Folks, today I’d like to tell you about a problem. A problem that is all around us and getting worse. A problem that affects some of the most vulnerable members in our society.
I want to tell you how this problem is really an opportunity, and why existing attempts to address it have fallen short.
And finally, I’d like to tell you what we want to do about it 😀
I’ll start by relating the account of Guy Adams, a writer at the Daily Mail newspaper in the UK:
Waking up at the ungodly hour of 4am, I see William, my 3 year old son with a pleading look. He had entered our bedroom and shaken me awake to say “Daddy, I need the Ipad” with as much urgency as his 3 year old voice could muster.
I marched him back into his room and told him to get back to bed, only to wake up at 7 in the morning and find him in the sitting room, iPad in hand. He had stolen it from our bedroom and been at it for a good 2 hours or so judging from the remaining battery life. Removing it from him lead to the biggest tantrum I had seen him throw, to the point that it was difficult to feed him breakfast.
We live in a time of change. Many of us live a large part of our lives in front of a screen, whether it be for work, play or to socialise. And this digital drug is affecting our children more profoundly than any other technological revolution in the past century or so will. The ability of devices like the iPad to occupy kids is so effective it has been dubbed the iNanny by many parents. There are over 40000 kids apps on the app store today – it is a booming market catering to the app consumers of tomorrow.
Perversely, this means that there are literally legions of smart, educated programmers out there whose sole job is to defeat the psychological safeguards of kids who have not even developed the mental capacity to make decisions for themselves. Their sole purpose is to keep the kids hooked, to play more and buy more in the apps. The odds are stacked against a kid today having a healthy relationship with the digital world from the beginning.
By the time parents realise they have a problem, it’s not a good place to be in. Just a week ago, Vincent Parker, a 16 year old honour-roll student from Virginia admitted murdering his parents to death over routine punishments, like depriving him of his iPod. “I just remember getting mad,” he told investigators. “Itís all from my dad. All this stuff like my dad taking away my iPod and stuff”.
I’ll let that sink in for a bit – a smart young boy murdering his parents over digital restrictions. It is obvious that the implications of digital addiction are not well understood.
Yet in mainstream addictions, to cigarettes, drugs or gambling, taking away the substance usually leads to a better quality of life. Arguably, taking technology away is not an option for many parents, not in the digital world we live in today. Technology is here to stay.
As they say, knowing is half the battle. Digital addiction is becoming more recognised, but how to deal with it less so. Approaches range from a no-device and no-access policy to more moderate approaches, involving close parental supervision and hard restrictions, but all of them start from first contact with any digital device.
Unfortunately, many of these approaches focus solely on restrictions, limiting the amount of time spent, on blocking potentially harmful apps. I believe we can do more. Rather than just limiting to try and minimise adverse side effects of digital exposure, we should actively seek out ways to make use of technology better to harness its potential, whilst still maintaining a healthy relationship between kids and devices.
Rather than just making sure kids don’t spend too much time playing angry birds, find and also have them also play games like Sandbox, where they solve complex puzzles using the laws of physics.
It extends beyond the digital frontier as well; rather than just making sure they’re not playing something violent, taking them to cooking classes because they like playing games like Cooking Mama or Cake Cooking Challenge.
In fact, rather than giving them access as an allocated entitlement, let them work towards it, allow them more screen time if they help out around the house or do well at school.
In many ways, looking after your kid in the digital realm is nothing more than an extension of good parenting. You’d never let your kid swim unsupervised in a pool, but they weren’t always in the pool. Today, they’re always in the pool whenever a screen is involved because it’s just become that easy. And constant supervision seems like a luxury, especially if both parents are working, an increasingly common situation today.
And this is exactly where we come in. We’re starting Parental Analytics, a company that tries to make it easier in two ways – Firstly, we provide apps that not only cater to the limiting usage of the devices, but also ways to analyse your kid’s usage and suggest ways to take your use of technology with them a step further; be it through suggestions of similar apps with stronger educational content or real life activities you can do with your kid when they’re not in front of a screen. Apps that allow you to track and give rewards for desireable real life behaviour in the form of screen time. Secondly, we want to build a community of parents around these tools, parents who share the same problems dealing with bringing up kids in the new digital future, and curate strategies and techniques that have worked for them.
We don’t want to a substitute for good parenting – we don’t believe there is one, but we definitely believe we can use technology to make the task easier. We hope that we’ve given you an idea of the challenge we’re trying to solve, and that you’re as excited as us in harnessing technology to change the narrative of digital device relationships from just one of digital addiction, to one of digital opportunity. If you are facing this problem yourself, or know anyone facing this problem, please let us know, we’d love to have a chat about our beta testing program before launch.