Melinda Gates: I Wasn’t Prepared for Smartphones or Social Media

Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (Brian O’Mahoney / Pioneer Press)

Even when you’ve spent your life in technology, its profound, always-on presence can make you worried — especially if you’re a parent.

That’s what Melinda Gates reveals in a new column published in the Washington Post.

Gates is intimately aware of the power of technology. Not only did she help develop many of Microsoft’s products as an executive there, she’s also married to one of the most influential technologists of our time.

And, of course, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is leveraging technology to improve lives all around the globe.

But as the mother of three children, Melinda Gates is not immune to what all modern-day parents are facing: trying to get a handle on the tremendous effect of technology on the daily habits of our children.

I spent my career at Microsoft trying to imagine what technology could do, and still I wasn’t prepared for smartphones and social media,” she admits. “Like many parents with children my kids’ age, I didn’t understand how they would transform the way my kids grew up — and the way I wanted to parent. I’m still trying to catch up.

In retrospect, Gates believes she should have waited longer to give her children access to smartphones. This is a lesson most of us learn after it’s too late.

I completely agree with her when she writes: “Phones and apps aren’t good or bad by themselves, but for adolescents who don’t yet have the emotional tools to navigate life’s complications and confusions, they can exacerbate the difficulties of growing up: learning how to be kind, coping with feelings of exclusion, taking advantage of freedom while exercising self-control.

Technology itself is not the issue. Rather, it’s how we react to it, and how we choose to balance our time and attention to it.

Gates goes on to offer some advice for parents. Interestingly, much of what she says reflects almost word-for-word what we’ve been emphasizing here at unGlue as part of the unGlue Philosophy.

Tip #1: Learn about the issue

She mentions the widely cited Atlantic article, “Have Smartphones Ruined a Generation?”. I also agree that it’s a must-read for every parent in America. Here’s my take on Jean Twenge’s appropriately alarming essay.

At unGlue, we have created a library of short, helpful videos called Parent University to help parents learn about screen time management, apps they should know more about, harmful apps their kids should avoid, and other helpful content.

Tip #2: Unplug

Gates says she doesn’t allow cellphones at the dinner table. That’s a good start. The reality is that your kids will be tempted to pull out their gadgets at many other times, including homework time, bedtime, and even in the restroom. The challenge is that social media, videos, and games are addictive by design. That is why we created the Entertainment Time limit, which helps kids deal with the temptation. unGlue is a great way for kids to learn how to manage their own time so unplugging gets easier over time.

Tip #3: Have tough conversations

At the heart of unGlue, it’s all about communication. We’re just a tool that helps parents communicate with their kids so that they can learn healthier online habits and become better digital citizens. We encourage all of our parent users to talk with their children about what they’re doing online and to set limits on their Entertainment Time together.

Tip #4: Advocate for your kids

Make sure your kids get the support they need to navigate an increasingly complex world, Gates says. We agree. We believe unGlue can provide the tools that parents and children need to help control the pervasive pull of the internet and other technology.

Tip #5: Make a plan

Gates suggests trying out the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Family Media Plan. It’s a good starting point, but we think it’s overly complex and impossible to track and enforce. Still, unGlue is an excellent complement to the AAP’s online tool. Once you’ve decided on the boundaries of your Family Media Plan, you can use unGlue to set schedules and limits that reinforce these agreed-upon rules.

Gates concludes her column by saying: “The Internet is a wonderful thing. It gives kids the freedom to move around in a big world, to experiment, to connect with others. As a parent, though, I know that I am responsible for making sure that my kids are ready for all that freedom — and that they know how to keep themselves safe.

This is basically the whole idea behind unGlue. We wanted to create a way for kids to have the freedom to explore the many benefits of technology while also giving them the tools, safeguards, and boundaries that encourage them to learn healthier online habits.

After all, our goal as parents is to have our kids learn how to manage their own time. It is actually possible.


By Alon Shwartz, 
CEO & Co-founder of unGlue and a father of three
http://www.unGlue.com 
unGlue is the world’s first collaborative technology that empowers people to manage their digital distraction and screen “addiction”

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