to pay for something, open a new application, or change permissions while a screen overlay is being used. To make sure it isn't doing something malicious, Android displays the "Screen overlay detected warning," which must be turned off before you can continue.

Screenshot of a screen overlay detected error.
Akash Jaiswal/Twitter

Doing so is relatively easy and there are a number of ways to do so. You can download an app that does it for you, but that won't help much if you can't open new apps while a screen overlay is in place. You can also do so manually.

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