Tiebing Zhang, cofounder and CTO of Circle Media, stands with Oregon's Mount Hood in the background.

Clutch Tools to Curb Screentime? Dumplings, Popcorn, and Conversation

Tiebing Zhang is the co-founder and chief technology officer of Circle, the Portland-based company created to help families manage kids’ use of screens and technology. (The Circle Home Plus product and app allow parents to monitor screentime and content consumption on a full range of devices.) He’s also a father of two, with a distinct perspective on the whole screentime thing.

With near-universal teen smartphone ownership, ubiquitous video games, and ever-more-attractive devices, how can kids use tech in a healthy way? How can families preserve time together? We talked to Tiebing about all this—and about how dumplings can help.

“Screentime” is an almost universal parental issue. But how did Circle, specifically, get started?
I grew up in rural China before eventually moving to the US for grad school. At one point, a few years ago, my father came to visit us here. He told us about our area, the place where I grew up, getting Internet service for the first time. Internet cafes were opening. And so people there were discovering just how disruptive the Internet can be.

All of a sudden, kids aren’t doing their homework. They’re not coming home after school, they’re going to the Internet café. One mom even went on TV, pleading for help with this problem. And that’s really interesting, because this is rural China, but it shows that it kind of doesn’t matter where you are. You can be in a metropolitan area, or you can be in the countryside. Once you’re online, you’re online.

From that conversation, the idea evolved for something that would be easy for families to use to manage their kids’ use of technology. When we launched in 2015, our product was focused on home Internet. As mobile has evolved, we’ve added the ability to manage devices outside of the home. And we’ve had great success with families using our products. It’s a tool for families to have some control over and insight into how their kids use the Internet.

What has the company’s evolution taught you, personally, about screentime as a family issue?
I have two kids, 10 and 12, so they’re at the perfect age to see this in action. You understand the struggle in a whole different way when you have kids yourself.

You could always go to an extreme as a family and say, hey, we let them do whatever they want. You know that’s not going to work out well. The software, the games, phones—all are designed to be addictive. For kids, it’s not really a fair fight. The technology has psychology on its side. We need to talk about that, and educate around that, as families and as a society.

But you’re also not going to cut them off completely. That’s just never going to work. And there are many good things about the Internet. Just to take YouTube as an example: Yes, you can find horrible things on YouTube, but kids can also find a lot of very useful, educational things.

The biggest thing, I think, is that you don’t want to be your kids’ enemy on these issues. You don’t want to be nagging and taking things away. You want to walk with them. We need to work together.

A lot of families look to cooking as a way to connect—and, frankly, as an activity that gets kids off their devices. What role does cooking play in your family?
We tend to be at home more than out. One thing we’ve learned at Circle, working with families, is that kids really like family time. They appreciate it. Our family cooks together, with the kids involved quite a bit. From making our own popcorn, to slicing potatoes for our own fries, to pancakes—with all these simple things, they can cook almost a full meal themselves. It’s obviously one of the best ways to spend time together. And when there’s spare time for the kids when they’re not allowed to use screens, cooking becomes a much more natural focus.

How does your personal background affect your point of view on food and cooking?
It’s hard to capture just how different it was. When I was growing up, there was no commercial stuff in the part of rural China where we lived. There was no electricity, basically. There were wires, but the electricity tended to go to more important places, like the cities.

So we had no refrigeration. We ate very fresh food, with almost no meat. In the winter, we had root vegetables and pickles. I don’t think my kids can quite appreciate it. I mean, I can take them to where I am from, but so much has changed—it’s not like it was at all. Kids there can barely understand what it was like.

In my part of China, dumplings are the big thing, and for any celebration, you make dumplings: Chinese New Year, spring festival. It’s quite a process, from making the flour to wrapping the dumplings, it takes two or three hours. When we do that as a family, that really binds you together as a group.

Togetherness seems like what we’re all after, but paradoxically it can be the hardest thing to achieve. If you could give us some bottom-line advice on kids and tech, what would you say?
Set a boundary. Do it together. Talk it all over—how often is it okay to play your favorite game? Every day? Every week? What’s an acceptable amount of time to spend on social media during a day?

Develop some other go-to activities—road trips or cooking or whatever. Don’t use the screen as a babysitter—they’ll get used to it, and then they stop talking to you.

Figure out what’s right for your kids and your family, and make it a conversation. Circle can then help enforce those rules. We’re not about blocking everything. We’re about helping families work together.

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