Empathy is The App: My TEDx

When other parents find out that I research and teach about kids’ everyday lives and digital media and about how family life is affected by things like smartphones and video games… parents tend to corner me with questions. They tend to share their anxieties…

There is a LOT of anxiety out there.

Parents let me know that they’re worried when they walk into a room and their tween and all of their friends are looking down at something. And parents say to me, “I’m concerned that our kids have no social skills. I’m concerned that my kid is addicted to games. I’m concerned that they’re double-screening and multitasking to the point that it’s not clear that they’ll ever really be able to focus on anything. I’m concerned that they’re going to take a naughty picture, hear about a naughty picture, receive a naughty picture, and their innocence will be destroyed. I’m concerned that they’re going to become a cyber bully, or be cyber bullied, or be blackmailed…
“I don’t know what they’re doing on there but I’m worried about it...”

This is just a normal part of the cycle of anxiety about technology.

As a media historian, I can say that people were concerned about the train moving more than 30 miles an hour. And the telephone was going to destroy family life, and domestic harmony, and peace, and now many of us depend on the telephone to support family life. So that cycle of anxiety is normal for any time a technology changes our relationship with time and space, and changes our relationships with one another.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about. Just because this is a cycle of anxiety doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be concerned about. I just think we’re worrying about the wrong things. We’re worried too much about the salacious news headlines, and not enough about what kind of people our children will become. Will they be thoughtful in their communication? And will they take advantage of the power, the incredible power of digital sharing, for positive outcomes?

Many parents ask me, “Should I spy on my kid? Should a put a little chip in their phone or maybe a little chip in their brain to know everything that they’re texting, everything that they’re sharing, everything that they’re posting?” Well, one of my big questions back to those parents is, “What would you really be looking for? Because their texts will be very, very boring.” Right? So we really need to know before we even start down the road of spying, what would we even be looking for? And before we try to catch our kids doing the wrong thing, we need to thing about have we done a good enough job modeling the right things? Have we thought enough about what we want them to do? As opposed to this idea that we’re going to catch them doing the wrong thing.

We need to get really curious, because if we want to raise kids who are thoughtful and use the power of digital communication for positive things, we need to get really curious about what is it actually like to be a 10-year-old with a smartphone. What’s it like to watch a slumber party that you weren’t invited to unfold on social media in real time while you are at home on a Saturday night and you’re in fifth grade? What’s that really that like? We need to get curious about kids’ lived experience with technology, the amazing pieces, the possibilities for authorship, the kids designing their inventions and sharing them and launching successful Kickstarters, and the challenging pieces, the social pieces that are not so easy. The ways the digital footprint can constrain young people at a time when they should be able to experiment with their identities.

So I designed research to take me into kids’ experiences, because in order to raise kids with empathy we need to understand more about their day-to-day lives.

We need to research kids in their habitat, find out what’s really happening. And the great thing is when I’ve gone to groups of kids who are mostly 10 to 12 years old in the last two years and said to them, “Look, I have a PhD in media technology and society, but you are the experts. Tell me what it’s like to be an 11-year-old with a smartphone with access to that much information. Or tell me what it’s like to be the last kid in your class to get one, or the first.” They put on their expert hats. These 10- to 12-year-old are so smart. They put on their expert hats and they come to me with these incredibly high-level insights. I’m talking bullet-points, okay? They’re coming back with really thoughtful questions, ideas and solutions.

I worked with the kids to co-create some solutions to some of the problems that they see in their day-to-day lives. The conversations show me that these kids are very creative, very insightful, and that they do have a lot of empathy, but that they need modeling and they need help navigating this world.

So the first problem that the kids tell me about: “Everywhere I go, is this.” That every time someone tries to reach them, they feel like they need to be accessible, because the technology allows for that. The technology allows for me to send you a text message and get instantaneous feedback.

The fact that we’re actually all human and that we can’t always be available for an instant response is really challenging to navigate! If you’re a new user of this technology, and you go to text one of your friends, and they don’t text back right away, it’s easy to think “this person doesn’t want to be my friend anymore!” And so we text again, and again, and again, and some of us may know adults who have this problem, right? And so we need to really get curious, what could this person be doing? Right? That’s the least likely thing. The least likely thing is they don’t want to be my friend anymore. The most likely thing is that they’re doing something else. They’re sleeping, they’re doing their homework, they’re eating dinner with their parents.

Just by having that conversation, we’re raising the level of empathy in that community. But then we co-create a solution, and this is just a prototype. You can’t buy this for your most annoying friend, but just know that they came up with this great solution where it limits the number, this is an app, the ‘Text Lock’ app, that limits the number of texts you can send when they’re not being responded to in a certain window of time. So if I start texting somebody, I can only text them so many times and if they don’t respond, I have to stop and walk away.

This app does not exist, but empathy is the app, right? So what we really need to do and what I tell the kids to do, is “just close your eyes and imagine your friend doing her homework, or shooting some hoops in the driveway with her dad, or eating dinner with her family, and you’ll be okay. You’ll realize that she just can’t get back to you right now.” And it’s really helpful for the kids. Right? They really don’t need this app. Empathy is the app. They don’t need ‘Text Lock’.

The next problem they talk about is “What do you do when you send a communication and it’s not so nice?” Or you send a communication that because the affect isn’t there when we text, or when we post to social media, and we can’t see the other person, maybe we’re unintentionally not so nice. We hurt their feelings in some way. So they came up with an app called Sparkle Chat that asks a very important question when we type our next communication, which is just, “Are you sure you want to send that?”

Now how many people in this room feel like if they had just had this app, some problem in their lives, in their communication could have been prevented, right? We probably all need a little app that gives a little thought bubble, “Are you sure you want to send that?” Now the young version of this app, because the kids design levels, because they’re so smart. They design levels so for very new users of this technology, they also said that if you persist, if you send after getting that “are you sure you want to send that” where it’s detected some problem in the communication, and you persist and you send, then it sends a copy to both the recipient’s parents and the sender’s parents.

I’m a mom, and I could not have designed a more parental app for kids learning how to communicate with one another. This suggests that even though the kids have tech savvy, they still want some mentorship. Right? They need our mentorship, in fact, more than they need monitoring, more than they need us to spy on them. They need us to help them figure out what do we do when things go wrong in a communication and how can we avoid it, if possible, and how can we fix it, if it’s already happened?

The next application that I worked on with the kids came about in response to a problem that every single group of kids I’ve talked to has. Every single kid that I’ve met, this age, who I’ve talked to about what problems in your life does technology exacerbate have all talked about the most important people in their lives being inaccessible because of technology. Because the cloud of technology that surrounds these people makes them so inaccessible when they are needed most. And they often don’t seem to know then they’re needed.

They feel like they’re not needed. So, they designed an app: “Stop Texting, Enjoy Life” for their parents. And this app is voice-activated and it will actually shut down Mom or Dad’s phone. So what it does is you train the app to recognize your voice, the voice of your children, so that random kids can’t come up to you on the street and turn off your phone, and if you’re in the car and you’re potentially picking up your kid and they are in texting and they’re talking to you and they start speaking, it can either turn it off right away, or, because the kids have so much empathy, if you’re doing something really important it might give you a little extra time, so you can set it on a 3-minute setting, or if you’re fond of five more minutes seeing your children, you can get a five more minutes, but they’re turning the timer back on us.

We have timed their use of technology and they’re letting us know that they want to turn the timer back on their parents, because parents are, because of mobility, accessible to their employers, their mother-in-law, anyone, all the time. And so we need to find a way around that. And again, this app doesn’t exist, but when your children are trying to speak to you, you can close your eyes and picture this little bird, and think, “Okay, Stel, right Stel, stop texting, enjoy life. Okay, I’m here. I’m here now.”

So empathy is the app! We shouldn’t need this app, but it’s a great conversation that got us here. And the fact that the kids feel urgent enough that they design an app that would actually shut down the parents’ devices, tells us a lot about their day-to-day experience with technology. They do want our attention. They may seem like they don’t, especially at the age that many of them are getting their own mobile devices. But they do want our attention, and they need our mentorship. They need help so that they don’t become like the sixth grader I met who was carrying around the phone where she had the messages from six months ago where she had broken up with her best friend, and she was going over them and over them.

She still is walking around with this. That’s a kid that needs mentorship. Or, like the 11-year-old who when we were designing that first app, the Text Lock app, he said, “Is it okay if sometimes I just don’t feel like texting?” A fifth grader. Yes it’s okay. It’s okay if you don’t feel like texting. We don’t have to be plugged in all the time.

So this suggests again they really do need adult mentorship. They have tech savvy, but we have wisdom. We’ve not been invited to a birthday party before and maybe that experience wasn’t mediated by social media, but we’ve had that experience. So what we really need to do is not to design an app to spy on our kids. There is no app that can raise kids in the digital age for us. Instead, we need to get really curious about kids’ day-to-day experiences. We need to ask them what they’re thinking and then we need to co-create solutions with them that take advantage of their creativity and our wisdom.