An App to Save Kids From Their Phones

Earlier this week, we had a chance to speak with Amir Moussavian, the CEO of OurPact, an app for parents to help parents limit their children’s phone use. Our conversation covered young people’s phone addictions, what kids can do, and how we all need better boundaries with our technology.

For those who haven’t heard of it, can you just give a quick breakdown of what OurPact is, how it works, and why you think it’s important?

We’re in the midst of a huge cultural shift. Technology is no longer a convenience, it’s a necessity – and it’s systematically changing the way we communicate, learn, and share.

We know there are benefits to giving children access to mobile devices, but there are also risks if that access is unlimited. It’s easy to say screens aren’t allowed at the dinner table and past 8PM, or that only educational apps can be used during homework time… But the reality of setting those boundaries? Not so simple. These devices are mobile – managing how and when they are being used is nearly impossible, and creates a lot of room for conflict.

The goal with OurPact is to close the digital divide between parents and their kids, by allowing parents to remotely manage their children’s device access through a variety of features: selective app control, screen time allowances, automated block schedules, timed remote blocks, internet filtering, and even location monitoring. You don’t need to hover over your child during homework time to make sure they’re using Khan Academy instead of Snapchat, or worry that screens are being used after bedtime. Instead, you can set a clear media plan in the app that only allows educational apps during homework time, and blocks devices automatically during bedtime hours. Not only does this encourage kids to develop responsible device habits from an early age – which is essential – but it also gives parents peace of mind they can’t afford to spare.

 Out of curiosity, what was your inspiration for the app? Was it personal?

My wife and I were having a really hard time managing our daughter’s devices. Screens were at the dinner table, causing distractions during homework time, and generally creating a lot of unnecessary tension in our home. I would say an hour of tablet time was OK, then find them still immersed in their games two hours later… If I asked why they went past their allowed time, they would say ‘we lost track of time!’ or ‘we thought you were going to count!’. It was exhausting. Then, one night I found my older daughter wide-eyed, FaceTiming a friend after bedtime. Until that point, I thought I had screen time under control… That was my real wake-up call.

I wanted to set very clear boundaries around screen time, and position their devices as a privilege, but I also wanted to involve my daughters in the process of making those rules, so they could be understood as agreements.

It started with a ‘Pact’ we wrote together and taped on the fridge. One morning, I found myself looking at that contract on our fridge after getting into yet another argument about screens at breakfast. There was still something missing from the equation. At the time, I owned a different software company, and I’ve always been wired to think about how technology can simplify challenges. In that moment, I decided technology was the problem, but it could also be the solution. They say necessity is the mother of all inventions! The rest is history.

Jean Twenge, in her research on “Igen,” points to screen time and social media as a major concern for young people’s mental health. What do you make of this research, and how OurPact can help?

I think it’s really important to frame these conversations around the notion of balance. If kids and teens have unbridled access to social media, problems will arise – that shouldn’t come as a surprise. But, as Jean highlights in iGen, social media also has advantages; if used responsibly, it can help our children understand and feel understood, connect, explore, and learn.

From a parenting perspective, the focus should be on what we can do to guide responsible use into adulthood, and setting clear technical boundaries on when social media should and shouldn’t be used. Connecting with friends online is great, but not during homework time, before bed, or when you are socializing with family and friends in person. Social media isn’t going to disappear tomorrow, so we need to teach kids and teens to be conscious social media participants. Once that foundation is set, we’re in a great position to minimize the risks of these platforms, and amplify their rewards.

As a young person, I see a lot of my friends on their phones all the time. But, in all honesty, the people I know who are most addicted are adults, checking their emails, texting, doing things for work. How do you think parents can use OurPact to parent themselves?

We encourage parents to follow the OurPact guidelines they set for their children, within reason. Again, it comes down to clear boundaries – if you block your children’s devices for family dinners, set yours aside for that same amount of time… Don’t use screens an hour before bedtime, and understand that you can neither send your best work emails from the dinner table or be the best parent and partner in those moments if you are distracted by your device.

Being constantly plugged in isn’t healthy or realistic, and prevents us from being fully present in a meaningful way. We don’t want to pass poor digital habits on to our kids; by practicing what you preach, you demonstrate first-hand the role screens can and should play in our lives.

Finally, I think the biggest concern for some people with OurPact would be privacy–don’t kids deserve their own world? How can parents use the app in a way that doesn’t inhibit kids’ right to be kids while still limiting their screen time?

That’s a great question.

Since day one, OurPact has been geared towards guidance, not control. We really want our solution to help parents and children develop trust, not disrupt it. OurPact doesn’t display text message history, call logs, or social media activity. Instead, it helps parents set up reasonable boundaries, and trust their children to continue making the right decisions from there.

Having ongoing, age-appropriate conversations about how you expect your children to behave online comes first. OurPact acts as an accessory and conduit to those conversations, not a replacement.

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