Silicon Valley parents are raising their kids tech-free — and it should be a red flag
by Jenny Cheng/Business Insider
It’s 9 a.m. in Sunnyvale, California and Minni Shahi is on her way to work at the Apple headquarters in Cupertino. Her husband, a former Googler named Vijay Koduri, is meeting his business partner at a local Starbucks to discuss their startup, a YouTube clip-making business called HashCut.
Shahi and Koduri’s two kids, 10-year-old Saurav and 12-year-old Roshni, have already been dropped off at school, likely immersed in one of the Google Chromebooks they were issued at the start of the year.
The Koduris’ life is that of the quintessential Silicon Valley family, except for one thing. The technology developed by Koduri and Shahi’s employers is all but banned at the family’s home.
There are no video game systems inside the Koduri household, and neither child has their own cell phone yet. Saurav and Roshni can play games on their parents’ phones, but only for 10 minutes per week. (There are no limits to using the family’s vast library of board games.) Awhile back the family bought an iPad 2, but for the last five years it’s lived on the highest shelf in a linen closet.
“We know at some point they will need to get their own phones,” Koduri, 44, told Business Insider. “But we are prolonging it as long as possible.”
‘The difference is, they don’t think of themselves as dangerous’
Koduri and Shahi represent a new kind of Silicon Valley parent. Instead of tricking out their homes with all the latest technology, many of today’s parents working or living in the tech world are limiting — and sometimes outright banning — how much screen time their kids get.
The approach stems from parents seeing firsthand, either through their job, or simply by living in the Bay Area — a region home to the most valuable tech companies on Earth — how much time and effort goes into making digital technology irresistible.
A 2017 survey conducted by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation found among 907 Silicon Valley parents that despite high confidence in technology’s benefits, many parents now have serious concerns about tech’s impact on kids’ psychological and social development.
“You can’t put your face in a device and expect to develop a long-term attention span,” Taewoo Kim, chief AI engineer at the machine-learning startup One Smart Lab, told Business Insider. A practicing Buddhist, Kim is teaching his nieces and nephews, ages 4 to 11, to meditate and appreciate screen-free games and puzzles. Once a year he takes them on tech-free silent retreats at nearby Buddhist temples.
Former employees at major tech companies, some of them high-level executives, have gone public to condemn the companies’ intense focus on building addictive tech products. The discussions have triggered further research from the psychology community, all of which has gradually convinced many parents that a child’s palm is no place for devices so potent.
“The tech companies do know that the sooner you get kids, adolescents, or teenagers used to your platform, the easier it is to become a lifelong habit,” Koduri told Business Insider. It’s no coincidence, he said, that Google has made a push into schools with Google Docs, Google Sheets, and the learning management suite Google Classroom.
Turning kids into loyal customers of unhealthy products isn’t exactly a new strategy. Some estimates find that major tobacco companies spend nearly $9 billion a year, or $24 million a day, marketing their products in the hopes kids will use them for life. The same principle helps explain why fast-food chains offer kids’ meals: Brand loyalty is lucrative.
“The difference [with Google] is they don’t think of themselves as dangerous,” Koduri said. “Google for sure thinks of themselves of ‘Hey, we’re the good guys. We’re helping kids. We’re helping classrooms.’ And I’m sure Apple does as well. And I’m sure Microsoft does as well.”
In San Francisco, parents notice a ‘malaise of scrolling.’
Erika Boissiere has little doubt that tech is poison to young brains.
The 37-year-old mom of two in San Francisco works as a family therapist alongside her husband. She said they both make an effort to stay current with screen-time research, which, despite suffering a lack of long-term data, has nevertheless found a host of short-term consequences among teens and adolescents who are heavy users of tech. These include heightened risks for depression, anxiety, and, in extreme cases, suicide.
Many of the fellow parents she and her husband talk to have said they notice an anti-tech sentiment, too. Just by living in the world’s tech epicenter, the couple has front row seats to what Boissiere called a “malaise of scrolling.”
“We live on a pretty trafficked street,” Boissiere told Business Insider. In the 15 years they’ve lived there, she’s noticed “a noticeable shift that everybody is on their phones on the bus. It doesn’t seem like someone’s reading a Kindle, for example.”
Boissiere will go to great lengths to prevent her kids, 2-year-old Jack and 5-year-old Elise, from having even the most basic interactions with technology. She and her husband haven’t installed any TVs in the house, and they avoid all cell-phone use in the kids’ presence — a strict policy the couple also requires of their 28-year-old nanny, who Boissiere said has been caught scrolling on the job.
The couple has devised a strategy to help them stick to their policy. When the two of them get home from work, they each put their phone by the door. On most nights, they’ll check the phones just once or twice before they go to bed, Boissiere said. Sometimes she’ll break the rule, but more than once her kids have entered the room while she’s mid-text, sending their mom fleeing into the nearest bathroom.
Around 10:30 p.m., Boissiere and her husband get in bed and end the day with an episode of “Black Mirror” on their laptop: a dose of morbid reassurance that the anti-tech approach is for the best.
Low-tech parenting has been a quiet staple among Silicon Valley moguls for years
Silicon Valley’s low- and anti-tech parents may seem overly cautious, but they actually follow longstanding practices of former and current tech giants like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Tim Cook.
In 2007, Gates, the former CEO of Microsoft, implemented a cap on screen time when his daughter started developing an unhealthy attachment to a video game. Later it became family policy not to allow kids to have their own phones until they turned 14. Today, the average American child get their first phone around age 10.
Jobs, the CEO of Apple until his death in 2012, revealed in a 2011 New York Times interview that he prohibited his kids from using the newly-released iPad. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home,” Jobs told reporter Nick Bilton.
Even Cook, the current Apple CEO, said in January that he doesn’t allow his nephew to join online social networks. The comment followed those of other tech luminaries, who have condemned social media as detrimental to society.
Cook later conceded Apple products aren’t meant for constant use.
“I’m not a person that says we’ve achieved success if you’re using it all the time,” he said. “I don’t subscribe to that at all.”
A silver lining to constant tech use is that negative effects don’t seem to be permanent.
One of the more hopeful studies, and one often cited by psychologists, was published in 2014 in the peer-reviewed journal Computers in Human Behavior. It involved roughly 100 pre-teens, half of whom spent five days on a tech-free retreat engaged in activities like archery, hiking, and orienteering. The other half stayed home and served as the control.
After just five days at the retreat, researchers saw huge gains in empathy levels among the participating kids. Those in the experimental group started scoring higher in their nonverbal emotional cues, more often smiling at another child’s success or looking distressed if they witnessed a nasty fall.
The researchers concluded: “The results of this study should introduce a much-needed societal conversation about the costs and benefits of the enormous amount of time children spend with screens, both inside and outside the classroom.”
Not all parents who raise their kids low-tech strive to keep the same standards when it comes to education. Koduri’s kids, for instance, share a Macbook Air for homework and use Google Chromebooks at school.
But around Silicon Valley, a number of low-tech schools have popped up in an effort to reintroduce the basics. At the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, a private school in Los Altos, California, kids use chalkboards and No. 2 pencils. Faculty don’t introduce kids to screen-based devices until they reach the eighth grade.
At Brightworks School, a K-12 private school in San Francisco, kids learn creativity by using power tools, dismantling radios, and attending classes in treehouses.
Meanwhile, at many public schools, technology has become a guiding force, according to educators Joe Clement and Matt Miles. In their 2017 book “Screen Schooled,” the co-authors make the case that technology does far more harm than good, even when it’s used to boost scores in reading and math.
“It’s interesting to think that in a modern public school, where kids are being required to use electronic devices like iPads, Steve Jobs’s kids would be some of the only kids opted out,” they wrote. (Jobs’ children have finished school, so it’s impossible to verify if that would have been true.)
The apparent double standard still lingers, they argue. As the authors wrote, “What is it these wealthy tech executives know about their own products that their consumers don’t?”
Parents of older kids see changes across generations
On the western edge of the San Francisco Bay, in San Mateo, tech entrepreneur Amy Pressman lives with her husband and two kids, 14-year-old Mia and 16-year-old Jacob. Her oldest child, 20-year-old Brian, is a sophomore in college. (Business Insider has changed each child’s name at Pressman’s request.)
Though she no longer has control of what Brian does when he’s away at school, at home Pressman is strict. There are no devices at the dinner table. After 10 p.m., kids must surrender their phones and leave them charging in the kitchen overnight. Weekly gaming is limited to five to seven hours a week.
This world didn’t exist when I was growing up.
Like Koduri, who said he fondly remembers playing outside as a kid and raises his own kids with that upbringing in mind, Pressman longs to return to a more analog world.
“Kids aren’t going out and just playing in the street,” Pressman, co-founder and president of the software company Medallia, told Business Insider. “My older son would have more of his friends come over and hang out than my younger children do.”
In the past few years, the family has gotten a lot better about spending time together, she said. Instead of family members coming home and installing themselves in separate rooms, eyes glued to devices, they now make use of season tickets to the theatre and keep an ongoing ranking of San Francisco’s best ice cream shops.
A couple years ago, Pressman planned a trip to Death Valley over a long weekend. The lack of USB charging ports and Wifi were two of the destination’s main selling points.
“The connectivity there was pretty abysmal,” she said. “That was lovely.”
Pressman and other parents told Business Insider that it’s often hard to strike a balance in limiting tech use, since kids quickly begin to feel left out of their peer group. The longer parents try to impose their restrictions, the more they fear they’re essentially raising a well-adjusted outcast.
“I’ve got no role model for how to deal with this world,” Pressman said. “This world didn’t exist when I was growing up, and the restrictions my parents put on TV use don’t make sense in the world of technology when the computer is both your entertainment and your homework and your encyclopedia.”
Silicon Valley parents place a wide range of restrictions on kids, from mere minutes to several hours a day.
Many parents who spoke to Business Insider said their best defense against tech addiction is to introduce replacement activities or find ways to use tech more productively. When California droughts wiped out Koduri’s backyard, he filled the lot with cement and built a basketball court, which both of his kids and their friends use. When Pressman noticed her daughter taking an interest in computers, the two of them signed up to learn programming together.
These parents hope they can teach their kids to enter adulthood with a healthy set of expectations for how to use — and, in certain cases, avoid — technology. Every so often, they said, a glimmer of hope shines through.
In just the few years since Pressman began advocating for less tech use, her oldest son has started to see the value in cutting back on screens. A math major who prefers to use hardcover books, Brian told his mom he finds digital versions distracting.
As Pressman recalled, the family was in the middle of a long road trip around Christmas last year when, out of nowhere, he surprised his mother with something few parents ever tire of hearing: an admission of error.
“You know how you’re always railing on social media, and I thought you were all wrong?” Pressman recalled Brian telling her, referring to her many tirades calling for “real” human interaction. “Well,” he said, “I’m coming to think you’re right.”