Today, I’m chatting with Sean Herman. who recently released his new book Screen Captured: Helping Families Explore the Digital World in the Age of Manipulation. As the father of two young children and the founder of Kinzoo, a private messaging service that turns screen time into family time, Sean has a lot of insight into how parents can begin to tackle the issue of tech and kids.

In this interview, Sean talks about how parents can introduce tech to their kids in a healthy way and teach them how to be good digital citizens. How we can incorporate technology in a way that benefits our children and is additive to their lives.

Sean Herman: You know, speaking from my daughter’s perspective, she’s eight now and really technology has been there from day one for her. At ages two and three, we always joked because she would walk up to the TV and try to swipe it like an iPad. So, I still remember those days and that taught me a few things. Number one, she’s always watching what we’re doing and number two, that I was going to have to deal with technology as part of her life.

Over the years the relationship with technology and my daughter has been really up and down. I think we’ve had a love/hate relationship with her and the use of technology because I’ve watched her use technology to learn a lot of things, she reads a lot of books on her iPad, which is great. She stays close with friends and family, which is great as well.

But on the flip side, then, she’s seen videos with inappropriate content. She’s learned swear words, she’s made in-app purchases that she wasn’t supposed to make, and then sometimes she just vegges out in front of the iPad for long periods of time, which gets us a little worried about this notion of addiction. And so, like I say, it’s really been a love/hate relationship, but that really prompted me to do a lot more with my own research and learn more about technology and what’s actually happening in her brain.

Quality over Quantity

Nikki Van Noy: This is one of the things that I think about a lot. We’re big readers in our house, my daughter at two years old already is. I move a lot, so I got really tired of hauling books around and started switching over to mainly eBooks. I can see that she is constantly looking at me and what I’m doing.

So, I’ve really had that battle like, “Do I even want her to see me reading eBooks on my electronics?” As a parent, it becomes so difficult to figure out these lines because technology is going to be part of their lives. What’s good and what’s bad, how do you figure out what to allow and disallow and at what time? There are so many questions.

Sean Herman: There really are and those are all questions that I struggled with over the past number of years as my daughter grew up with technology. But I think one of the biggest outputs that I’ve found in doing all of my research is, often times, we as parent seem to be so focused in on the time that they’re spending on devices. So, almost every week or on a regular basis, we are seeing new guidelines being released by various bodies, whether it’s the World Health Organization or child psychologists or other people in the space, and a lot of the time those searches focused on hard limits of time that they recommend that children spend on devices.

So, as I kind of dug in and started doing a lot more of the research on it, the conclusion I really got to was I care more about what my child is doing on the device than how much time she is actually spending. So, I think it’s important that you maintain limits, we have limits in our household to make sure my daughter’s getting a good balance of screen time and off-screen time.

But I don’t think something magical happens in the brain at 30 minutes or 60 minutes or 120 minutes where suddenly it’s not a good thing for the psyche or the brain. Really what I honed in on is what they are actually doing on devices.  My research led me to basically distinguish between positive screen time, where I think tech can be a connector, and it can be a great learning tool for kids, it can be a way for them to problem solve and connect with friends and family, which I think is all positive.

On the flip side, I coin the term screen captured, to talk about the times that they’re being persuaded or manipulated by platforms to either keep them on the platform, to get them on the platform, to take a certain action on a platform. Making that distinction has really helped me remove some of that anxiety that we seem to constantly feel about tech.

Nikki Van Noy: I like that. That seems like a good middle road, realistic way to think about tech and kids.

Sean Herman: Yeah, I think so. I think that like you said earlier, technology is here to stay, so I came to that realization a long time ago. I think for us as parents, we have to look in the mirror as well and look at our own use of technology. We give kids a lot of credit, they’re always watching and we’re always setting an example.

If we are on technology constantly, it’s only natural that our children are going to want to as well. As I said earlier, I think technology can do a lot of positive things. I watch how my daughter interacts with it and whether it’s staying in touch with her grandparents who live a number of hours away, doing things with friends online, solving problems, doing math problems and things like that, I think there’s a lot of positivity that can come from tech, but of course, it’s not without its challenges and risks as well.

Nikki Van Noy: Let’s dig into that idea little bit more about how parents ultimately have to set the example and be aware of our own habits. Obviously, I would think that this involves making sure that we are not buried in our tech all the time and that we’re still engaging.

Always Watching

Sean Herman: Yeah, I think that we as parents, have to be acutely aware of what we’re doing. Our children are almost always watching us and observing what we’re doing. So, back to my example, my two-year-old son, actually oddly enough or funny enough, also walked to the TV and tried to swipe it. I guess that is a credit to the designers of technology and how intuitive it is.

Children are always watching. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen parents admonish their child for using tech, “Get off the iPad!” And then they go back to their own Instagram feed or go back to playing Candy Crush. So, I think it’s just important that we as parents are also aware of the role of technology in our lives.

While my book focuses in on the fact that younger and younger children are getting on these platforms and being exposed to the manipulative and persuasive things that the platforms are doing, we are also doing that as parents and being exposed to a lot of those same things. We’re being gamified a little bit, they take advantage of the things that are in our psyche, like the need to belong.  Social media’s done a very good or bad job, depending on how you look at it, of doing that and figuring out how to link in to our need to belong in order to keep us on platforms longer and longer.

In writing the book, obviously it was kind of in the lens of looking at my daughter and how she was using tech, specifically. My son was two, it’s a little young for him. I learned a lot about my own use of tech. I was not a big social media user anyway, but certainly, I think it’s helped me be just a little bit more aware of what’s going on behind the scenes, and the motivations of big tech in keeping us on the platform and trying to drive specific action, whether it’s staying on the platform longer or clicking on an ad or whatever it might be.

Kinzoo

Nikki Van Noy: You feel so passionate about this that you actually started an online messaging system called Kinzoo. Can you tell me a little bit about this, how it works, and what your intention is here?

Sean Herman: Yeah, definitely. Really, the beginnings of Kinzoo correspond very closely to the beginning of the book. Kinzoo came around because of a desire for my daughter to start to use connected technology with friends and family. She was watching what my wife and I were doing and saw us on our Instagram feeds or Facebook feeds. As we talked about how kids mimic their parents, she was really showing a lot of interest, getting connected, and sharing messages with my wife, me, and friends.

I took a look at what was out in the market and I found there wasn’t much. Things either fell into one of two kind of camps. Number one, there are a lot of tools out there that basically mimic social media, so they feature likes and followers, and have the children post and then try to get reactions on those posts. As I dive into in the book, I really worry about the kind of the social validation and social comparison that that’s fueling, and what that might be doing to the psyche of the brain as children are getting exposed to it and start to crave it. It taps into a bit of vulnerability that we have as people.

On the other side, we saw platforms designed for kids, but they came from major players. Such as Facebook Messenger for kids, which I didn’t feel great about for various reasons. I talk about in the book. I worry that Facebook is obviously trying to grow the next generation of Facebook users, but also just in connecting with Facebook and my daughter on Facebook, I’d be giving Facebook a lot more data on myself, which I didn’t feel great about either. For example, telling them that I have two kids and here’s how we interact and things like that. That led me to create a business plan for a new messenger that focuses on doing things, as we say, the right way.

When it comes to tech, what we’re trying to do with Kinzoo is inspire people to use it and not manipulate them too. That really led me down a rabbit hole of research in trying to get to the features set in Kinzoo that we wanted to include and the things that, just as importantly, we didn’t want to include on the platform.

I didn’t want to rely on persuasive tendencies, things that are more addictive in nature, to keep kids coming back. I want families and children to use Kinzoo because they enjoy using Kinzoo and not because they’re craving the feed, or need to see what’s happening, or how many likes their post got. That led to Kinzoo, and that’s really what we’re trying to do with both the book and Kinzoo. At the end of the day, what I’m really trying to do is make technology a much more positive force in the lives of families.

Nikki Van Noy: It’s interesting. When I hear you talk about Kinzoo, it sounds to me sort of the digital version of being a kid in the 80s, where you weren’t being manipulated or prompted to use the telephone to call your grandparents. You were doing it because it was an available mode of communication.

Sean Herman: Tristan Harris, who is one of my heroes and who I speak about in the book, he has a great line where he talks about telephones in that kind of context, and what he says is what was different about telephones back then is you didn’t have thousands of engineers on the other side of the telephone trying to figure out how to keep us on the telephone or keep us coming back to it.

That’s a reality of where the world is at today and I just didn’t feel that there were platforms out there that have that kind of lens. In the context of a business, it definitely benefits the business to have more users on the platform, there’s no doubt about that.

What we’re trying to do at Kinzoo is really build a ground swell, a kind of a grassroots feel to it, a community feel, where parents and families can join. We want to actively communicate and interact with them, and really build a platform that people feel very good about. We want to remove some of the anxiety that we as parents feel about technology, and make technology a much more positive force, and make technology a less contentious issue in the household. I was getting tired of fighting with my daughter all the time about iPad use or how much time she was spending on it.

I think there is a good opportunity to strip away all the negative aspects of tech and focus on the good. I think the good aspects of tech are actually quite awesome. I’m quite envious of children today and the world that they have available to them. Again, we have to focus on the right things and strip away the things that could be potentially harmful.

Being a Good Online Citizen

Nikki Van Noy: You talk about how being a parent today involves an element of demonstrating to our children how to be good online citizens. Can you talk to me a little bit about what that entails?

Sean Herman: Yeah, definitely. I think that there are a lot of ways that we as parents can do that. Really what it means, I think first and foremost, is participating. I think leading up to or taking a look at technology, and how I felt as my daughter was starting to get onboard and onto it, before I started doing a lot of the research into it, it really felt like an all or nothing type of decision.

I could keep her off technology all together, or I felt like I had to open the flood gates and let her go and do my best to mitigate. That just didn’t feel like a good way of doing things. I think a lot of parents can relate to every time your child wants to download a new game or app, you want to do the research. You want to take the time and sometimes it is challenging to do that.

So, what we are trying to do is twofold, number one, educate parents on making that decision easier. As children are looking to get the newest game or app, we want to arm parents with some knowledge about how to easily tell if that is a platform that a child should be using, and age ratings don’t always work unfortunately.

The other thing that we are really trying to do is create a platform where parents could act as a mentor on that platform and teach their kids what it means to be a good digital citizen. What I mean by that is my daughter can watch me interact with my brother and her uncle, and we can have playful fun and poke each other, and playful jabs at each other in a non-hurtful way. So, she can watch that and hopefully differentiate between that and cyber bullying.

I think what it also means is just being acutely aware that everything we put out is on our permanent record and on our digital footprint. So, teaching my daughter at an early age, the importance of being on a private and secure platform, but even that doesn’t guarantee that things are truly private and secure.

Unfortunately, we see instances almost every week where somebody’s past is coming back to bite them, something that they did on social media, something that they posted online, something that they shared on a collaborative document with classmates, or whatever it might be. We are really trying to educate parents about that, but also give a platform where in real time, parents can that kind of feedback, and teach your kids what it means to be online, without just giving them the keys and hoping for the best.

Nikki Van Noy: I love that. So, going back to our earlier discussion about how children are these little mimics, you are setting up a scenario where they can see good digital behaviors and mimic it.

Sean Herman: I think that watching interactions between people and participating in them will be a new experience. There are other things that we are trying to do as well in terms of doing things like helping to keep creation and consumption in check. So, when my child is on her iPad, what I am really mindful of is how much time is she actually creating things and problem solving, versus just sitting there and consuming content on YouTube or whatever platform it might be.

So, in addition to watching that, we are also giving tools so that children can be creative, where they can problem solve, and then they can share their creations with friends and family as well.

Nikki Van Noy: Excellent. Okay, so one of the things I have really enjoyed about talking to you is that you have a positive slant on all of this, and I feel like we can get a little bit gloom and doom when it comes to kids and technology. So, let’s leave listeners with a thought or something they can feel really positive about in terms of where the world is headed in your mind with our kids and their access to technology.

Sean Herman: Sure. It was really interesting writing this book because it was kind of a positive/negative/positive take on technology. Certainly, there is a lot out there. I think that is just the nature of how news works–we tend to see a lot more negatives than positive. So, some thoughts that I would leave people with would be that at the end of the day, I think technology can be a very positive force for children and families, but of course, it is not without its risks.

As I talked about earlier, I am asked all the time how much screen time children should have. When parents ask me that, I politely say, “Your heart is in the right place, but you’re just asking the wrong question.”

The time our children spend on devices is far less important than what they are actually doing with that screen time. Also, at the end of the day, really quality over quantity matters when it comes to screen time. I coined the term screen captured, which really refers to anytime we are being subtly manipulated or persuaded by tech platforms to take a desired action. Whether that is visiting the platform or posting content, or eventually clicking on ads, which are really the backbone of how they work.

I think technology can be great, but we as parents must differentiate between positive screen time and being screen captured. What I am really trying to do in the book is arm parents to make that distinction. And again, having this understanding has really removed a lot of the anxiety that I used to feel about technology, and it has made technology a much more positive force in my household.

I have also armed myself to have much better conversations about technology with my kids. It is much easier for me to decide which games and apps my daughter can use, which ones require more or less supervision, which ones need to be avoided at her age–hint, hint, it’s social media. I want other parents to feel the same. It is a much better feeling to be able to identify and evaluate different games, apps, and platforms.

Technology is Here to Stay

Nikki Van Noy: Finally, is there anything I haven’t asked you that you would like to go ahead and add in here to make sure listeners hear?

Sean Herman: Yes, a few other thoughts. I touch on this earlier, but until recently, I’d say technology was the single largest point of contention in our household. We argued about how much time my daughter was spending on the iPad. My wife and I felt really anxious around it and especially when she was starting to get more connected to technology.

Over the course of researching for the book, we have been armed to have much more productive conversations about technology and ask all the right questions. As a result, technology has become much more of a connector than a divider in our household. I can point to things, like my daughter and I, we code mods together on Minecraft and Roblox, which is really cool. I’ve learned how to really keep things like YouTube in check. We definitely haven’t banned YouTube. My thoughts on it are pretty conflicted, but there are things that we can do to keep it safer.

My wife and I, at the end of the day, feel much more prepared for my two-year-old son and how we plan to incorporate technology into his life more and more as he gets older. I just hope that parents can start to view screen time differently and start focusing on maximizing the positive screen time, while reducing or eliminating those activities that really focus on keeping us screen captured.

I am hoping in the book I have done my best to share, in what I think is a fairly practical and digestible way, to move the conversation forward. Unfortunately, as I touch on in the book, the tech platforms themselves, we can’t rely on them to do it because the motivations are just not in line. I think that they mean as well as they can. I don’t think that they are doing things to be evil, but the motivation for them is to attract and retain users. That just doesn’t line up with things like safety and privacy all the time.

Platforms are after users and what’s interesting is a lot of the original founders of social media have started to speak out against what they did. They speak out against the dopamine cycle and they tell us how they really gamed us as people and used our vulnerabilities to help the platforms grow.

What I try to do in the book is really break it down into why they’re motivated and why they do these things, only to renounce them later. It’s all about user growth and retaining users. That’s just the way the world works, and our children will eventually get on to that.

I know my daughter will eventually be on TikTok or Snapchat or whatever the newest social platform might be, but really, what I’m trying to do is have good conversations with her now. Through the book, I’m hoping to arm other parents to do the same. What we’re trying to do with Kinzoo, as well, is to give a platform that can be a bit of learning ground for children, so that by the time she goes on to social media, my hope is that she is better equipped to value the right things, which is real connections, over social validation metrics like likes and followers. Hopefully I will have armed her to treat people better online because we know it can be pretty toxic out there so.

I think the wrong thing to do is just ignore tech. I think it’s here, it’s here to stay. All you have to do is go to a restaurant, or an airport and look around it, you will see how many kids are on phones or iPads. The fact is it’s here and we can’t just ignore it anymore, we really have to arm ourselves to understand it better and make better decisions.