Episode 105 – Tracy Foster, A Champion for Digital Health (pt. 1)

Today we continue our series all about our digital health. Joining Jessica is Tracy Foster. Tracy is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of START. START champions having digital health and using tech. responsibility. Tracy and Jessica’s conversation will not only give you practical tools for how to parent in this technology driven world, but share vulnerable stories of what it means to get it right – and learn from our mistakes.


Jessica: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to the Going Scared podcast. This is your host Jessica Honegger, founder of the social impact fashion brand Noonday Collection. Join me here every week for conversations on living life of purpose by leaving comfort and going scared. Alright, this is our second week in our Digital Health series, and I am excited to share this conversation with you today. It’s pretty vulnerable, but I got Amelie’s permission, I just wanted you to know that. This is one of two conversations that I had with Tracy Foster. Tracy is the executive director of START, an organization that informs, inspires, and equips parents and families to maximize the benefits of technology while minimizing the harmful side.

Tracy and I first connected in late February. So, this is just a few weeks shy of when the pandemic swept across the U.S., and we began to shelter in place, and we found ourselves on technology all the time, and all of my tidy little boundaries went out the door. We talked in this conversation about developing practical strategies to creating Tech Health safety nets in our homes, but even throughout the last three months, I’ve held on to this conversation, even as our world has completely changed. And when I reflect back on this episode, I come back to the fact that Tracy’s work and message is just as relevant, if not more now than ever. In fact, and I think we talk about this today, we talked about consumption creation connection that these are the three things we talk about consumption, creation, connection. These are the three things we talk a lot about in our home. How much are you using tech for consumption? How much are using it for creating? And how much are you using it to connect?

And we really want the consumption part to be a lot smaller than creating and connecting. I know for us, the training and knowledge that we’ve gained from START as a family, and some of the conversation guides that she offers on their website. They’ve been hugely supportive. And while we’re definitely not perfect in our family, it’s definitely shaped Joe and I into being active participants in our kids’ world of technology. And we’ve been able to connect over technology rather than allow the distance to set in it. Here is my conversation with Tracy.


Tracy Foster: A Champion for Digital Health

Jessica: I wanna spend most of our time talking about START, but before you were the co-founder and executive director over at START, what did your life look like?

Tracy: Yeah. My life was very different. I worked as a strategy consultant, helping organizations figure out their strategy, figure out what their value proposition was, determine their business plan. And I, specifically, worked for a social impact firm. So, I helped large foundations like the Gates Foundation and other big foundations that you’ve heard of. When they were thinking, "We want to have a positive impact on the world. We wanna address AIDS in Africa," or whatever the situation was, but, "We wanna know how to do it at the most-high leveraged impact. If this is the impact we’re desiring, how can we do that well? How can we use our funds well?" So, it was an incredibly fun job where I could jump into different issues all the time and learn and grow and help these organizations that were trying to have impact do it as effectively as possible.

And actually, one of my projects at that company FSG, it used to stand for Foundation Strategy Group, was a little bit of a foreshadowing to the work that I then ended up doing at START. I was pregnant with my oldest child. So, this was about nine years ago and we were working for one of the biggest toy companies in the world. I guarantee you that you have many of their products in your house. Probably, almost everyone in the world does. And they were wanting to understand what the social impact was of their products. So, we came in, we talked about the effect of certain dolls on body image, we did focus groups with one of their companies that really focused on early childhood toys. And this was only nine years ago, but even then, they were starting to find when they did focus groups of parents and kiddos playing together, that the parents were so digitally distracted that they weren’t playing with their kids. And so, they started doing things to engage with, "Why aren’t you playing? Don’t you know how to play?" And parents were sharing, "I don’t even know how to play." So, they started putting little tags on the box that said, "Here’s how if you have a little red barn and some plastic, you know, farm animals, you can sit on the ground with your kiddos and play." But there were already different signs of digital distraction. And it was also just a few months after Disney had bought Baby Einstein for… I don’t know, a billion or at least hundreds of millions of dollars…

Jessica: Oh, wow.

Tracy: …on the promise that Baby Einstein was making all of our kids geniuses by sitting in front of the screen. And right as we were doing this project, it came out in the news that, "Oh, actually, Baby Einstein is not doing all those wonderful things we said, and actually, the data is showing that Baby Einstein is getting in the way of literacy development and all of these other things." So, there was just a lot going on in the sector where there was pressure from a financial standpoint because again, as a strategy consultant, you have to think about what are the business opportunities for these companies. So, there was a huge business lore into making more products that had digital apps that went with them and things, but really, sitting in the boardroom of these meetings, it was fascinating to see these executives who said, you know, "Our passion is for building the social and emotional and physical development of these kids. And this is a big question for us."

And after one of the meetings, the head of research came up to me. I was very, very visibly pregnant. And he said, "I hope you’re paying attention to this because you are about to have a child and I hope you think about this differently. You’re hearing that our industry is at a moral impasse, and really, our society is at a moral impasse. So, you know, keep this in mind." And, you know, I’m sure that when you’re pregnant, you get so much unsolicited advice. And especially when it’s coming from one of your clients who, you know, you’re gonna keep seeing every month for the next several months, it just really made me think, but that’s what my life looked like before. And I was completely intending to continue to do that job because I loved it until all of a sudden START, kind of, changed course about two years ago. And I’ve transitioned now to be doing START.

Jessica: Wow. That, I love how non-cynical the story is that you just said, because I think we assume these giant corporations that have so much influence are just out for the bottom line and certainly, they are, but it’s so encouraging because obviously, as a social impact strategist, you’re coming in to show them there’s multiple bottom lines…

Tracy: That’s right.

Jessica: …and it’s encouraging that they’re paying attention to the right things.

Tracy: And that’s right. They’re at least thinking about them. I think it’s hard for many of these companies when push comes to shove and they have to make a choice between hitting their quarterly earnings and investing in what they really think is right. I think that phrase moral impasse is really true of who wins. Is it the shareholders? Is it the board? Is it the leaders? And how do you make that trade-off? So, I think there are a lot of people who are in these various organizations who are facing a tough challenge of how to balance those perspectives

Jessica: Is that the moment that sparked the idea behind START?

Tracy: You know, it’s really not. It caused me to look at the world through different glasses as my kiddos were young, but what really sparked the moment for START was when one of my co-founders, Krista had a kiddo that was going into middle school, and she was thinking about, "Should I give my kid a phone? Oh, I’m not sure." So, she did what most of us do when we’re not sure. You go to Google. And she started Googling and she was realizing, "Man, we were just at the point where we were starting to get some data about this." And there was no real data, but it was just anecdotal. And so, that, kind of, gave her enough pause to start to have a conversation. And so, I was an early member of that conversation and said, "Yeah. Here’s some of my backstory on it." But what was really interesting is we compare it sometimes to the process of even when you first become a parent. So, Jessica, I’m guessing, have you read the book "What to Expect When You’re Expecting?"

Jessica: Oh, yes, of course.

Tracy: Okay. And why did you read it?

Jessica: Because I didn’t have a clue what to expect.

Tracy: Right. Okay. So, that aligns with us and with most people, I mean, 90% of pregnant women who read a pregnancy book, read "What to Expect When You’re Expecting." It is iconic, it’s like the must-have book for parents to be. And the reason that I read it is because I was so excited to have a baby, but I had no idea what to do. And I wanted to learn how to do it as best as I could, right? I wanted to prepare, I wanted to develop a roadmap. And so, I read books like "What to Expect When You’re Expecting," I talked to my parents about what it was like, and I talked to my friends that were just a little bit further along the road. And what happened in this case, when Krista started to read, "Oh, man, I don’t really know what to do," there was no book called what to expect when you’re “textpectating” that lays out a roadmap for how to go into this new frontier. And we really are at the same type of point. We’re terrified. We don’t know what to do. It’s a new frontier. We’ve never been there. So, we’re trying to put together the bits and pieces that will help us know how to navigate it. There’s not the book. We try to talk to our parents about it. Our parents can give us good advice, but they never parented us through this.

And the most striking thing was that when she and I started going and talking to friends who were a little bit ahead of us, the same friends who had helped us think about how many sports teams should you let your kids do? And how do you do potty training? And all of those different things where you’d go to them for help and they would give you very practical things that would encourage you. And it might be different for different people, but they would have some good word to share. What happened when we went to those parents who were just ahead of us, and we said, "Hey, we’re trying to think about what should we do around tech," is their faces got sullen, some of them, kind of, went pale and their eyes were just heavy. And they said, "You know what? I don’t know what to do, but do something different because this is not going well." And when we heard that over and over again, it was just, I mean, jarring, I think I would say. And so, it made us start to say, "Okay, there is something here that’s not going well. How can we come together and try to figure out what are we learning?" And maybe it hasn’t been researched yet by the American Academy of Pediatrics  in a scientific 10-year study, but what are we starting to see, and how can we come up with practical approaches that will help us try to learn from those who are just a little bit ahead of us and avoid those things?

And so, that’s really what caused us to create START, where we started gathering other parents who were just coming out of the woodwork. Once we, kind of, held up the banner and saying, "I don’t know what to do either." And so, first, we started just meeting with these groups of parents saying, "I don’t know what to do." And every once in a while, there’d be a wise older mom who would share, "Well, here’s one tip and here’s one tip." And after we had so many of these conversations, we realized there was starting to be a little bit of a framework for what people were really eager to hear and what tips we could start to share that were simple, first steps that families could start to take to wade into this. And then we went on to develop our broader training program which really brought people together in communities to help them have some of these honest conversations, go through an expert-driven curriculum that can give them practical ways of thinking about things, specific tools and tips and, you know, very tangible menu and plan that they can take back to their families so that they could feel more equipped as they go through this. And we really think that these groups, when they come together, you and me, all of us, we are the wisdom makers. We are the ones trying to say, "We know that we wanna help our kids be happy and healthy. We know that there’s something that’s causing side effects, and what can we start to try, and how can we learn from each other to chart a better course forward for our kids?"

"We know that we wanna help our kids be happy and healthy. We know that there’s something that’s causing side effects, and what can we start to try, and how can we learn from each other to chart a better course forward for our kids?" Tracy Foster


Navigating the Digital World

Jessica: So, tell us the bottom line elevator pitch for what START is.

Tracy: Yeah. So, START aims to help equip parents as mentors and guides through this new digital world that we live in. And we do that by providing training tools and tips. So, our trainings bring communities together to have these conversations and be equipped together so that the communities can actually be starting to create new cultural norms because what we’ve found is it’s really hard to do this, but it’s even harder to do it alone. And so, the power of being aligned with a community around you is invaluable. And then our tools and our tips help to sustain that momentum for people who come through our training programs, but also provide on-ramps for individuals who otherwise don’t have a training program near them and just want to be, you know, hearing what they can, they have a situation and hopefully, our website can provide some valuable tool or tip. Or, like, what amazingly happened in your story. My goodness. That’s just so cool for people as they’re facing little bumps in the road.

Jessica: Well, I love that you have integrated this community aspect because it’s so true. We are in a community, you know, like we have a carpoolcrew that we hang out outside of work together. We live in a more of a hippy-dippy part of Austin. And so, we’ve all taken probably, a little bit more of a, "Let’s go be in nature." And, you know, so, we have been a lot more conservative in our introduction of technology to our kids. A lot of our kids still don’t have phones and such, but now, we have a couple of the kids in the crew are in middle school. And so, we’re starting to get serious about this and you have a social contract, or… I don’t know if it’s called a social contract, but you have a contractual suggestion I know on your website. And when I saw that, we actually got together with this community and said, "Hey, let’s make a contract together so that we can all be approaching the same norms with our children." And it’s true. It’s essential. In fact, I just interviewed a guy yesterday called Willpower Doesn’t Work. He is a researcher and psychologist, and he really talks about how it’s our environment that basically influences our achievement of our goals.

Tracy: Completely.

Jessica: So, having that environmental aspect and that social aspect is so crucial. I know you, a lot of these contracts, you know, or a lot of your insights on your website are parentally informed, but also, research-informed. So, tell me a little bit as you started to get into this, what sort of research really stood out to you in realizing there are correlations between… I don’t know, addiction, comparison, you know, all the things that we as parents notice, what are researchers actually beginning to research, first of all, and then what are they discovering?

Tracy: Yeah. I’ll share a couple of points that really stood out. There are actually a couple of specific stats. So, the first one is, when you start to open up a conversation like this, it’s amazing the types of people who call you, right, that you’re, kind of, like, "Oh, I wonder why this person is calling me." But as we were a few months in, we got a call from a woman locally who is the sexual assault nurse examiner at our local children’s hospital. And she said, "Hey, I’d love to talk to you." And we were like, "Okay, I wonder why." And when she came and talked with us, she shared something that literally to this day still keeps me up at night, but she said, she’s been a sexual assault nurse examiner for… I don’t know, 20 years. And what that means is when kids come in who have been sexually assaulted, she’s the one who… now, she oversees the team who does this but does the physical examination and the conversation with a child who’s been abused, and then also, in many cases, involves with a perpetrator.

And she shared with us that what has been absolutely shocking is that in the past, I don’t know, maybe it was five to seven years, that there has been like a hockey stick growth in terms of the number of sexual assaults that are coming in to the children’s hospital. And that almost all of that growth is from a perpetrator base of kids ages 11 to 15. So, the majority of kids who are committing sexual assault in our community which is representative of national, she shared, are these kiddos 11 to 15. And in the past, when a kid would come in who had been sexually assaulted by another child, it was 99.9% an immediate red flag that, that other child who was a perpetrator had been abused because well, our kids… I’m a boy mom, well, our kids, they naturally call each other names, they naturally physically hit each other. There is no natural origination of something like sexual assault. And so, what she shared is as she was blown away by just like, "What is happening? Why are these kids who have never been abused doing it?" She found that in almost all of the cases, what was happening is these kiddos had access to porn on their devices, and that it is basically, something that starts to restructure the way they think about it, it changes their values around this, it normalizes it. And just like kids might watch a football player throw passes, and then mimic that in their backyard for hours, kids were watching this sexual abuse and then they would act it out, oftentimes on their siblings or cousins. And I just think that was heart wrenching for me and made me think, "Wow."

And so, we started to hear from the Department of Defense that said, you know, that the average age that kids are getting exposed to pornography is going downtime. I mean, within the course of a year, the age goes down. When we started this, they were saying 11. Now, we’re hearing more people say age nine. And that 90% of the scenes that kids see are portraying a man being violent to a woman. So, it’s really just changing the way that kids are thinking about it. And someone from the Department of Defense had shared never before has so much indecent and obscene material been so easily accessible by so many minors in so many American homes with so few restrictions. So, even more than a contract, I would say, we focus on these five rules of thumb and one of our rules of thumb, it aligns with our name S-T-A-R-T, but one of our rules of thumb is around accountability and trying to help create safety nets because most of the time, kids start getting access to porn as an accident, and then it has these far-reaching effects for them and for others around them.

“Never before has so much indecent and obscene material been so easily accessible by so many minors in so many American homes with so few restrictions.” Tracy Foster

And I’ll share one other stat too that just really stood out to us which is, when you look at in our community, and I know this is the same case nationally, there is just a mental health epidemic. I mean, the number of suicides, the number of kids on antidepressants and anxiety medicines, it’s just shooting up through the roof. And as we’ve worked with our local mental health center, we’ve learned that sleep is probably the biggest factor and an important guide for mental health. If you’re not sleeping, I mean, I can remember this from days when my kids weren’t sleeping through the night, that massively affected my mental health. And so, it’s incredibly important. Sleep is basically the number one factor of wellness.

But what we had also been hearing anecdotally, from teachers and then reading more broadly, is that about 80% of our teenagers, 80% of kids with devices are waking up during the night, sometimes waking for every notification. And so, what we’ve pieced together there is, you know, maybe, they’re staying up using their devices during the night to do something really productive like YouTube tutorials to learn Chinese or something. You know, hypothetically, they’re doing something really great on their phones, but even if they’re doing something positive, sleep is actually the main thing that they need. And so, it’s still causing negative side effects, even if they’re doing something positive. But the bigger piece is also that our impulse control is lowest at night.

And so, most of the things that we’re seeing that are some of the really hard things are happening at night when kids should be sleeping. Just like our devices need to recharge, so do we. So, I think that also has influenced one of what we call our rules of thumb, which is around creating device-free zones. And we think absolutely that one of the device-free zones in every house should be out of kids’ bedrooms overnight. So, those are a couple of stats that have really informed our work and weighed on us personally.


Rethinking Technology

Jessica: Wow. I think too, what you’re doing is so helpful because, like, I have a friend who started something called Wait Till 8th. And it was all like social contract, let’s all go in together, let’s not let our kids get phones until eighth grade. And we didn’t quite make it to eighth. We let our daughter buy her phone in seventh grade, but even then, I think she was the only kid in her grade that was finally getting a phone. And our boys are younger. They’re fifth and sixth. They still don’t have phones, but you know, it’s just easier to parent a kid without a phone because then, you’re not having to actually deal with all of this, and the boundaries and now this, and now that, and now that, but the truth is like, technology is here to stay and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. And so, we do just need guidance now. So, you’ve mentioned a couple of your rules of thumb. So, tell us what does START stand for, and then yes, walk us through some of these guides, and then I’d love to hear, yeah, the why behind it, how you arrived at that rule of thumb.

Tracy: Yeah. Okay. So, START, our name stands for Stand Together and Rethink Technology, but we decided to reuse the START for our rules of thumb. So, there are five. S is start with yourself because really, while we are all starting this conversation because we can see the challenges that our kiddos are having, it starts with us. We’re the role models for our kids. And if I’m speaking for myself, at least, I struggle with an addiction to technology. I struggle with sitting one moment on the floor playing Legos and the next moment scrolling through a feed because I picked up my phone to do one really productive thing, and then I was distracted and got sucked in. And so, when the research is showing that we’re picking up our phones nearly 100 times a day, that is something that the kids are seeing around us.

And we actually have worked with a local Teen Council for Suicide Prevention in our community. And they host these events that say, you know, "Let’s share with parents about what kids are struggling with, with mental health as we’re having this epidemic." And at the end, the parents just leave so weighed down by what they heard. And so, every single time, some parent raises their hand and says something to the effect of, "Hey, I’m really overwhelmed by this and I don’t know what to do. Can you tell me just one thing to do?" And very frequently, a teen council member will raise their hand to respond and say, they’ll say, "Put down your phone and talk to us because even though we’re in the teen years and we might roll our eyes at you, we actually really do want your time and attention and your gaze is powerful to us. But when we feel like you’re just addicted to your phone and you care more about what’s happening on that little device than you care about us, it kinda sets a tone." So, we start by saying, start with yourself, think about how you as a parent can mentor this, or model this, I guess I should say.

The second rule of thumb is our T and we call it tables and bedtimes, which is really about creating device-free zones. So, we think it’s just really healthy to say, "Yes, of course, we use technology for lots of different parts of our day, it has purposes that are practical, as well as entertainment and all sorts of different things, but it’s really important to make sure to take times where just like so many people are into detox diets, detox from it from a certain time and call them into something better." So, if people are looking for a place to start, the top two recommendations that we have are tables and bedtimes. So, eating meals together as a family, it is unbelievable what that does for a child’s sense of identity, connection, and for their actual likelihood of success throughout their life.

It is unbelievable how much lower various risk factors of sexual activity and drug use and other types of risky behavior go down in correlation with whether or not kids are eating with their parents, eating meals. And what we found is that we started to get to a point where kids and parents were eating meals, but they weren’t actually really eating them together because of devices. And what’s amazing is when you look at that research about how powerful mealtime connections are, I am very grateful to say it is not dependent upon a homemade organic gourmet meal. That’s not what matters, but what matters is the connection time. Even if it’s just a few grunts, even if it’s laughing about a shared joke, those set the stage for being able to have connection and deeper conversation that lasts that is so powerful. So, if you can get devices away during dinner or other mealtimes, we would really recommend that.

“It is unbelievable how much lower various risk factors of sexual activity and drug use and other types of risky behavior go down in correlation with whether or not kids are eating with their parents, eating meals.” Tracy Foster

Then I know you mentioned getting devices away during bedtimes. So, you know, the stats about that 80% of kids are up when they’re supposed to be sleeping using their phones. Let’s make it so that they don’t need to do that. We shared a story on our blog that went unexpectedly viral. It’s been read by almost 5 million people in the world, but it’s the story of a teenage girl who was just starting to have a lot of like, not acting like herself, and her parents eventually were like, "You know, we think she’s staying up on her phone. We’re gonna take her phone away from her at nighttime." And they thought, "Oh man, she’s gonna kick and scream, she’s gonna cry, and she’s going to do all these things." Well, when they took the phone away from her, she did start to cry, but it was for a completely different reason than they thought. It was because she fell into a heap and she said, "You don’t understand. One of my friends is suicidal and I am her lifeline. I need to answer any time anyone contacts me to make sure that it’s not her because otherwise, she might kill herself and I don’t want her to do that just because I didn’t pick up my phone to help her."

Oh my gosh. You are, I mean, and one thing that’s crazy that story on our blog, we’ve heard that exact same story from so many people. You are 15 or 16, you are not a professional to handle this weight. And so, it was a really powerful opportunity for that daughter and that mom to be able to say, "Oh my gosh. Thank you so much for telling me about that. We’re gonna get your friend the help that she really needs." And once they were able to do that, and once they did take that device out of the daughter’s bedroom and she knew that she was no longer on the hook for this friend, she completely went back to her normal self and was just so much happier. So, that’s our T-tables and bedtimes.

Our A is about accountability. And I think a lot of people start there. They just wish that there was a police state app that would automatically solve things for them and unfortunately, there’s not, but we do think that it’s really good to install some type of a safety net, be it Bark or Our Pact or Circle. Something that just makes it less likely that when your kid is Googling to buy soccer cleats from DICK’S sporting goods, that they don’t accidentally go somewhere else. So, it provides a basic safety net. But we really think that it’s so important to make sure that you don’t think that it ends there because they will still have different content that gets shared with them in various ways and at various ages. And so, it’s really important for you also to make it clear that while you’re providing something like a safety net to help that you, ultimately, are their biggest safety net and that you are a safe harbor so that if they see something, they can come to you and show you that phone that has a nude picture of one of your friend’s kids and you can calmly say, "Wow, tell me more about this," instead of taking their phone and chucking it against the wall or saying, "I’m taking this away from you forever." So, we try to train parents. We heard this from a friend of ours, a group called Access, but in the “I’m not shocked face” so that when your kids come to you with something, you practice this face like, "Oh, that’s really interesting. I’ve never seen that view of Samantha before. Okay." So, that all fits within our A, accountability.

“And so, it’s really important for you also to make it clear that while you’re providing something like a safety net to help that you, ultimately, are their biggest safety net and that you are a safe harbor.” Tracy Foster

And then our next rule of thumb is R, and we call it ride practice drive, which is basically about taking that driver’s ed approach to technology introduction. I would never, if I was your parent, Jessica, go to you on your 16th birthday and say, "Happy birthday. Now, you get to drive. Here are the keys to a brand new model car. I’m sure you know how to drive and you’ll be safe. Go have fun with your friends and just to be back at 9:00." No. We would never do that because we know that they’re likely to make bumps. We know that they need to start with some small scope. I remember where I was when I learned to drive with my dad. I was in the parking lot of a high school and day one, I drove 10 feet forward and I didn’t hit anything. And I was like, "Okay, dad, I’m done." And we think that that same type of incremental introduction should happen with technology.

So, a lot of times, we hear that kids get a phone for some really practical need like, "I wanna be able to call my kid after soccer practice." And so, it’s just so easy to go into the local cell phone carrier store and say, "Okay, I wanna be able to connect with my kid." And they’ll maybe even give you a device and a phone line for free and there you have it, but you’ve actually given your kid access to so much more, and unless you’re ready to train them in how to do that, we think it can really lead to some bumps in the road. So we encourage incremental introduction. So, if your use case is really, "I just need to call my kid after soccer practice," maybe it’s a Relay, which is a hyped-up walkie talkie or a GizmoWatch, or a Gabb wireless phone that just has basic features. And so, you can, kind of, step through each of those and then get to a smartphone and have the smartphone be a little bit dumbed down with different settings so that kids can take on an amount of responsibility that they can really handle, just like you would when you’re learning to drive where you take it incrementally, where someone’s sitting in the passenger seat. So, that’s our R, ride, practice, drive.

And then our T is about time well spent, which is thinking about how do you connect with your kids offline as well as online? So, one of the biggest things that we hear from parents when they start our program is, you know, "Hey, I’m really nervous because I rely on the device as a babysitter. It helps me to cook dinner. So, how am I gonna handle if all of a sudden, my kids are offline more?" And so, we talk about, you know, other activities that could be quality time together, or even just the incredible value of chores or time spent bored. So, we talk a little bit about different ways to connect offline, and then a really powerful point of connecting online because what’s happening right now is, kind of, this new digital divide of sorts where frequently, when parents give their kid a device, they think, "Okay, well, they’re more tech-savvy than I am, and that’s them doing their thing." And the kid just goes into this world that’s completely on their own. And the parent doesn’t do what you did at dinner with your kids. The parent doesn’t go and talk with them about what’s happening, but that’s where they’re living out their adolescent experiences. That’s where they’re living out, feeling left out, feeling bullied, all of these different things.


Actively Participating, Online and Offline

And so, we really encourage parents to rethink about ways that they can be active participants, not full. You know, they don’t get full access necessarily, but to some of their kids’ digital interests. So, we talk about like, you know, we always love a good old fashion movie night. That’s great, but maybe now, think about doing a YouTube night where every member of your family share some of their favorite YouTube videos so that you get more of a sense of what your kids are looking at on YouTube, or to your point about snap streaks earlier. If your kiddo gets Snapchat, maybe you get it too one, so that you can be friends with your kids, but don’t stop there. Take it even the next step of getting Snapchat with your best friend and starting to use it so that you can experience some of the joys, but you can also then experience some of the hardships about it and talk with your kiddo about that.

So, we have a friend who got snap streak because her teen daughter — or got Snapchat — because her teen daughter had it, and then she started a snap streak. Just by chance, she, kinda, fell into it with a friend of hers who lives on the other side of the country. And they snapped together every day back and forth for like 364 days. And on what would have been the 365th day, our friend messed up. She just forgot. She got sidetracked. There’s so many other things going on in life. She didn’t even think to Snapchat her friend within the 24-hour window. It was just a little bit past. And she opened up her Snapchat and she saw that the streak was gone and her heart… this is a 50-year-old woman, her heart plummeted. And she was like, "Oh, my gosh. I’ve let my friend down. She’s going to think I don’t care about her." All of these different emotional feelings swirling up within her, right? They were real.

And what was so powerful was to hear that that night at dinner, she was sharing. Again, because it was a device-free dinner, they were talking, but she was talking with her daughter and her family, and she was like, "You guys, I have got to tell you something today. I broke a snap streak and I am like, my whole day has just been horrible. These are all the feelings that I have. You know, I’m just really processing this." And her teen daughter opened up more than she had in quite some time to lean over the table, touch her mom’s hand and say, "Mom, I’ve done that too and I have felt exactly the same way. It is so hard." And it was a simple situation that led to such a beautiful and deep conversation about some of the pressures that come with these different programs. And so, we just encourage you to try to think about what it is that you can do to be active in your kid’s digital life as well.

Jessica: I don’t know why that just choked me up. That just choked my up.

Tracy: I know, right?

Jessica: Yeah, but I think too, yeah, we did a flip phone. So, we did a flip phone in the sixth grade when my daughter started babysitting, and then she used that babysitting money to buy her first phone. But I wonder if I had been a little bit too hardcore and just down on tech, you know, and, like, acting like that old lady that’s like, "We didn’t have this when I was little and we played outside and go play outside." And so, she actually snuck, because we had a no social media, like, we’re not doing social media, and she went and put TikTok on her phone and didn’t tell me. And then I actually discovered it and she actually lied about it. And then, she knows that I’m sharing this on the podcast. I got her permission, but thankfully, we are so blessed with a couple of just young 20’s, in their  20’s, women that are pouring into my daughter’s life. And so, she opened up to them about it and they encouraged her to, like, share the truth with me. And so, she did.

And it was that moment though, of, okay. She did put TikTok on her phone. She didn’t tell me. I already told her no social media. TikTok looks pretty. I don’t know. I was like, "It looks, kinda, fun and cute and creative and you make all these cool videos." So, we actually did… I didn’t even give her a consequence. I was just wanting to develop, I think, trust that she can come and talk to me and we can do this together. So, we let her keep it on her phone. Then I started my own TikTok account so that I could follow her and we would do fun dances together. We even like our whole family has, like, a video on her TikTok where we learned those crazy moves. But the Snapchat thing is… I don’t know. That is freaking me out. I’m like, "Okay, we did TikTok but she’s going to the high school next year and I know she’s going to a large public high school and I’m sure everyone is on Snapchat." So, I don’t want her to have it though. Like, is that an option?

Tracy: Yes. Well, we need to teach our kids. I mean, to your point about, I think it can be so natural where when we first started this program, we felt like when you have a fearful, scary situation, it’s so easy to go to one extreme, either, "You know what? This is just the world as it is. What can I do? I have no sense of agency. So, I’m just gonna go with it." Or it’s the other side of saying, "Man, this is really scary. I wanna just avoid it. Let’s throw all of our technology in the lake." I have felt that way as I’ve heard some of these stories, but really, our kids, what they need is they need to develop a sense of how to self-regulate this for themselves, because they are going to have access to it over time. And so, for us, we really do think the more that you can help them learn how to understand mentally how this is affecting them. So, some of the questions that we had even in that Snapchat guide are really around, how does it make you feel? What do you see on there that you like? What do you see on there that you don’t like, to help them get a framework of questions that they can even apply to some other technology that hasn’t been developed yet, but also to get them used to having it in-relationship.

“Really, our kids, what they need is they need to develop a sense of how to self-regulate this for themselves, because they are going to have access to it over time.” Tracy Foster


Creating New Cultural Norms of Digital Health

So, I think it’s really hard because it is true. I mean, a lot of tough things can happen on Snapchat. The number of kids who send indecent pictures, thinking they’re just sending it to this one person and then it gets spread. We hear so many stories about how that has just, like, destroyed kids’ lives basically. And so, it’s heartbreaking, but I think that if you have… this is a situation where there’s no one-size-fits-all. And I think all of us, like we are in all of parenting — We are working to prepare our kids to be independent, responsible, self-regulating adults. And so, I think it’s about taking it one piece at a time. So, whenever you think that, "Okay, hey, I think my daughter’s really doing well in this place," and if we’re gonna step into Snapchat, I would say start small. So, start with things like… or actually, I’m gonna tell you one of my favorite tips. I’ll say this then also one of my favorite tips, but, like, you could start by saying, "Okay, you can only have this many people who you connect with on Snapchat," or "I wanna approve your post before you do it." You know, a variety of different things to help her, kind of, get into it, but it sounds like you’ve done so much by not acting like you just don’t trust her at all and that this is just bad.

“We are working to prepare our kids to be independent, responsible, self-regulating adults. And so, I think it’s about taking it one piece at a time.” Tracy Foster

Those are the really important things to help her have this conversation and this confidence and this trust to be able to try to self-regulate. I mean, I think what you’re seeing with her and her friends deciding to take 40 days off TikTok, I just think that’s so encouraging. And so, yeah, you have to, if these are the things, I mean, you could make the choice to say, "Hey, in our family, we’re just not doing that." But I think that’s a really hard choice to make when all of society around you is doing it. So, it might be something where, over time, maybe the average age that people start to get into Snapchat goes up over time. Maybe your younger kiddos won’t be asking for Snapchat at the same age. But I do think it’s about trying to find ways to navigate as healthy as possible.

One thing that we heard once that we just loved was a family who said, "Well, what we wanted to do before our kiddo got Snapchat is we wanted to get a family Snapchat account so that we could actually go through the process together. And we signed up with a few other families and we snapped each other, but we decided actually, maybe it would be more fun if instead of making it a Snapchat about our family, we’d make it a Snapchat about each family’s dog." Sounded so random when I first heard this story.

Jessica: That’s amazing.

Tracy: But so, they created like Buster had his own Snapchat page and the family would manage it. And Buster’s friends, you know, four other dogs that were in their family circle also had Snapchat pages. And the family would legitimately live into this Snapchat page. And so, they would do thing… actually, I think this was with the Instagram. I’m sorry, but it could be applied in a lot of situations. So, it was Instagram. The four kiddos went on Instagram. So, they created Instagram dog pages and they would, like, go to the dog park and spend like an hour trying to get the right picture of Buster so that they’d have the perfect profile picture, right? But they were doing this as a family. So, it created conversations like, "Man, you guys, is that really what we wanted to use an hour on today? I feel like my emotional stance towards Buster is that I’m angry at him just because he’s not posing for the picture, but he just wants to play." I mean, right. Isn’t that like so silly.

Jessica: Right. Right. Yeah.

Tracy: Then it actually gets at the heart of things or like one of the situations that they said was they were going on this really nice cruise and they were like, "Oh, it’d be so cool to get pictures of Buster on the cruise, but too bad they don’t allow dogs." And they got to that point that we hear sometimes about like, if it’s not on social media, did it even happen? You know, so they were like having these fascinating conversations and even like, "Well, do you think that the other dogs need to see Buster on the cruise ship? I mean, really, how would that make the other dogs feel when they’re not able to do that?" And so, it was just like such a creative one-off way of saying, "Hey, let’s start to step into this in a nontraditional way where we can start to have some of those conversations." And it really laid the foundation so that then, the kids had already had some of that self-awareness and like ahas to say, "Oh, this is like that time that we took Buster to the dog park. I don’t want that to be what my life is for me." So anyways, yeah. I thought that was such a cute story.

Jessica: Okay. Good questions that you have on your Snapchat guide, what do you think will be some of the groundbreaking research that we’ll see that will get our attention, kinda, like when we realized that cigarettes cause cancer?

Tracy: Well, I think that going forward, I know a few different researchers, and actually, there’s even one from our local children’s hospital who’s measuring the impact of the START rules of thumb and starting to look at, "Okay, when we do behavior change, how can we do behavior change, and then does it help? Are we starting to see those positive outcomes that we’re hoping for?" So, I mean, our ultimate goal would be that in the coming years, that we actually, mostly just see a reversal in the downward spirals that we’ve seen around anxiety and depression and suicide. And I guess really, probably, one of the foremost ones that feeds into those is loneliness. So, I don’t know how much you’ve heard about the loneliness epidemic, but our generation is the loneliest generation in recorded history. And what’s most fascinating is that our teenagers are the loneliest age group within our society. That is the opposite of what it has always been statistically, because teenagers live in the most community of everyone, right? They’re on sports teams, they’re at school, but what’s happening is now, teenagers are actually lonelier than basically the elderly including those who are like shut-ins. That is crazy.

And so, I think one of our biggest goals is that we would start to see right now, everyone thinks, you know, we’re so connected, "connected," but we’re really realizing that we’re more disconnected from real relationships. And humans are relational beings. That is where we find our meaning and so much of our worth and our identity. And so, the more that we can help make sure that technology is extending our humanity, instead of, kind of, replacing it in some way that doesn’t actually fill what our soul needs. I think we wanna try to go back and go back to the power of human connection and get to a point where our kids aren’t facing this social-emotional learning crisis that, we heard 30 state board of educations or something I should… I don’t know that off the end. I would need to go back and look at that, but multiple state boards of education have said that there is a crisis of social-emotional learning and they’re trying to create times in their classrooms for kids to say things like, "How was your weekend? What are you planning to do today?" Because those basic conversations are just no longer being built.

Jessica: The first weekend after George Floyd was murdered and the movement, the amazing righteous justice movement for Black lives began to spread across the country, Amelie was on Tik Tok, and she told me the next day she had cried herself to sleep the night before wondering what life would be like if this generation did not become anti-racist for her little brother, who is Black. And while I’m so glad that technology, especially right now, is educating us, informing us, I mean I… oh my goodness. The books that I’ve been reading thanks to people sharing about these resources, and some of the new Black women, especially, that I’m following that are teaching me have been so powerful. 

At the same time, we know that real life happens off of screens. So, after talking with Amelie, she decided to self-manage, and she deleted Tik Tok off of her phone, and then she went Indiana for the first three weeks of the summer. She actually left her phone in Austin and had a three-week detox. And I know we can’t all do that. I mean, maybe I could do a couple of days of completely just not even having my phone, but I think we could all learn how to just listen and become more conscious users of technology. And Tracy’s organization START just has so many resources

One night, we just sat down with the Snapchat guide and just read it out loud as a family and talked through it, and Amelie is only one with a phone. She doesn’t have Snapchat yet, and my boys are in middle school, and we just have one flip phone for them. But just talking through those things, even way ahead of time, helps to set a stage for open conversations with your family around technology. 
So, I would love for you to go keep up with Tracy and START. Head on over to www.westartnow.org. You can access the super helpful parent guide for tech-healthy families at www.westartnow.org\featuredcontent and I cannot wait to see how helpful this is for you. It was just — it was such a helpful conversation.

Thank you so much for tuning into this new series. It’s a short one, we only have two more episodes after today’s. If you would head on over to iTunes and rate the show, I would deeply appreciate it. And if you want to head on over to Instagram and let me know who do you want to hear from on our next series after our Digital Health series. We’re just in the middle of forming it now and I would love your input. 
Our wonderful music for today’s show is by my good friend Ellie Holcomb. Going Scared is produced by Eddie Kaufholz, and I’m Jessica Honegger. Until next time, let’s take each other by the hand and keep Going Scared.