Parenting is hard, especially in a tech-driven culture where screen time often cuts into family time. When you work all day and come home to young children, there seldom seems to be time to catch your breath.
But modern children love using mobile devices to watch, read and play, so it can be tempting to simply let them delve into endless online content while you put your feet up. It's a challenge that Priyanka Raha, founder and CEO of PopSmartKids, understands firsthand.
"As a mother and technologist working in the corporate world, I was constantly juggling a lot of things for both my family and my career," said Raha. "When my kids were of the age that they could have independent screen time, I found myself using it as a refuge to keep my kids engaged."
Unfortunately, Raha said, relying on digital devices to hold her sons' attention had unintended consequences that caused them to withdraw.
"When my sons engaged in creative activities, like painting or building with LEGOs, they would want to share and display what they had done," she said. "But when they were on their digital devices, they were glued; they were entranced, super focused and did not share what they were doing on their screens."
"It was as if their devices sucked their attention into a black hole for hours on end, and I didn't know how to get them out," she added.
Developing a solution to the 'black-hole phenomenon'
Raha wanted to find a way to interact with her children without dictating when they could use their devices. She began to sit down with her sons for just a few minutes every day to discuss the things they were watching and playing on their devices. Her goal was always to get them to think beyond the media they were consuming.
What took Raha's conversations with her children to the next level was the simple concept of storytelling. By walking through the stories with her children, not only did she gain an understanding of the content they were consuming, but it also helped them unpack all the ideas in that content as well. There are some basic elements every good story needs, including the setting, characters, plot, conflict, character development and a narrative arc. By discussing storylines with her children, Raha found her children were happy to engage with her, giving her a window into their tech activity while also strengthening their bond.
"Thus, PopSmartKids was born," she said, "to help me mentor my kids on their relationship with their devices."
How PopSmartKids makes tech time engaging
Raha launched PopSmartKids in 2018 to help other parents and teachers leverage the principles of storytelling to revitalize tech time just as she did with her sons. PopSmartKids serves as a platform to take those conversations Raha had with her children to the next level. Raha said PopSmartWrite, an application designed to help parents facilitate the conversation, is set to launch in June 2019.
"Our collaborative storytelling app can be used on the same tablets kids use to watch TV shows and video clips," said Raha. "The app ignites the imagination and explores creativity through writing, art and photos. It also creates a personal learning network that connects students, teachers and parents."
PopSmartWrite, which is currently in beta testing and available on iOS and Android devices, gamifies the learning experience. It allows parents to create groups so the whole family can get in on the storytelling. For example, users can follow along with a story about a family pet, writing personal anecdotes, drawing pictures and taking photos. The application includes a storytelling guide to help users improve their writing and communications skills, as well as a coin system to reward activity.
"We see our app as a means to engage with children during the creative process, thereby making screen time a transformative tool for learning and creative endeavors," Raha said.
Finding a work-life balance between business and family
The irony of launching a company that champions togetherness and family time is that running a business is time-consuming, making it difficult to achieve an ideal work-life balance. Raha said she continues to learn how to keep work and family time separate, but staying conscientious and making quality time for both her family and her business is key.
"The need to balance entrepreneurship and parenthood has made me very good at prioritizing," said Raha. "There are only so many hours in a day, and you have a million things as an entrepreneur, as well as a parent, that you need to accomplish. This scarcity of time as a resource makes you go for the activities that will the biggest ROI, whether that's for your business or your family."
Raha also continues to use her family's appetite for technology as a crucial meeting ground for learning about one another and critically analyzing the content her children are consuming. Just because technology can be isolating doesn't mean it has to be, Raha said.
"Many parents feel guilty about using a screen as a babysitter when they need to decompress," Raha said. "Take the pressure off yourself and let your child have independent time with [their] digital device while you take a breath or two. Later, when you've had time to relax and recharge, ask about what [they] were doing and express interest in [their] digital activity."
Better yet, Raha said, put control of the conversation in your child's hands.
"Encourage your kid to show you how to play a particular video game," she said. "If you find the content questionable, critique the game and not the child. Work with [them] to find a more suitable game … the key is to collaborate, not dictate."
Ultimately, Raha added, working parents should not feel a "fear of missing out" whenever they simply want to be home parenting. Doing what is best for yourself and your family, she said, will always help you balance work and life. Taking a similar approach to technology and family time can revitalize screen time into an enriching experience for everyone.