‘Dad, when can I get my own cellphone?’
I knew the day would come when our little girl would ask for her first cell phone. I just wasn’t prepared for her to start asking at six years old.
Natalie is just like any other only child growing up in Brooklyn with two gay dads. She’s animated, opinionated, sweet, smart, and, of course independent.
My partner Clint and I were working full-time. I was working around the clock on my last startup, a social app called ‘Hyper.’ Clint, a high school teacher, would come home drained after teaching seniors all day.
I would go to work trying to figure out how to get teens to spend as much time on their phones as possible, and Clint would go to work trying to get them to put their phones away.
What we weren’t doing a good job on was monitoring our own child’s tech usage. Both in terms of how much time she was spending on her iPad and what content she was consuming.
What began as a parenting crutch for us to get some quiet time under the guise of Natalie playing educational games and watching educational videos slowly devolved into brainless YouTube for hours on end.
It was all she wanted to do. What’s worse, she was spending most of her time watching other kids open up presents and toys. (This is seriously a thing).
‘We became a family of screen zombies’
Before we knew it, she was falling behind in reading in her first-grade class, and we had all turned into a family of screen zombies. The scene was all too familiar.
Day and night we would each be on a laptop, cell phone, iPad, TV, or a combination of all of the above. I was the biggest addict of us all.
I was constantly checking for ‘phantom’ updates and notifications that weren’t even there. Blindly scrolling through Apple News and liking pics on Instagram. At dinner, I was barely present at all with my friends or my family.
At some point last year, my team decided it was time to shut down Hyper. It just never caught on. Ever since, between all of the scrolling and swiping, reading and liking, I was brainstorming ideas for my next product. What would it take to be successful?
One day, a partner from the old team said to me, ‘You know what would be cool? If we helped people use their phones less.’
I looked at the human-shaped lump hiding under a blanket on the couch where I knew my daughter was watching YouTube videos and decided it was time we got to work.
Once I wanted to get everyone addicted to checking their phones. Now I wanted to get them to put their phones away and focus more on each other.
‘Only a rainbow penguin can solve this’
I started researching and reading everything I could about tech addiction, focusing, and studying. I couldn’t believe how topical this was.
According to Jean Twenge, generational psychologist and author of iGen, the average teen checks their phone more than 80 times a day and spends two and a half hours a day texting.
Researchers are just now beginning to really study and understand the social implications of all of this tech addiction. If it is like this now, I wonder – as a dad – how much of Natalie’s future high school social interactions will happen through a screen.
Slowly but surely, a new app called Hatch was born.
The game uses a positive behavior reinforcement system by rewarding users for putting down their phones with fun, mysterious creatures that hatch out of a space egg. Now, when I want to be present with my family, I open the app and set a timer for 20 minutes.
While the clock ticks down, I can have a wonderful conversation over dinner. (Or read, or stretch, or any other productive task). When the time is up, I open the app, click ‘hatch’, and discover a new friend. For the month of June, we even added a touch of Pride to the app.
Our wonderful animator created a special rainbow penguin we affectionately call Jort. Natalie just gleefully hatched one for the first time tonight after she finished 30 minutes of uninterrupted reading. This would have been an impossible task six months ago.
Fighting technology with technology is a funny idea. For now, it remains to be seen if our new app will be a commercial success. But what I can tell you is that family dinner, which used to be oriented around the TV, has migrated to the dinner table.
Instead of sitting side by side, playing on our phones while we eat, face to screen, we are chatting, face to face. And that’s the way it should be.
Words: Jason Plotch