Today, Village launches our first website. This is significant for me and for the team, because it is the first public expression of our dream to create a healthy and safe social network for families.
This is our founding story and our guiding principles. Expressing these fundamentals to the world will guide our path as we make decisions in the future.
I enjoy technology and have often been an early adopter of the latest and greatest. Smartphones have been one of the most rapidly adopted technologies in history for good reason. They provide incredible connectivity and computing power that can go anywhere with us.
Smartphones are great. It's the apps that we choose to put on them that have become a problem. Addictive apps have hijacked the power of smartphones causing us to waste more time then we want. On average, we check our phones 80 times per day or once every 12 minutes! App developers have become experts at using artificial intelligence to deliberately manipulate our behavior and maximize usage of their apps.
As a parent of 4 kids (ages 14, 12, 8, 6), I have become even more vigilant of my technology use. I’ve also seen how technology affects our kids' friendships and daily lives. My experience is that kids will use their phones and computers as much as they are allowed. Somehow, endless YouTube videos or scrolling through Instagram never gets old to them.
February 2019 marked the 15th anniversary of Facebook’s public availability and the 10th anniversary of the 'like' button. Over the last several years, many books and articles have been written about the problems with social media and the harm that it is causing people. Unfortunately, we seem to be caught in the web of social media and our inertia has desensitized us to the crisis surrounding its use.
I fear it may be too late to change the course of history, and social media users (which is to say almost everyone) may have to wait for government regulation to better protect them.
I am not willing to wait and not try to create change. It's time for a healthy and safe social network. We must start with protecting our kids. We go to great lengths to keep our kids physically safe, and we need to do more to stop the mental health crisis social media is causing for them.
First, let me explain how this has affected my family, and then I will tell you why Village is the answer.
My personal awareness of the problem with social media began when my oldest daughter (age 12 at the time) fell into a funk. She began having trouble sleeping and generally not feeling well. We dismissed this for awhile thinking it was ‘normal’ at her age. Eventually, we took her to multiple medical doctors and a licensed therapist. None of which improved her melancholy or identified the cause. I am now thankful things didn’t get worse, as it does for many families.
At this stage, our daughter had few limits on her cell phone usage, and unlimited access to Instagram. Even worse, we allowed her to sleep with her phone in her room, something that is all too common for kids. As parents, we felt that we had tried everything to help her. Everything except the one unthinkable thing to a pre-teen/teenager: taking away her phone.
We had no reference and were nervous on how to proceed with the intervention. It seemed like all we could do was choose from several bad options. We worried about cutting her off from her friends and social life. But the alternative would risk worsening health issues.
Before taking action, we read half a dozen books on parenting with technology and agreed to follow the recommendations of Dr. Victoria Dunkley in Reset Your Child's Brain.
Dr. Dunkley recommends a 4-week detox to effectively reset the nervous system, which can get over stimulated by screen time. Long story short, these four weeks were trying and strained our relationship, but they were worth it. Our daughter’s health had dramatically improved by the end of the reset. We then set sensible limitations and she not only continued to improve but began to thrive. Now, two years later she remains healthy and happy.
I've now learned that a teen saying 'I don't feel good' is a strong indicator of feeling stressed or even depressed. Unless there's a major stressor in their life, the root cause is likely linked to a social dynamic, and today that social dynamic may well be digital.
We narrowly avoided a bigger issue with our daughter two years ago. Her struggles caught our attention, and I believed that we had learned our lesson and would be able to avoid similar problems with our other kids.
I was wrong. Schools have become tech-centric and now contribute to the problem. One day my 8 and 6 year olds started talking about their Gmail accounts, and I was so dumbfounded I actually ignored their claims for a few weeks.
When I finally sat down with them and let them show me, I learned that the school had in fact created Gmail accounts through Google Education without any communication to parents. My girls believed that the accounts were monitored, and in theory they are. However, I have signed them up for Instagram accounts using the school account and completed other actions that are not age appropriate. The school hasn't alerted me, but I can't blame teachers for not having time to monitor since their job is to educate.
At this point, I realized that parents are fighting the technology battle on too many fronts to protect their kids with available solutions. It feels like an uphill battle and families need a technology solution built to help them. It’s time for Village.
Village's mission is to create a healthy and safe social network. We are focused first on families as kids are the most vulnerable.
Am I crazy starting a company trying to compete with two of the largest companies in the world, Facebook and Google?
It certainly isn't the most attractive business strategy. Plenty of companies are successfully making marginal improvements for kids, and we could have taken this path.
It certainly isn't the most lucrative career move. I could have opted to continue my path as a finance executive and work for established and successful companies.
Despite these challenges, there is a logical explanation: a strong belief in our mission. I believe in Village's mission to my very core. The world needs Village to ensure our happiness and well-being in the digital age.
For better or for worse, the ultimate judgment of my sanity (or lack thereof) will come when Village proves whether or not it can deliver the change we so desperately need. I do not, however, seek public validation and part of the inspiration to write this letter is simply to remind myself that business success or failure alone isn't the right measure of our efforts.
Village will be a success if we can improve the lives of our fellow villagers. Helping kids (and adults) struggling with social-media induced anxiety and depression will change and even save lives. Together we can change the world. Saving even a single life will be worth it.
I see brave parents talk about the struggles they face with their kids and solutions that work for them. Many parents don’t give their kids phones. Some give flip phones or smart watches with only the most basic functionality to send a message. Given the options that exist, I think these are wise choices.
Other parents choose monitoring tools that partially oversee their kids. These, however, are relatively easy to circumvent. It’s also worth noting that these monitoring tools don't block inappropriate content within approved apps.
I will not settle for either of these options. Village will empower kids to communicate and socialize with friends. Village will protect kids at the same time from cyberbullying, predators and support mental health and happiness. In an age where cars can drive themselves, we can and should be able to have it all for our kids!
I believe it's healthy for kids to foster relationships with family and real life friends in a digital environment. There is a strong connection between the quality of our social relationships and our happiness. You can learn more on how Village is helping by visiting our website or blog (village.com).
Kids have always grown up under pressure to fit in. With social media, their life is more public than ever before. Social status is quantifiable by 'likes,' 'followers,' and 'streaks' that highlight just how shallow it is.
A simple example is that parents are often concerned about 'secret' accounts that kids use to hide behavior, and kids may do this. However, kids will often have an account they share with their friends, which ironically is more likely to be a 'fake' account where they try to look perfect in order to fit in. However, their real account - where they are their real selves - is the one where they follow topics or people that aren't as popular with the cool crowd at school. A kid's real account is where they anonymously post artwork that isn't perfect or follow books. This is the one their parents and friends don’t see, which is an emotional weight on kids.
Kids learn by observation. First by observing their parents, and then their friends. Be aware of how much time you spend on your devices and social media in front of your kids.
Let me encourage you to consider using Village as your primary social network. We are building a community of parents that will connect you to parents in your community (do you know the parents from your kids’ classes and activities?). We'll also have resources and support groups, to provide advice on parenting in the digital age.
Village will spread happiness through our online community. We believe there are three fundamental requirements or Pillars for technology to be a source of positivity in our lives.
Pillar 1: Humane – promote mental health and happiness
Pillar 2: Safe – free from harassment, anxiety and predators
Pillar 3: Private – privacy is part of our innate dignity as humans
These pillars are core beliefs that we build into our product. We have zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior or content. We encourage parental involvement through monitoring and controls that will set expectations for all kids. There's no longer an excuse for allowing online behavior that wouldn't be allowed in person.
I'd love to hear from you. Send me your stories, questions or even a 'hello' to firstname.lastname@example.org.
CEO of Village