Niki: I’m Niki Christoff and welcome to Tech’ed Up. This week’s conversation is with a longtime friend and industry colleague, Kat Mauler. We’re talking about raising kids in the age of the smartphone. Kat and I discuss ways tech can be a tool for parents rather than a torment.
A note to our listeners: I understand that everything is amplified a zillion percent for single parents, families raising children with special needs, and anyone with limited resources. And for those listeners like me, I mean, not to brag, but what a time to be childless.
Niki: Welcome to the studio, Kat Mauler. Good morning.
Kat: Morning! Hi. [chuckles]
Niki: So, you and I have been friends for a long time. We worked together at Uber [Kat: mm-hmmh], where you were an attorney working on incredibly complicated regulatory issues.
Kat: And you on the PR side of those issues.
Niki: And I was on the PR side of those issues, which was peak dumpster fire Uber.
Kat: It was 2016. [chuckling]
Niki: It was 2016, 2017. And so, we've been in a foxhole together professionally. You now work at Google, you’re Product Counsel. So, Product Counsel are the lawyers who work with the product development teams and try to help them comply with the law and understand edge cases. And you are known for the tough cases.
Kat: That's right. It's a lot of regulatory issues, a lot of international issues. A lot of, some of the geo expansion.
Niki: Okay! Now we're not talking about any of that today. [chuckles] [Kat: laughs] We're talking about your other big job, which is being a parent.
Kat:: We have kids who are one and two. So, we are in it right now.
Niki: You are in the thick of it. I am not a parent. I know children. And I'm the kind of person who's always offering seven-year-olds like a cup of coffee. [Kat: chuckles] Not a parent! But I really want to talk about parenting in the age of current tech, in this current moment, because even for non-parents, if we're working with parents, if we're friends with parents, how you all are experiencing the world of tech is really important to all of us, including what's happening with your kids and your kids' brains.
Niki: So, I thought we'd start with your family and how you guys are thinking about raising a one and two-year-old.
Kat: When I was thinking about kids and tech and how all of this matches up. I was thinking that for parents, it's only half of the bargain. Um, for those of us who will have to work with this generation and manage this generation and be managed by this generation, it's just as important to think about what their development looks like and how their little brains are interacting with these tech products.
So, in terms of how we're using tech now, it has been really useful when it comes to, for example, some of the apps for tracking your nursing or the baby's napping. It can be really helpful to pull out your phone, which you're looking at anyways, [chuckling] when you're dealing with a non-sleeping child, and be able to just input that information and keep that all in one place. Generates beautiful graphs. You can then look at your kid's naps. You can compare one kid to the next, which can be really helpful.
Niki: Okay. So, napping apps we’re for. [Kat: mm-hmmh] What hasn't worked?
Kat: What hasn't worked, and I will call this out with delicacy. We have been looking for something to entertain our two- year-old when we fly. We have tried a couple of Amazon products, including the Fire, and did not find it useful.
We have instead an incredibly low-tech coloring machine that turns on, and it’s like quasi-digital. But it's not; it's nothing that connects to the internet or that plays movies for him because it's just too, just too high touch to have a product fail when you're in the air.
Niki: Okay. Got it. So, some high-tech products, they fail in the air, and then the kid?
Kat: [chuckling] And then you're, then you're stuck!
Niki: You’re trapped with a child who doesn't have entertainment!
Kat: That's right. So, what we have found, there's some apps, like there's a coloring app for your phone. But one of the, one of the asks that I have for Niki's audience is if anybody has found an app that will silo off parts of your phone so that when your kid is using the coloring app, they can't also, without your knowledge, go in and send work emails or update your Facebook status or anything else like that, I would love to know what they are. We've tried a couple, but none have really done it.
And the other danger of giving your kids your phone, even just for coloring on the plane, is that if it locks, they may just try to reopen it. We had quite the incident where our son when he was a little younger, was playing with my husband's work phone when he was at DOJ and typed in the wrong password so many times that the phone wiped. And he had to go into the office in the middle of 2020 hyper-pandemic times to fix this because we had, our two-year-old had, locked the phone permanently and wiped it completely from memory. So, there's, there's drawbacks to just, just reaching for the phone.
Niki: Okay. So, your two-year-old bricked and wiped a Department of Justice phone [Kat: Like they do!] [both chuckling] As they do!
And this is actually a great point because I don't know of a solution for that necessarily. I mean, any time my phone ends up in the hands of a ‘tween, it comes back with about a million games on it that are connected to my Apple Pay [Kat: laughs], and they're charging like plants and zombies.
Kat: [laughing] Are they buying land in the metaverse?
Niki: They're buying land and wands and capes in the metaverse.
We're going to drop my Gmail for the show firstname.lastname@example.org; let us know! [both chuckling], Like, is there something to do? Because if you don't want to hand your two-year-old an actual device of their own, how can you silo it off so that they can safely use it without you having to be panicked that it's going to get bricked?
Kat: Right! Exactly. Exactly. So, yeah, that's one of the goals is to figure out what's the default? If the Fire fails, or if there's, if there's not some toy available, then what's the default? And the phone has proven to be just as dangerous as it can be helpful.
And also, you know, we're sensitive; we want to make sure that we're not setting an example of constantly being on our phones. Y’know, we, we don't have a connected house. We don't have smart products in our house in part because we've heard too many parenting stories where they're hearing voices over the baby monitor that aren't the baby. And it’s a little bit terrifying.
So, we use really low-tech monitor equipment. And we'll hand the kids the monitor to pretend they're talking on a phone, if we're on our phone, y’know, at an inconvenient time. But there's a lot of example setting that we're really sort of sensitive to. And that's been a big focus of how we're parenting. We don't want to be those parents who can't make eye contact with our kids.
Niki: I think that's really important. And again, as someone who doesn't spend a ton of time with kids, when I am with kids, if I'm on my phone, they want to know why they can't be on a device. So then, you have to put your phone away, but you're also working this huge job. Your husband has a huge job, so it's necessary to be on your devices. So, tell me, I think you have a little bit of a perspective on parenting and toys in the modern moment.
Kat: Right. Right. We're definitely thinking about this now. So, we're, we're, it's not like this is going to go away. There's no scenario in which we can put down our phones permanently or that our kids won't eventually need access to tech. I mean, there, I don't even, I think we're even past tech natives, what do we call them? They're now like app natives. I mean, it's completely different, different phase from what I remember when we first had internet when I was in sixth grade, and it was such a big deal. But we're thinking about this now as a, as a tool.
So my, my husband found this coding toy that's a train for our son. I didn't completely get it at first, but it it's, it's this great tool where the, it's a train track that has different colored blocks that the train goes over, and they're binary. And so when the train goes over a red block, it stops. If it goes over a blue block, it toots its horn. If it goes over a white block, it turns on its lights, and my son loves it. He gets it; he understands the binary aspects of it. And so, he's thinking in this coded way, which puts him ahead of my mentality on how coding works already. He turns three on Sunday. So, we're, we're already sort of ahead, ahead of the game.
Y’know, I don't mean to brag about our, about our prodigy child, [Niki: chuckles], but it's really exciting to see there being tools that are helpful and not have to go straight to apps or digital or blue light stuff, which has its own set of dangers and concerns when it comes to kids' eyes and brain development. So, it's really cool to see almost an old-fashioned train set, but that has this additional aspect that we can feel like we're accomplishing something.
Niki: I really, honestly, don't even understand what you're talking about with the train teaching coding, which is probably, which is exactly right because the generational gap is so huge. I didn't have internet [Kat: mm-hmm] growing up in my house. [Kat: mm-hmm] Actually, that's not true! We got Prodigy, [chuckling] dial-up Prodigy when I was, like, a senior in high school and now kids, it's so intuitive. I've had a child at my house who tried to swipe my Samsung TV, like swipe it as though the screen would move.
And I thought, my gosh, of course, that makes sense to this kid that it would be swipeable, which it's not, but it just is intuitive to a four-year-old. [Kat: Right] That would be the case. [Kat: Right] But I love the idea of thinking of ways to, they're going to need to interact with this technology. It's obviously here to stay and finding a way their brains can develop that aren't just plugging into, like little zombies, into the metaverse.
Kat: Right now, I think the trend for parenting or the super Montessori like, very low-tech, y’know, wood not plastic, not brightly colored, kind of beige toys, colonial toys, which are wonderful. We're a big fan, but we have found that our kids really like plastic.
They like things that beep and honk and toot and light up and make noises. And all these things, which are extremely annoying! But that's what takes the kids' attention. And especially in this year of our pandemic, 2022, when daycare is often closed more than it's open, it's been really helpful to have toys that keep the kids' attention for more than a couple of minutes.
Part of why we try to restrict tech so much isn't that we're anti-tech necessarily; it's that if you don't restrict it, it stops being a tool. And right now, we're trying very hard, Daniel Tiger is our COVID-friendly babysitter, and we need that to stay true. And so, we try really hard to restrict it enough that when we put it on that it keeps their attention, and we don't want it to be that we have to start escalating and get into like, you know, Blippy.
Niki: In the seventies, when parenting was more like my, y’know, my parents would just lock us outside in the summer. Like, “Don't come back til the street lights come on.” And I think, we were literally sitting on the floor, playing with those Lite Brites, which are, like, little plastic light-up things that plug into electrical outlets basically. [Kat: mm-hmm] Which, it's unbelievable that any of us survived the early eighties using these toys. [Kat: Right]
So, sometimes I think maybe we've overcorrected, and again, I'm not a parent, so there's not really judgment, but I do think that you're right when you're a working parent, especially, and you do need something to keep kids occupied. This is really important. And maybe thinking through more of these tools that are learning tools.
Kat: There's some balance in how much to correct for what the dangers are. And the Lite Brites are a really good example because it's not even just the electrical outlet. Y’know, my first instinct with a one-year-old is that it's a choking hazard to have those little, those little bulbs. But, I want them to learn, this is the world they're living in. It's important that they be exposed to it.
So, on the one hand, you know, I don't want their little eyes to be exposed to blue lights now. I want to keep all these things restricted so that they're enticing, and they're interesting, and they're useful. But, I also am keenly aware that there, this is the world that they're being raised in, they have to know how to use this stuff. At some point, they're going to have to learn how to self-restrict.
I don't want to have kids who are those, like, 60 times a minute texters. So, we're thinking a lot about going into the future, how we can make sure that we're raising full stack humans who really are capable of self-regulating and thinking about all these pieces and whose personalities aren't driven by what the algorithms reward.
Niki: Okay. I love that you just described your parenting style as trying to raise, quote, full-stack humans [both laugh], which is clearly, you work in tech.
Okay! I'm going to tell a quick aside that is not directly on point. I was listening to a speech that Jeff Bezos was giving here in Washington. And it was when he was still married to McKinsey Scott. And he said that her, at the time, that her parenting perspective was that she would rather have a child with nine fingers than a child who is afraid to use tools. [chuckling] Which is kind of an incredible parenting thought, but she really didn't want her kids to be afraid of consequences [Kat: mm-hmm], which I think is really interesting because we might be overprotecting. And I know this is a huge debate in parenting. But I want to talk for a minute- [interrupts self]
Let’s transition to the development of tech products. So, you and I both work in the tech world [Kat: mm-hmm], and we see these products developed, and sometimes there are really well-intentioned ideas of products for kids that kind of go off the rails or pear-shaped when they get into the regulatory landscape. [Kat: mm-hmm]
Kat: That's right. Yeah. Most of the rules that are developed around kids in tech are really devoted to privacy protections. They're around not collecting kids' data or ensuring that there are restrictions on how that data is used or collected. And so, most of the work towards creating kid-friendly products is around restriction, restricting that data collection, which is difficult enough from a product perspective. It also informs sometimes what the usefulness of those products are for the tech companies because it winds up being so much to do to restrict what's collected that it's almost sometimes, it's difficult to teach the apps to behave or to teach the products to behave without having that data collected at least to some extent.
But the, the rules around how kids and tech interact aren't geared around mental health or emotional intelligence or attention spans. And these are all the things that parenting is really developed, [chuckling] y’know, is really what we're supposed to be doing as parents. So, I almost feel like in this super connected world, all of the things that parents would maybe have outsourced to some extent, we have to be extra careful not to outsource because we can't trust some of what's either in regulations or for example, through schools where there will be a lot of tech used as a tool. Those, those are the external forces that I think our parents are, or other generations may have relied on as some of the outsourcing for raising good humans; we need to really internalize because there just isn't that focus on, for example, protecting a durable attention span.
I think my generation, y’know, being the first ones to start adopting the internet, certainly not native in any of this, but I know that my attention span is impacted by all of this. I certainly fall prey to the scroll. I have to really use [ chuckling] additional apps to restrict my app usage so that I can protect my own attention span so that I don't find myself, y’know, if the baby's awake for an hour at night being awake for another two hours, because now I've made the mistake of looking at my email or looking at something else.
What we don't want is for their self-development and their, their sense of intuition as they grow up to be based around, y’know, how many likes they got or, you know, was the dance silly enough that the algorithm rewarded it? Certainly, those will be true for their generation. They will, that will be something that it will be very hard to avoid.
But I think our parenting job at this stage is to make sure that we're keeping all of that at bay, making sure that the external forces are at least restricted so that they can develop a sense of self-esteem and attention spans. And their own durable mental health as early as they can. And as strongly as they can.
Niki: Even as an adult, my attention span is now approximately that of, like, a fruit fly. And I, and so I have done the same thing you were talking about. I literally have apps downloaded to block me out of apps that I can't get myself to stop using that I, that I consider kind of a waste of my time. [Kat: Right]
And I'm constantly going through these phases of digital minimalism. I take everything off my phone. I deactivate social media. I take a three-month break just to try to clear my brain. And this is as an adult who, again, was, I was raised without the internet, without any devices. [Kat: mm-hmm]
And you think about, so my brain was developed during a time when I didn't have any of that. And it was playing outdoors and it was interacting. We did have a little bit of a limit on how much television we could watch. [Kat: mm-hmm] But, on the other hand, this is the reality. The kids are going to be interacting with more and more screens. They need to have a way to do it responsibly. And I think this is a huge burden on parents and, and onus on parents to think exactly how you're thinking.
Which is how do you raise humans who have high emotional intelligence? Who are able to have connections with other kids, with other humans? Who can make eye contact?[Kat: mm-hmm] Who can have conversations? Who can have relationships, but also are able to interact with the reality that they're going to need to know how to do coding? And they're going to need to intuitively understand these things. And I, it's a big responsibility.
Kat: When you think about how recently we had even electricity as a species. I mean, just the leaps and bounds and how one generation to the next has had to really think so far beyond our imagination. I mean, I don't mean to talk like [chuckling] the Jetsons, but it's, but it's something where we can't even anticipate what our kids are going to be. And is it going to be the metaverse? Where the real estate is an NFT, and we have to really understand a lot of what Niki talks about on her podcast, around how money and how value will work over time?
What I don't want is to think of this as being dystopian. What I want is to think of this as being an opportunity. We know that the world will be different in 30 years as compared to now. We, we can't anticipate all the ways that tech will develop. I can only imagine that it's going to be an incredibly fast y’know, development, even as compared to, from my childhood to now where it was, y’know, the very beginning of internet life or, or accessibility. Y’know, our kids, it's not going to be one website, hotornot.com, that they have to, y’know, share with their friends.
And so I, so I, I just want to make sure that as we're thinking through this, that we're continuing to think of this as being an opportunity and a tool and that we're preparing them for this world, but that they also have a really strong appreciation for the fact that this is a tool. It is one part of their life. It is not going to be the entire reality and that there y’know, their first life is the life we're focused on [chuckling], the second life might be a bonus.
Niki: Worth noting for a moment, y’know, when you're from, when you have resources, and you have two
parents, and you have the ability to make some of these choices. I mean, there are certainly single parents truly using tech just to get through the day during the pandemic because childcare has been so iffy. And so, I just want to make note of that, because I do think in a lot of ways, it's just the easiest thing to do when you're in this moment where we don't have relia- every single day we don't know if your daycare is going to be open or if it's going to have a COVID outbreak. And so, we're in a moment in time where I think this is getting heightened, but it's absolutely here to stay, to think through how these kids interact with these screens.
I do want to just, I am an apologist for the tech industry. I say this all the time! Like I can't, I mean, I've worked in tech forever, but one thing that I think is a misconception is the idea that tech companies, when they create products for kids, that there's a malevolence to it. So, I was at Google when we created YouTube Kids, and the idea was really to try to create safer content. And one of the arguments against it was, well, you can't tell the difference between what's an ad or what is sort of promotional, and what is content content, or educational content.
Kat: [interrupts] And it's hard for adults too, like, we don't know when it's an ad, [chuckling] unless you disclaim.
Niki: Right! We don't know when it's an ad, but then I started thinking, and again, I know I keep dating myself; a jillion years ago, I had this little Fisher Price record player. And one of my records. This little plastic record was the McDonald's menu song. [Kat: laughs] Literally, a song listing all the items on the McDonald's menu!
Kat: I bet you can say it now if I ask!
Niki: A hundred percent! Filet o’ Fish. Yes! [both chuckling] A hundred percent. I'm sure my sister can too. We would just play the McDonald's menu and then we would recite it. We would sing it like a song. I mean, we genuinely, the idea that ads and kids and their content are mixed is not new. [Kat: mm-hmmh] That has been the case for decades. Ever since we had TV and Fisher Price record players, they've been combined.
And so, I do think that the task for tech companies is really difficult. It's a hard nut to crack. And, one of the things you're asking, I think, on this show is for people to give feedback, what are How do you protect your phone from getting bricked by your infant? [Kat: mm-hmmh] How do we come up with ways and tools like the Raspberry PI, which I don't even know what that is, but it's some sort of simplified phone thing for kids? What are tools and resources that they can have that will supplement their education, but not take away from their real-life experiences? And then, what can tech companies do that is constructive for parents?
Kat: Exactly! That's a big debate in my house. And I, I want to +1, your, your statement about how hard it is. I can't imagine, um, having to figure out parenting without my partner and, and, and having that, that additional support, and we have quite a bit.
And so I, so I agree that I think that it can be a really healthy and helpful sort of babysitter and, and support system sometimes to have there be apps that are, that are attention-grabbing. But I think that thinking through where these products might land for kids. The debate in my house is always around whether, for example, social media is a good thing or a bad thing. For me, it enhances my life. I see my friend's kids, and they're adorable, and I like looking at people's travels. And for the most part, when I start to compare myself unfavorably, I’m mostly good at closing it and turning to my voluminous work or my very attentive attention-needing kids.
And I have plenty of things that pull me out when, when I, you know, if you, if you get kind of too deep in that and that mentality. For my husband, he's, he finds himself in a, in a bit more of a position where it does; it's not always uplifting. And I think that's something where for our kids, we're hopeful that they'll have an experience where they can interact with their friends. And for example, these past two years has been a time when, um, it's been important to be able to reach out virtually. It's been a huge mental health saver to have, you know, Zoom meetings with our friends and to be able to see them over the internet when we can't see them in person when it's not safe to get together sometimes.
And so, again, it's a tool that I'm hopeful will be really helpful for our kids over time. But what I don't want is for their self-esteem to be based on how many likes they got for the photo they posted, or, y’know, have a sense of comparing themselves to their friends, especially at younger and younger ages. That, that scares me a little bit to think of what that exposure will look like over time when the exposure happens even earlier in their development.
I would love to support products where there's constructive, you know, algorithmic rewards or, or feedback for good things, y’know, for posting your spelling bee championship or things like that. But I guess we'll have to see how things develop over time.
Niki: I think that's a final point we might end on, which is, it really is individual, not just for adults, but for kids. So, I'm probably more like your husband; I feel crummy when I use social media. Not because, actually, you and I, during the pandemic, when we didn't see each other for a year, that's how I knew about your baby, and what was happening in your life, which was really joyous. But then I'd go into the Instagram discover tab and just go down these rabbit holes and I would feel like the minutes of my life are slipping through my fingers, and I had trouble shutting it, which was affecting my attention span, which meant I was reading fewer books.
And then, I just started feeling crummy about myself. And I think it's individual, your ability, one's ability to turn that off and that's true for kids too. There are marginalized groups where having, especially if you live in perhaps like a rural area or a country where you might not be able to connect with groups like you, it matters. [Kat: mm-hmmh]
And frankly, kids trapped in houses for the last two years are a little bit marginalized, [Kat: Totally!] so they do need to connect. So, it is individual, but I'm, I'm hopeful that we'll find tech solutions that sort of thread this needle. And that's your call. This is what you're asking for.
Kat: Right. And if there aren't, then parents DO IT! [chuckles], keep it in mind!
I think that that's what our job is really more than ever. It's always, I think parenting, the job of parenting has always been to counterbalance, whatever the cultural, y’know, mores are. And especially now, when so much of this is driving in a particular direction, when it comes to attention span and, y’know, algorithmic rewards and those sorts of things, our job is more than ever to remind our kids and to focus on this full-stack human raising and the great outdoors and make sure that we're using this all as a tool, which it really is and not getting caught up in some of the parts of it that can be less than, less than advantageous.
Niki: Yeah, let's make sure kids know what freshly cut grass smells like!
Maybe we'll end on that. Kat. Thank you so much for coming into the studio and talking about this, again, I don't have kids, so sometimes it's, like, a little bit foreign to me to think through what it must be like to be living right now and especially in this moment with children or even teenagers or tweens in your house, but I know so many of the people that I work with, and so many of my friends are dealing with this. So, it's really important to think through what you are dealing with. And I really appreciate you coming on.
Kat: Thanks for having me.
Niki: Next week, our guest is Kevin Bennett, founder and CEO of fintech startup Caribou. Be sure to follow Tech’ed Up wherever you get your podcasts.