Parent Like A Tech Exec

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By: Brooke Shannon and Dr. Richard Freed

Technology titans are issuing startling warnings about the dangers of social media and excess screen time for kids. 

Facebook’s first president Sean Parker said of the social platform he helped build, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” Tony Fadell—a key member of the original iPhone design team—described tech’s negative impact on his own kids, and confessed he wakes up in “cold sweats every so often thinking what did we bring to the world?” And last year, legendary Silicon investor Roger McNamee wrote, “In the pursuit of profit, internet platforms are mounting an assault on the minds of children.”

As more tech leaders speak out, it’s not surprising that parents everywhere are questioning how to navigate a world in which the average American child gets a smartphone at ten years old and 45 percent of U.S. teenagers report that they are online almost constantly.  

In our respective roles as the founder of a grassroots parents’ movement to address smartphone risks and a child psychologist, parents frequently ask us what they should do about screen time and their kids.  

Our simple, shorthand answer: “Parent like a tech exec.”  

You see, technology executives aren’t just raising the alarm about the dangers of screens and devices; they’re instituting new practices in their own families to guard against those dangers and equip their kids to thrive in this brave new tech world.

Parenting like a tech exec includes carefully considering three key aspects of your child’s everyday life—personal, home, and school—and adopting approaches that best fit your own family. 

Children’s Personal Tech Use: Wait

While many parents are giving their kids personal smartphones and social media accounts at an early age, the watchword for tech makers is “wait.”

Bill and Melinda Gates waited until their kids were 14 years old before giving them smartphones, and Melinda acknowledged, in hindsight, that even this was too soon. Similarly, tech entrepreneur and formerWired editor Chris Anderson’s first rule for kids and screens is “No phones until the summer before high school.” 

Another Anderson home rule is “No social media until 13.” Likewise, Apple CEO Tim Cook said he didn’t want his 12-year-old nephew on social media. 

A big—and very real—challenge in delaying the smartphone is peer pressure. No parent wants his or her child to be socially isolated. To help solve this problem, one of us started the Wait Until 8th pledge to empower families to delay the smartphone until at least 8th grade by waiting together. Of note, basic flip phones are permitted.

Home: Healthy Boundaries and Alternatives

When it comes to the home, many tech execs approach screen time like food, by creating healthy boundaries to prevent “junk” consumption. Tony Fadell recommends: “Screen time rules, living in the moment, screen-free meals… tech-free days for the family to be together.” Apple employee Minni Shahi and her husband, Vijay Koduri, formerly at Google, keep video game systems out of their home.

What can children, and their parents, do if they aren’t on gaming systems and other devices? 

Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs’ biographer, said of the Jobs’ family: “Every evening Steve made a point of having dinner at the big long table in their kitchen, discussing books and history and a variety of things… No one ever pulled out an iPad or computer.” 

Fadell endorses “relearning analog objects like books & writing & sketching.” Evan Williams—a founder of Twitter, Blogger, and Medium—together with his wife provided their two young boys hundreds of print books rather than iPads. And former Facebook exec Chamath Palihapitiya tells his kids “to figure it out. Go outside, skin your knee. Fall on the ground. Play a sport. Lose at something.” 

School: Get involved

"Too much. Too much. Too much." That’s how MIT psychologist and professor Sherry Turkle describes schools’ increasing reliance on technology in classrooms, which are often stuffed with Chromebooks, iPads, and personal devices, despite growing evidence that heavy tech use may harm academic performance. Turkle notes that many tech executives are choosing instead to send their children to Montessori, Waldorf, and other private low- or no-tech schools. 

Of course, for most parents switching schools is not an attractive solution, financially or socially. Yet you can still parent like a tech exec.

Ask your school for screen alternatives. If all your child’s schoolwork is on a tablet, request textbooks and worksheets. Some classrooms have a limited number of hardbacks for special requests. If not, explore purchasing textbooks for your child. To assist teachers of elementary-age children on bad-weather days, organize an indoor recess drive for classroom board games, blocks, and Legos.

If your child’s school allows personal phone use during class, consider the Away for the Day program, which suggests step-by-step instructions to approach schools about limiting student phone use. Alternatively, encourage your school to use Yondr pouches to keep student phones locked up during the school day or classroom pocket charts for phone parking. 

As you consider how you might parent like a tech executive, consider taking a hard look at, and possibly making changes to, your own personal screen habits. As any successful tech executive will tell you, leadership starts at the top. Your children learn from you. If you don’t want your child’s most important possession to be a screen, don’t make it yours. 

Brooke Shannon lives in Austin with her husband and three daughters. She is the founder and the Executive Director of the Wait Until 8th pledge. The pledge empowers parents to delay the smartphone for their children until at least 8th grade. Join close to 20,000 parents in saying yes to waiting on the smartphone by pledging today.

Richard Freed, Ph.D., is a child and adolescent psychologist and a leading authority on raising children in the digital age.  Dr. Freed is author of the Wired Child . He lives in Walnut Creek, California and is the father of two girls.

Please consider delaying the smartphone for your child with the Wait Until 8th pledge. There are so many reasons to wait. Currently the average age a child receives a smartphone is 10 years old despite the many distractions and dangers that comes with this technology. Join close to 20,000 parents by signing the pledge today.

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