Over the past few years, I’ve traveled to 50 countries researching happiness. During this time I have worked with nearly half of the Fortune 100 companies, did a two hour interview with Oprah in her backyard, and been invited by the White House to speak at Camp David. But by far the biggest learning moment during that time was having a baby. My wife, Michelle Gielan, is also a happiness researcher, and we have been shocked by how much our nearly 3 year old son Leo has already taught us about joy. But if you ask us both what the biggest challenge has been so far, it hasn’t been lack of sleep or the loss of personal time or continually getting kicked all night in hotel rooms. The biggest challenge to happiness has been technology.
In the new book The Future of Happiness, Amy Blankson from Harvard and Yale University outlines how technology is at once one of the greatest sources of joy and education for our kids and at the same time one of the greatest chances for learning negative thought patterns and exposure to violent or sexual imagery. So many parents would like their kids to have access to the educational content of the internet and the security of constant access to their kids with a smartphone, but they forgo these benefits because they are worried about negative content that their kid might stumble across on the internet. This is a problem that can and must be solved. How can we make the internet and technology safe enough that our kids can reap the advantages of living in an interconnected world?
My wife and I, like most parents, want to raise a positive, calm, loving and resilient child in the midst of an immediate gratification and high stimulation world, which is exactly what lead me to looking for something that could combine positive psychology and technology together. This eventually led us to KidsWifi. In short, this inventive device can eliminate the negative content on the internet and replace it with positive, educational content. In The Happiness Advantage, I wrote, “We can’t just eliminate the negative. The absence of disease is not health. Health is what happens on the positive side of the curve where we see what our brains and bodies are capable of achieving.” Which is why I fell in love with KidsWifi. KidsWifi not only makes the internet safe again, it dramatically transforms the internet into a platform for educating our kids through positive content.
The times are changing. When we first had Leo, all the parents who read tons of books about raising kids told us that screen time is bad and that they would not allow their kids to ever look at a phone until they were teenagers. This is because places like the American Academy of Pediatrics had previously suggested no screen time for kids under two and a two hour maximum of screen time for older kids. This created a fear of technology for our kids.”[i] But as Jordan Shapiro from Forbes writes, “Screens are now a ubiquitous part of our lives. It is a technology that has been completely integrated into the human experience. At this point, worrying about exposure to screens is like worrying about exposure to agriculture, indoor plumbing, the written word, or automobiles.”[ii] And in 2016, the AAP changed their advice, “In a world where ‘screen time’ is becoming simply ‘time,’ our policies must evolve or become obsolete.” As a result the AAP abandoned the time limits, and instead offered suggestions for how to be online. The most important conclusion to me as a researcher was: “Content matters. The quality of content is more important than the platform or time spent with media.”
I totally agree, we had been putting out emphasis upon the wrong part of the equation. It is not the quantity as much as the quality of the screen’s content that determines its effect upon children. Two hours of a nature documentary like Planet Earth versus two minutes of abusive or pornographic content will have a dramatically different outcome for a child’s brain.
Every parent knows without needing research that they don’t want their kids exposed to sex and violence too early. The challenge from the research side is there is not going to be an experimental study showing a direct causal link between negative sexual content and the brain of a young child. As pointed out by David Segal of The New York Times, no university is willing to put their name on a research paper in which the researchers intentionally showed sexually explicit videos to young kids to test the results.[iii] Not only is that unethical, it’s against the law. So all of the research on the negative effects of internet use is correlational, not causal. While there are limitations on the research, all of the researchers I have talked to will quickly say that they do not want their own kids exposed to sex or violence online at a young age.
There are better studies on violence (which is weird that our society allows for violence to be shown to children). For example, we know that violent media activates the emotion-attention network which can blunt our emotional response to negative content.[iv] This in turn makes it more likely for an adolescent to pursue aggressive behavior without the emotional cost of thinking about negative consequences. Our best guess without being able to do the causal studies with sexual content, is that the same desensitization can occur with sexual content for children. In other words, showing sex or violence to children has the propensity to 1) desensitize them, 2) help them visualize negative patterns of behavior, and 3) create false models of human interactions. You are what you eat, but from psychology we know you also become what you watch.
Outside of the lab and in the real world, with multiple smartphones, iPads, computers, etc. roaming around the house, parents have lost the control over not just the quantity, but more importantly the quality of the content. Most parents I talk to have no idea what their kids are searching for or watching. And as they get older, they get better and better at hiding their trail. It literally only requires clicking to “open private window” and now your parents cannot follow your internet steps without utilizing very difficult to use and highly invasive snooping technology that is actually very easy to circumvent.
Enter KidsWifi, which is the brainchild of multiple entrepreneurs from the fifth largest telecommunications company in Canada, Fibernetics. John Stix, Co-Founder of Fibernetics had stepped down from his position as President to completely immerse himself in KidsWifi’s mission of protecting children online. He met with me after one of my talks on positive psychology. During the talk, I described how KidsWifi dovetailed with the research I was doing on how positive interventions at a young age can improve grades, well-being, and resilience. I realized at once that this invention is a very powerful tool. Simply by plugging in what looks like a large nightlight into the wall and specifying the age of your kids, KidsWifi uses the most advanced algorithms in the industry to scan for pornographic, abusive, violent, or bullying content then eliminates them from every device in your house that your kids use.
Parental filters or controls are not new. But almost no parent I know uses them. That’s because they are complex programs, they are for individual devices (like just one phone), and most importantly, they are easy for kids to circumvent. The only way for a kid to get around KidsWifi is for them to unplug it, which shuts down the internet for the house. But as a positive psychology researcher, this is not what most interests me. I know from researching positive habits and studying addiction therapy something important: you cannot just try to eliminate a negative habit like smoking, you must replace the negative with a positive, like walking or basketball.
Michelle and I very much want the internet to be part of our son’s education and entertainment. People can complain all they want about “the good old days,” but if something was not in our decade-old encyclopedia set we had growing up, we couldn’t learn about it. If I wanted to learn about the Challenger explosion, I’d have to watch the entire nightly news waiting for it — while being exposed to murder and horrific car accidents. When I told my son about how the seasons change because of the tilt of the earth, I took him online where he could watch a sped up version of the Earth rotating, taken from satellites in space, with the African savannah drying up and then becoming lush. When he talked about a snowcat truck, I was able to show him one of the few videos in the world of a snow leopard in Asia. What I dream of as a parent is an internet that only has positive and educational content for my son. While we only have one internet, and while nothing is perfect, KidsWifi turns that dream into more of a reality for our family.
I let my son watch Inside Out on my iPad last month, and he turned to me and said, “I am so happy to be watching this.” A little of me puffed up inside with pride that I was making my son happy. However, 15 minutes later when I decided that he needed to interact with the world (i.e. me) all hell broke loose. I told him he was having a “temper tantrum” and he yelled back, “I am not having that thing!” We are now using the iPad as a way to teach our son limits, but we feel better as researchers and parents using KidsWifi to first find limits for what gets on the phone in the first place.
This article was first published on KidsWifi Blog.
Shawn Achor is New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness. His TED talk is one of the most popular, with over 14 million views. He has lectured or researched at over a third of the Fortune 100 and in 50 countries, as well as for the NFL, Pentagon and White House. Shawn is leading a series of courses on “21 Days To Inspire Positive Change” with the Oprah Winfrey Network.