Motherly Collective

Because I work in tech and I’m a mom of four, people often ask me questions about how I manage technology in my kids’ lives. Every time these conversations arise, I’m somewhat caught off guard. The truth is, I find myself faced with my own complicated relationship with technology. 

While being a mom is my favorite “job”, I’m fortunate to also be able to work on life-changing technology. From early on in the robotics lab in undergrad, I saw the potential to create technology that could help people live more meaningful and fulfilling lives, and this passion evolved into my mission. I’ve been pursuing this mission from my time in academia as a professor at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Washington where I founded and directed the center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering and the Neurobotics Laboratory, to my time at Google, Nest, Apple, and GoogleX, and now at PanasonicWELL and Yohana. My mission is and always will be to use the power of technology to help people become who they want to be. 

I share my background with you not to rattle off my resume, but to demonstrate how ingrained I am in the world of technology, and share that I feel challenged when broaching this subject with my family. 

The importance of speaking with your kids about tech 

When my kids were little, I didn’t allow screens in the house. For most of their childhood, we raised them without a TV, iPads or personal computers. There is a seven-year age difference between my oldest and youngest which adds an additional nuance to establishing guidelines in our home. There is no “one size fits all” appropriate level of connectedness. In high school, my eldest kids got email, cellphones and social media (with certain restrictions). For the younger two, when everything went online during the pandemic, there was no option but to allow personal computers so they could attend school and socialize with friends online. 

I’m worried about the overall effects of technology on our children’s well-being. I worry that it’s normal for them to feel disconnected from the “real world” and to seek connection through virtual worlds online. I worry that the people building this technology are more concerned about their KPIs than the consequences of raising the next generation. There’s a vicious cycle between the companies creating these games to be addictive and increase engagement for their own gains, and our children who are the victims and believe this is the norm. 

For that reason, my husband and I have set parental controls and try to supervise what our kids are accessing online. 

Besides parental controls and supervision, I also reinforce house rules such as:

● Deciding when and how they have screen time 

○ Ex: School work needs to be completed before they can use a screen for other activities. 

● Banning bad language in the home that they might have learned online

● How to protect themselves from phishing scams 

● What to do if they see adult content online 

○ Ex: Teaching them what’s OK and what’s not OK. 

Some things are out of our control, but we can help our children establish a healthy relationship with technology. Just like we teach them healthy eating habits, technology is an extension of what we teach them offline. My dream is to empower my kids with the right knowledge and tools they need to make the right decisions when faced with peer pressure or down right dangerous situations–online and offline. 

Having the tech talk 

With all my kids, I have shared my love of technology and the potential it has for good, but I’ve also shared my concerns through an open dialogue. In our family, we don’t have formal “tech talks”. Our tech talks sometimes sound more like “get off your phone and finish your homework” or “time for dinner, put your game away,” because technology is a big part of our lives. We regularly and consistently talk about our tech usage, rather than having a one-off formal sit-down.

I want them to feel safe asking me any question, whether it’s about something they saw online that they don’t understand, something that scared them or something they experienced at a friend’s home. 

My eldest kids were very aware of the dangers of technology and careful of their usage. They often do social media detoxes or take breaks from their phones, completely unprompted by me or my husband. Like driving a car, with responsibility comes certain freedoms, and that is how we have approached the talk with our oldest kids. 

Because of the pandemic, I had to raise my youngest children differently. They had different access to technology, especially with the normalcy of meeting friends online and attending virtual classes. For my youngest children, I cherish the time I get to spend with them driving them to and from school. We unplug and discuss it all during this time: school crushes, favorite video games and more difficult topics like online safety or opinions on new technologies like ChatGPT. 

Our children mirror what we do, not always what we say. My kids have even begged me to put my phone down when I’m bogged down with work, and I recently did a tech detox for 24 hours. As someone who deeply believes in and has dedicated my life to creating technology that enhances the health and happiness of people, I want to teach my kids how to navigate their own unique relationship with technology through all stages of life. For my family, that looks like ongoing and developing conversations around the tech we use daily.

This story is a part of The Motherly Collective contributor network where we showcase the stories, experiences and advice from brands, writers and experts who want to share their perspective with our community. We believe that there is no single story of motherhood, and that every mother's journey is unique. By amplifying each mother's experience and offering expert-driven content, we can support, inform and inspire each other on this incredible journey. If you're interested in contributing to The Motherly Collective please click here.