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Finding Time To Connect

How To Make Your Kids’ Screen Time Intentional: Our Family's Experience with Digital Detox

Rebecca and her daughter hiking in Redwood National Park

We’re a family of color that runs an Innovation Lab in Silicon Valley where fewer than 3% of entrepreneurs are minorities or women. This challenging environment, however, comes with an advantage –– it forces me to think outside the box in order to thrive, and it pushes me to find unorthodox approaches to life and family. The story you are about to read summarizes the path we took not only to understand the impact that technology (screens, in particular) was having on our children’s daily life but also to share our experience eliminating unproductive screen time in our home.

Four years ago when we started our digital detox, there were very few people calling attention to the potential harms of technology in early childhood. Steve Jobs, in an iconic New York Times article published in 2014, told of being a low-tech parent who did not let his own kids use his inventions. That same year, we talked to a friend who told us that his children had just been accepted to their first-choice colleges. In the age of helicopter parenting and high parental expectations, his perspective came as a breath of fresh air. He said one day when his oldest daughter was in second grade, their TV broke, they never bothered to fix it. His children’s academic success did not involve expensive private school tuitions, fancy tutors or complicated processes. His strategy, though counter-intuitive then, opened our eyes to an alternative pathway for raising our kids. When we first heard the story, we had to deal with some inner conflict. Though the choice to eliminate screens made sense to us as parents, it seemed to fly in the face of how we made our living with running a technology company.

The response to technology companies has changed a lot. The New York Times in a recent article says that It’s Time for Apple to Build a Less Addictive iPhone. According to Facebook, the changes that were implemented to the newsfeed were made to preserve the social interactions that Facebook was built upon. According to Bloomberg, two big shareholders of Apple Inc. are concerned that the entrancing qualities of the iPhone have fostered a public health crisis that could hurt children — and the company as well. Billionaire tech mogul Bill Gates reveals he banned his children from mobile phones until they turned 14.

Our first children, twins, were preemies and endured numerous medical procedures during their first few years of life. The iPhone was key to keeping them distracted before surgeries and procedures. Thanks to early intervention, our family is healthy now but while we were freed from burdensome medical appointments, we soon realized that we were losing the battle against unlimited screen-time. Attempts to regulate access resulted in screaming bouts and meltdowns. Tracking iPhone time turned into another tedious parenting task. Inconsistency was rife. After enduring a few more months of overexposure to screens, we took the Steve Jobs approach and reduced screen-time to zero.

During my years of teaching high school in East Palo Alto, an underserved community in Silicon Valley, California, I learned that the key to success for my students lay in establishing structure, consistency, and simplicity. I carried this lesson with me into parenthood. If I could do it at the high-school level, surely I could do it at home. Though we didn’t know it then, we had taken the first step toward enabling our children to reclaim their childhood. A year and a half into this endeavor, I cautiously published my first article outlining a four-step process for a digital detox.

While removing screens seemed like the right thing to do, we suffered through a period of adjustment. We needed to learn how to fill the huge void left behind; a large part of the answer lay in physical activity. We worked on increasing our children’s stamina, starting with short hikes, eventually extending their length and difficulty. Focusing on exercise helped with bed time–an unexpected bonus– as well as quality of sleep. Meanwhile, the boys grew stronger and their curiosity increased. So we converted our garage into a creative lab outfitted with second-hand desks from Craigslist, a used whiteboard from a local startup, and ample art, craft, and office supplies. The results were encouraging, so I decided to do another cautiously optimistic follow-up article on our progress.

Rachel Lotan, professor emeritus at Stanford Graduate School of Education and the former director of the Stanford Teacher Education Program, believes “that the main damage of the ubiquity of screens is that it cuts down on face-to-face human interaction which is the driving force of learning.”

Four years later, we continue to limit screen time, but with modifications. Now the focus has shifted to what we call intentional technology use. For practical reasons, the kids are allowed unlimited screen time on airplanes. They FaceTime family members scattered around the globe. Our older boys have homework and projects that now require computer use, both researching topics on the internet and creating presentations on Google Drive. We support internet use for their own research projects. As an example, one of our nine-year-old twins planned our summer road trip to Vancouver, BC using a combination of physical maps, guidebooks, and online resources. Meanwhile, our six-year-old took charge of creating playlists on the iPad; his brothers chose a few audiobooks.

Start when the children are young. Remove all digital distractions and create environments that facilitate learning, curiosity, and human connection. Increasingly, research is identifying the detrimental effects on brain development of even high-quality apps. Indeed, many expected educational benefits from games may be obliterated by the harmful effects of overuse.

As a tech entrepreneur, I staunchly defend the benefits of technology since our company, Tangelo, was one of the first to develop mobile apps. However, my experience in teaching and parenting has shown me that play is paramount to academic success; discovering the non-digital world offers children a more nuanced and complete understanding of their environment. Though the problems that our children will face as adults are as yet unimaginable, we need to empower a generation of creative problem solvers – kids who feel more connected to humanity than to screens.

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