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Balancing Technology & Life—Screen Time Tips from a Tech Camp CEO

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It’s 1980. It’s summer. I’m on the couch for hours. Many hours. All day watching endless episodes of Three’s Company and Gilligan’s Island.

I get interrupted by my older sister, Alexa, who needs me to move aside so she can watch Magnum PI.

Yep, I’ll get sucked into that too, thank you very much. It’s summer!

Really, the shows aren’t that interesting—especially not when sandwiched between all those commercials you can’t fast-forward or skip altogether. It’s just so comfy on the couch.

The shows have blurred together over the years, but mom coming in and rolling her eyes and asking us to do chores… now that stands out. “In a minute, Mom! This show’s almost over.”

We weren’t out-of-the-ordinary lazy in the summer. We had chores and responsibilities. But it took some nudging. Repeated nudging. Mom and Dad would get frustrated for having to repeat themselves over and over. And over.

Sound familiar?

OK, fast forward to 2018. It’s payback time.

I’ve got a 13-year-old, an 11-year-old, and a three-year-old. The three-year-old swipes and searches and unlocks with the best of them.

So, am I “that guy?”

That guy who is frustrated with screen time? That guy who is asking my kids three times to do one chore?

I have a hard time seeing my kids plopped on the couch in front of a screen for hours on end. It seems so wasteful.

How can I get them to take initiative and teach themselves to code, to paint, to build a fort? To go outside and shoot hoops or pick lemons and sell lemonade? Or just vacuum the living room without being asked? Just get off the devices!

If I yell, repeat myself, jump up and down, talk about “consequences,” is any of it really effective? Have I failed in getting better behavior?

My wife and I have been on a mission to change the equation.

But first, have times really changed all that much? Or do we get a little crazy for nothing? Is TV really any different than video games or Instagram? Didn’t it all turn out just fine for me after those endless marathons of 1980’s television—and are those marathons any different from today’s Netflix binge sessions?

My sister and I got good grades. We studied hard. We went to good colleges.

We turned out to be pretty successful entrepreneurs, too—we launched iD Tech Camps in 1999 along with my mother, and we’ve never looked back.

I’d also like to think we are both pretty happy, fulfilled people.

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As the CEO of a tech camp, you might expect that my kids were born to code. That they are glued to their phones 24/7. That they eat and breathe technology like there is no tomorrow.

I am going to try to reset that thinking.

Here are six things we do in our household to attempt to create well-balanced kids and a tight-knit family unit.

How to Balance Technology & Family Time

1. In the house, phones are charging.

In our house, when you come home, phones go on the charging counter. And that goes for everyone—Mr. CEO puts his phone down, too. This lasts until the kids are all in bed.

Even my three-year-old knows when I am engaged and focusing on her, versus pretending to focus on her.

2. No personal phones until high school.

I understand the urge to buy kids a smartphone. In my house, you get a smartphone when you are in high school. Not before.

I also understand the downsides and inconveniences of not having real-time communication with my kids. But is it a bad thing? Does it give them the opportunity to be resourceful? To problem solve?

FYI, two of the three have iPods (which they had to earn money for—they weren’t given to them) at the age of 11.

3. Homework, chores, and family come first.

Gaming, TV, and screen time in general are not completely prohibited during the week, but homework, chores, and family dinner come first. It’s just a habit we’ve built in day after day, week after week.

If we go off course, we talk about it and do a reset. Just like when I go off a diet… bad habits set in, so I need to reset.

4. Device-free dinners.

At dinner (either at home or in restaurants) we don’t do devices. The simple act of looking at a phone is disruptive and sucks everyone in.

Put the phone away, and on DND.  It can wait.

5. Production, not just consumption.

When it comes to technology and screen time, we are really trying to encourage “making video games,” not just playing them. Production, not just consumption.

Our kids engage in several activities (soccer, drums, piano, cooking, etc.) and we also want them to develop an interest in coding and technology.

Why?

I don’t want them to be fearful of the future job market. Instead, I want to give them a chance to use their creativity to build a passion, so they can then embrace those future opportunities.

But what we do NOT say is “you have to code!”  That will turn them off, maybe forever.

We encourage them with meaningful nudges. Here are some examples:

 

Set aside a week or two for a technology deep-dive.

Take one or two weeks to go deep into technology at iD Tech Camps each summer. It’s a tremendous skill-building place, but it’s also a great social experience.

You can supplement with year-round online private lessons—an engaging instructor can be an inspiration, and practice makes perfect.

Year after year, we give these deep experiences, and the kids just pick it up.

 

Have kids shadow a professional who is doing cool things.

Have kids “shadow” a UX designer, game developer, or data scientist. Spend a day with real people doing really cool things.

I tie it together with my kids’ own interests.

Example: my younger son loves sports. He’s great with statistics. He loves video games. Can I show him what it’s like to be a data scientist? A statistician at ESPN? A game developer at EA? It’s free and it might expose him to a world of new thinking.

 

Take a trip to a big tech show or STEM competition.

Take a trip to a big tech show like SXSW, GDC, or even MINEFAIRE. You will meet enthusiastic people, and see groundbreaking technologies.

 

Encourage kids to join their school robotics club.

From fueling students’ passions to learning professionalism, collaboration, teamwork, and more, there are many reasons why kids should join a robotics club or team.

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Talk about the cool technology with which kids are already engaged.

Talk about the cool technology kids are using. Just talk.

You like Snapchat? What are you doing with it? What was the funniest thing you saw on it today? Who built the app? How did it come to life? How did they turn an idea into a money-making product used by millions?

 

Take a field trip.

If you’re in the Bay Area, check out Tesla. The automation, technology, vision, and sense of purpose are inspirational.

 

Get inspiration from others.

See what it might be like to work in a STEM field with these student success stories. Or, check out code.org to get a sense for just how wide-reaching STEM can be.

(More suggestions on how to spark a child’s love for tech can be found here.)

Technology Isn’t Going Away

The world is a complicated place.

Everything we do in the future will revolve around technology. Every job will require tech literacy. It’s why STEM is so important. We try to explain to our kids that they have the chance to either consume or to build the future.

Technology has its downsides, and also untold promise. But, technology is not going away.

Let’s guide our kids through it thoughtfully, and lead them to a place of creativity and passion.

And one final note on that screen time: don’t give up! It can seem like a constant battle, but we as parents are best qualified to help manage that screen time and turn it into something more productive.

OK, gotta run. I heard there’s an episode of Gilligan’s Island I can watch on YouTube.

 

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iD Tech is the #1 tech camp on the planet, with 150+ locations nationwide. Kids and teens learn to code, design video games, produce videos, mod Minecraft, create with Roblox, engineer robots, model and print 3D characters, work with AI and machine learning, build laptops, learn about cybersecurity, and more!

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