Jess Butcher, Non-Executive Director, Azoomee

Like most people I can be defined many ways. My definitions include technology entrepreneur, business woman, media spokeswoman and business mentor – and it is under these that I normally write, speak and am known outside of my private circle of friends and family.  But it is the definitions of wife and mother that I hold dearest, that fulfil me best and which, if I’m honest I often struggle to square with my other definitions.

My day job for the last 6 years as co-founder of Blippar has been to encourage the world to put their phones between them and the real world – to use the lens, its ‘eye’ to look at and unlock the physical world using image recognition and augmented reality (or just a bit of ‘magic’ for those less interested in the technical definitions). But it has always been a bit of a quandary for me as someone from the pre-smartphone generation to bring up my children in a world of touch screens. My generation’s childhood memories are of playing outside, using our imaginations and experiencing the world with our eyes and hands and as such, I much prefer the idea of my children collecting mental snapshots to obsessing about accumulating rose-tinted Instagram memories; smiles before smilies; emotions without emoticons.

I am blessed with an amazing husband, three beautiful children under 4 and most precious of all, our combined health.  I feel incredibly grateful most of the time but I wouldn’t say I’m a great mother. I’m a ‘normal’ mother – loving, funny and silly one minute and snappy, frustrated and exhausted the next.  I hate that my kids don’t always know which mummy they’ll find (or that their night (mis)behaviours may have fundamentally affected this). The self-deprecating, slummy-mummy type blogs appeal to me as hilarious, if unnerving mirrors on my world.  They are written by kindred spirits wrestling with the same emotions from aching love, delight and amusement to terror, guilt and occasional fury.

I worry constantly.  How many is too many sweets?  Juice or water? ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ or ‘Who let the dogs out?’ Can a child overdose on Calpol? Can I really be bothered to change a heavy, just wet nappy? And perhaps one of the biggest: tablets – friend or foe? How much is too much screen time?

What started with the CBeebies app for 20 minutes or so a day has developed into my three year old deftly tapping in and out of over 30 different pre-school apps, navigating Spotify playlists, turning the Wi-Fi on and off – and what I previously considered the biggest parenting sin of all – watching Paw Patrol in a crowded restaurant, just for a moment’s peace for Mummy.  With each new app discovery and the tantrums that then came from my knee-jerk rationing, my guilt was growing and I started to think harder on the subject.  Herewith, my conclusions:

Screens are not a passing fancy or transitional vogue, they are here to stay. Just as mass publishing was invented, comic books, the radio, television, kids’ television and computer games – and through their existence our recreational habits changed fundamentally, so screens are now an inherent part of modern life. They have irrevocably altered our connectedness, our media consumption, and most wonderfully, provide access to all the accumulated knowledge in the world – with information on anything and everything just a few taps away.   Kids today are incredibly lucky to be born with immediate access to this wealth of information and I believe it is our jobs as parents to help them navigate it safely, not to restrict it or risk abstinence resulting in obsession.  Children have always tired of any single medium and tablets are no different – with guidance and in balance, they can be a glorious gift to this snotty, short attention-spanned generation.  So what specific rules can or should we apply?

Here are some of those that have occurred to me, as a mum of pre-schoolers, as a technology entrepreneur and as, I hope, a responsible member of society:

  • Enjoy screen time together. Just as reading books together is valuable bonding time, so can screen time be.  Games, interactive stories, even the most mundane kids TV programs can be laughed at, enjoyed and discussed together
  • Interactive education is proven to increase recollection by upwards of 60%. There are a wealth of interactive educational apps on all the app stores offering self-guided, entertaining literacy, numeracy, scientific, arty and imaginative games
  • Curate the content available.  Research the apps best reviewed by other parents. Avoid those with heavy advertising or locked, premium levels
  • Understand the child-safety tools that all tablets come in-built with, locking them out of certain content and applications, requiring pass-codes and with time-locks (see NSPCC guidelines for more).
  • Encourage communication with friends and family.  From facetime with Nanna in anther country to parentally-controlled and wall-gardened messaging tools designed for our children to message us and their friends, telling us what they’re doing, creating and learning.
  • Keep them off the big bad web for as long as possible (and I admit, I may not yet be qualified at understanding the full risks here with three currently illiterate children, incapable of tapping something seemingly innocuous into a search bar. I’ll update this list in a few years time!)

All these musings meant that I was utterly delighted to be invited to join the board of a company called Azoomee earlier this summer.  Their whole raison d’etre is to create a single, safe app environment that encompasses all of the above – entertainment, education and creativity using film, audio books, gaming, art-tools and safe messaging. A guilt-free ‘nanny’ app for primary school age children where all content is vetted and advertising-free.  As a business woman, the model and opportunity to work on a high potential business of this kind hugely appeals to me.  But as a mother, it appeals even more so.

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