I don’t know any parent who feels they’ve got a perfect handle on their kids’ screentime. Many of us aren’t even sure how we want to tackle this very important fact of modern-day life, and therefore haven’t been doing so in a consistent, predictable manner.
Wouldn’t it be oh-so-appropos if the answer to our technology dilemmas came in the form of improved technology? Jack Studer, Shelley Prevost, and Wayne Fullam developed the Torch router in response to Shelley’s own frustrations with regulating the internet for her three children. They took existing router capabilities to monitor and restrict internet usage and gave them a friendly user interface that any parent can feel confident navigating.
The group’s Kickstarter campaign launched in October and ends November 19th (so there’s still time to become a backer). Prevost says the product will be available in March, with pre-orders taken through the Torch website starting November 19th.
Parent Co: I think this is something that my family needs and my first question – in like, all capital letters – is how does it work?! I don’t understand!
Jack: It’s kinda crazy because how it works is already happening in your house. Your internet provider runs a cable; that cable comes to your house and plugs into the back of a cable modem or something; the cable modem gives out a WiFi signal to everything in your house. From a technical point of view, what you have is one internet connection and a private network at your house; that’s what the WiFi is. What all routers do is they translate all the different devices in your house and send them all out through one internet connection. That’s just what a router does.
So, because that’s what a router does, the router’s the perfect place to sit and watch what’s going on. The router is your air traffic controller already. In fact, a lot of routers have the ability to pause things, to monitor things, to limit data usage, all that sort of stuff. The problem we found is they’re really hard to use. It’s complicated to change the WiFi password, much less anything else.
We’ve taken that technology, which has been around since the beginning of the internet and powers every internet connection in every home in the world, and put a user interface on top of it so that Mom and Dad, who maybe are doctors or lawyers, but not network engineers, can understand and be presented that information in a way that makes sense.
Okay – that makes sense to me. I like that you’ve accepted the fact that people don’t want to dive into the guts of their router to figure out how to do this. You’re presenting people with a much more user-friendly way to take control.
Shelley: A lot of the network engineers are coming out and saying to us, “Every router already does this for free.” I read that and I’m like, “No it doesn’t. Mine doesn’t.” I’m sure that network engineers can do that to theirs but I always had to have someone doing it for me. What we want to do is really empower parents to do this themselves.
And you’ve also given them a way to be much more connected to and familiar with the results of that control by putting specific usage information right there in the user interface. Can you tell me a little more about how parents can monitor which sites their kids are visiting?
Shelley: We have a team of about 10 people. Half of them are under age 25, and have grown up on the internet. They’re all in technology. They are amazing creators with technology because of all the tinkering they did online as a kid. We had a lot of conversations about how we want to give parents oversight capability without overly restricting kids from the exploration that they can do online.
What we landed on was simply including a reporting feature that gives parents a portal into their kids’ online world. I have three kids who are spending a lot of time online and I don’t necessarily mind that. But I want an opportunity to pause it when they just need to get off screens. I also want to see what they’re doing, where they’re going, where’s their interests are taking them, so that I can engage with them at that point.
My daughter is on YouTube a lot, and I can see that. I’m like, “What is she doing on YouTube so much?” Now I’m able to go in and see that she’s really interested in these art videos. She’s drawing a lot. Kids are online a lot more than their parents were. We wanted to give parents a portal into that without hampering what kids are able to do.
There are some features that some competitors have that block kids from a lot of that exploration. We didn’t want to do that. We do have a global blacklist that’s baked into the router. I think it’s 640,000-something known malicious sites from the dark web that are blocked from your house at the router level.
Tell me more about the pause button. Do you set it for a certain amount of time or set it to turn on at a specific time?
Wayne: The automated part would be more like our Bedtime feature. The pause button’s a toggle for any profile or all the profiles that you just can hit when you want to pause immediately and then you can hit it again to unpause. (The bedtime feature) is on a schedule and happens automatically whether you’re present or not.
Have you talked to any parents who say that they’re actually excited to use the pause button to restrict their own screen time?
Shelley: There’s this really interesting conversation happening around that, like yeah, parents are a big part of the problem. What are we modeling to our kids? That’s part of the conversation, too. We can’t just come in and vilify our kids and say, “Let’s just fix them,” and not hold the mirror up to ourselves.
We actually did a small focus group with 8th graders. A lot of them said, “I want this for my mom because she’s constantly on her phone.” I think there’s value in being able to regulate ourselves too.
Will the Torch Router slow down the speed of my internet connection?
Jack: That’s one of the more interesting questions because as we started this whole process trying to solve a problem for Shelley, our first swing at that was to go to the store and see what Best Buy had to offer and look at Amazon and see what was there. We did buy some products that promised to help, but they slowed the internet down to a crawl. That’s been a design consideration from day one. Frankly, we’ve overbuilt this thing so it’s not slowing anything down. Unless you have, like, a university fiber backhaul line coming into your living room, we won’t be slowing you down.
It’s also really pretty.
Shelley: We worked with a guy from Seattle. Michael Kritzer, who’s our designer. We went through hundreds of designs and iterations. We walked through beautiful homes and design centers… We didn’t want this to be something that you hid. This is something that needs to be beautifully designed, sitting out on your bookshelf. That was really the core of the inspiration.
Wayne: From a technical standpoint, having it out makes for better WiFi coverage, because walls hurt that.
You know, it seems to me that the purpose of this product sits at an interesting intersection of psychology and technology. It’s really an intimate thing. You’re getting to the core of how someone parents or how they want to parent, and one area where they feel they’re not measuring up to their own standards.
Shelley: It’s not easy. We’re all addicted. I just think that we’re in this really interesting time of reevaluating ourselves. Then thereby how do we parent our kids?
The thing I say a lot is, there are cyber bullies, there’s cyberspace, there’s cyber- everything. We’re the cyber parents. We don’t have very great tools to do the parenting that we need to do. It’s not absolving parents of their responsibility. This router is not a babysitter or even a way to just completely hover over your kids and get information. This is really about engaging with them. I feel very strongly about that.