Full Circle

A little over six years ago, I humblebragged that my oldest son (then 9 years old) figured out how to bypass the parental controls on the kids’ desktop computer so he could play some games. At the time, we had two computers that our three kids shared; now there are phones, tablets, Kindles, Chromebooks, game consoles, and more. What was an annoyance six years ago has blossomed to a full-fledged crisis today: my wife and I had lost control of our home network, and our kids had lost control of any balance on their devices.

Grades suffered as one kid would sneak a YouTube video (and another, and another) instead of finishing homework. (The irony that I once worked on improving YouTube’s homepage and its recommended videos is not lost on me.) Another child, given the choice between spending more time studying for an upcoming test and getting in just one more game of League of Legends or more time hacking around in Minecraft, would skip studying in favor of fun.

And yet. No matter how many times I think about this issue, every time I come down in the same place: I want my kids to be digital natives. I wrote these words several years ago and they still feel right to me:

I want my kids to be hackers. I want them to be frustrated by the way information is presented to them and be motivated to learn how to change it. I want them to visualize a tool — a program, a device, whatever — and then make it. … I want my kids to be natives when it comes to the technology that increasingly surrounds them. Digital tourists (I doubt this term is new or unique to me, but I don’t believe I’d heard it before) will be able to use a smart phone, a computer, or some other technology, but they won’t really understand them, and they definitely won’t be able to change or improve them. Natives, on the other hand, will see beyond the surface, appreciate the utility these tools provide, but also see their flaws, and over time be motivated to improve them.

Just because I want them to be digital natives doesn’t mean I want to be a digital cop. Nor do I want to abdicate my responsibility to be a parent. Over the years, my wife and I have tried several approaches to giving our kids boundaries when it came to time spent online, maintaining a balance between letting them explore while still getting homework done, spending time outside with friends, and keeping their priorities straight. It’s been a mostly losing battle. And every time we would step in to restrict access, the argument over screen time would become combative: we’re the bad guys and they’re the victims. No matter how rationally our kids understand the need for balance (and they do, we’re fortunate that they’re such great kids), in the heat of the moment it wouldn’t matter. We were the bad cop, full stop.

I’ve tried OS-level controls (too rigid, easy to bypass, device-specific, disconnected from all other devices). I’ve tried OpenDNS (effective, but one-size-fits-all: everyone on the network plays by the same rules). I’ve tried our router’s built-in parental controls (left a lot to be desired, let’s leave it at that). At no time did I feel like we had an effective answer. This series of tweets from October reflected my complete frustration that this remained an unsolved problem.

Soon after I wrote that, my wife read an article about Circle. We ordered one in December and it arrived over the holidays. I’ve been thrilled with the results, and thought it was worth sharing what it does and how it works in case other parents wanted to know more.

How it works

Circle uses ARP spoofing to insert itself between each device on the network and the Internet. Once configured, it shows all devices on the network, and you can then group those devices by user (in our case, by each individual in the family). Each user gets their own policies—categories of sites they can and can’t visit, how much time they can spend, when bedtime is — which then apply in aggregate to their devices. (More on the full feature set is here.)

The Circle is actually a 3" cube. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

But does it work?

I won’t lie, a few days into our experience with the Circle, our kids (15, 13, 10) weren’t exactly ecstatic about this latest gadget. I’m not unsympathetic — going from a mostly unregulated experience to an air-tight, comprehensive setup that tracks each minute you spend on your devices is not easy. When we first set it up, we sat down as a family and talked through the rules we were putting in place, and why. In several cases, the kids made convincing cases for adjustments to the rules — at that point, it was a family decision to proceed, not an edict from on high.

I’ve observed several moments in the last few weeks that reinforced our decision to get the Circle:

  • At breakfast a few weeks ago, the 13 year-old said to the 15 year-old: “you know, the time you’re spending on your phone counts against your overall time. You might want to save time for homework after school or else you’ll be screwed.”
  • One evening, the 10 year-old, walking downstairs with her arms full of yarn for a scarf she’s been working on: “I forgot that Netflix was blocked, and when I tried to go there, I instead saw my MyCircle page which showed me how much time I’d been online. So I decided it was time to do some knitting.”
  • 15 year-old, on a school night: “I’ve been watching the clock and got off before Circle could kick me off.”

In each case, it was less that the Circle had prohibited an activity, it was that my kid had thought deliberately about what was important to them when reminded of the boundaries that we had agreed on. In the past, this rarely happened. This kind of maturity — aided by the Circle, yes, but still theirs — is exactly the kind of growth we’d hoped to see. In addition, the fact that we were not showing up to be the police in each and every interaction gave the kids room to come to their own conclusions about what the right behavior was.

We can model for them about making good decisions, we can do our best to monitor where they spend their time and talk through the implications of the choices they make — all of which we still do. But the Circle gives them a tool to implement the rules we mutually agreed on, and the enforcement of those rules becomes something that they’re a part of, rather than a victim of. It’s been fascinating to watch that transition happen over the last few weeks.

Every generation of parents likes to think that their generation has it particularly tough. It’s easy to say “When we were kids, we didn’t have [x]”, even easier to believe that this time, things really are different than they used to be. But my parents had to deal with the introduction of video games. Their parents had to deal with the introduction of TV. Their parents had to deal with radio’s arrival. Each time, a new technology threatened to consume their kids’ attention, distract from their obligations, and warp their damn minds. In that, 2016 feels no different.

If there’s anything different about today, it’s the decentralization of the challenge. It’s not one TV, or one video game console. It’s the TV. And a game console. And a computer. And a tablet. And a smartphone. And and and. Each needs its own oversight, its own rules. Before you know it, you’re a sysadmin with several dozen clients. Needless to say, not exactly something most “normal” parents are eager to do. (I like technology and even I didn’t enjoy this before we got the Circle.)

Circle is a win for us because it eliminates the need to treat each device in isolation, and lets us tackle the challenge holistically. My wife and I haven’t shirked our parental responsibilities — to the contrary, we use the Circle to help us do our job: set some boundaries, be actively involved in helping the kids make good decisions, and learn how to best manage their time.

My Circle wishlist

I can’t help it, I’m a former PM who can’t turn off the ‘how I’d make it better’ switch. In no particular order, here’s what I’d like to see:

  • Different rules for weekdays vs. weekends. What’s appropriate on a Saturday (more time watching a show, playing a game, etc.) isn’t necessarily appropriate on a school day.
  • Android and Web interfaces. Drives me nuts that I have to use the one iPad in the house to administer the Circle when I have numerous Android phones and laptops nearby that are unable to interact with the Circle.
  • Ability to grant bonus time without having to actually change the time limits/bedtime. When a kid needs an extra 10 minutes to finish a homework assignment, you have to change their bedtime in the Circle, and/or extend their time limit for the day… which then stays in place unless you remember to revert it.
  • One flaw in its time tracking — some apps use infrequent network connectivity, so the Circle appears to only count the network traffic time instead of the session time. That can result in a kid getting more time on the computer than intended.
  • Remote administration: this appears to be coming, but looks like it’ll remain iOS-only. Would be great to have the ability to make changes even when we’re not in the house. (This was always the one stand-out benefit of using OpenDNS: I could update the whitelist while I was at work.)

Since a few have asked: I don’t have any connection to the Circle team, am not an investor, I paid full price for the device, and was not asked to write this up. Given the number of years I’d waited for something like Circle to come along, I figured others might be interested in why it worked so well for us.