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Losing the Battle Against Your Kids’ Screens? Try a Family “Rewirement Plan.”

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September 30, 2020 8 min read

Brandy Zabodyn started worrying about her daughters’ screen time about three years ago. Based in Carlsbad, California, Zabodyn is a single mom of four girls aged 10, 11, 17 and 21.

“The girls were spending more and more time on the computer, playing games or chatting with friends on their phones,” Zabodyn says. “I started to think that I wanted to set limitations, but I didn’t even know where to start with that. Just getting them to get off of the computer was a struggle.”

The real wakeup call came when her oldest daughter started gaming and then got deep into YouTube, where she befriended someone she believed was a well-known YouTube star. “I was doing this thing where I would have the girls give me their phones, and I would look through them to see what they were doing,” Zabodyn says. “I didn’t care about language or anything like that — I was just looking for bad stuff. I found out she was talking to this guy from Orange County, and she told me, ‘Oh this is the famous YouTuber.’ But when I went to look him up, he wasn’t the person she thought he was.”

So a year ago, Zabodyn had her first meeting with a “success coach” at Screen Time Clinic, a service that helps parents formulate parameters around their kids’ and teens’ tech usage. Founded by education advocate and entrepreneur Nicole Rawson, Screen Time Clinic is based in San Diego but launched nationwide last week. “My own children came of age when the iPhone came out, and none of us knew how to moderate it,” Rawson says. “But as a parent and a former teacher I’ve really noticed it taking a toll on the attention span of my kids and students.” Rawson started Screen Time Clinic to fill the gap between the information that’s publicly available to parents and the individualized assistance they need to act on that information. 

An epidemic of overwhelmed parents

Even before the pandemic — when children’s screen time skyrocketed 500 percent, according to one survey — many parents felt like they were on the losing side of a war with screens. The 2017 American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” survey found that, “94 percent of parents say they take at least one action to manage their child’s technology usage during the school year. Yet despite the effort, 48 percent say that regulating their child’s screen time is a constant battle, and 58 percent say they worry about the influence of social media on their child’s physical and mental health.” 

Related: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs limited screen time for their kids …

“There’s a lot more awareness right now around the effects of tech on kids, but there still isn’t any customized or personal support available,” Rawson says. “You can comb the internet, but it’s just so overwhelming. So I wanted to create a company  to provide one-on-one support to parents. We help them create a media plan for their family and use comprehensive technology contracts that span whole family behavior norms. How are we as a family going to behave? The screens are part of a reward system, but it’s not a given that kids have access to technology.”

Treating technology as a privilege, not a right

This last point is important to the philosophy of Screen Time Clinic. While many parents give their kids phones as a matter of convenience, or as an adolescent rite of passage, Rawson thinks that technology’s addictive qualities should empower parents to reframe expectations. 

Screen Time Clinic’s focus is largely on limiting access to social media and gaming, because these platforms are designed to keep the user’s attention, and because they are where kids are most likely to be victimized or exposed to inappropriate subject matter. 

While it’s obviously not great for kids to watch TV all day, it’s easier for parents to monitor what they’re watching. Plus, being on a phone or iPad is much more immersive. “The amount of dopamine that children receive from watching TV is not nearly the same level they’re getting from using their fingers, scrolling and clicking and doing that sort of interactive behavior,” Rawson says. “It’s necessary for kids to be online and learning right now. But when they’re doing school online, many of them will also have a phone next to them and be scrolling through social media or YouTube and not paying attention. So our program helps parents put systems in place to reduce that type of behavior.”

Related: The Techpreneurs of Silicon Valley are Keeping their Families Away …

When children become teenagers, Rawson says that independence and privacy as it pertains to technology should not be a given. “It’s not something where you come of age and all of a sudden you have to have your own phone, and it’s your right to use it however you want,” Rawson says. “It’s a really powerful tool that parents don’t realize is so addictive, and that’s by design. Parents always think, well, I’m on my phone all the time. How can I tell my kids not to be? But it’s important to keep in mind the developing brains of children under 21, 22. Alcohol is illegal until 21 because brains are still very delicate, and substances alter development in critical ways. It’s easy for kids to manipulate parents and for parents to feel confused. Your children aren’t going to hate you and leave you for taking away their phones, but’s intimidating to do on your own. The coaches provide moral support.”

Rewiring expectations

Screen Time Clinic’s coaches offer parents custom “Rewirement Plans” based on their preferences and the ages of their kids. But the company’s “Basic General Guidelines For All Family Members” include having a docking station where everyone leaves their phones when they get home, and especially before going to bed. Apart from allotted phone use time, kids shouldn’t keep phones on their person or take them into the bedroom or bathroom. They shouldn’t use them in the car or at the dinner table, and wherever possible, reduce unnecessary time spent looking at their screens. Instead of texting, call a friend. Instead of using the calculator on their phones and getting distracted by a text or notification, use a separate calculator. If they’re learning remotely on a laptop, don’t allow them to keep their phones within reach and available for mindless scrolling. 

Zabodyn has found the custom tech contract she created with Screen Time Clinic to be really helpful setting expectations for her daughters. “We decided to limit it to two hours online a day,” she says. “So that’s all that they’re allowed, and that includes gaming, social media, texting and communication with their friends. Unless it’s something having to do with school, then they have to come and ask me about it. And I use it as a reward. So after they are done with their chores, their homework and reading, then they get online time. That way it’s not being taken away from them, you know?”

It’s little surprise that the younger kids are when you put these parameters in place, the less resistant they are to adjusting to them. For Zabodyn, it was easier with her younger daughters than breaking through cold turkey with her oldest. But she says the thing that’s helped the most with all her girls is being transparent about why this is a problem and how these limitations are meant to help them live a more balanced life. “Actually talking to them about it has been the most effective thing,” she says. “And getting them off of the phone and encouraging them to go outside and play. We just moved to this neighborhood where a lot of kids are outside. So that was a big help too. After a few days, they really didn’t miss their phones and the computers that much.”

Related: Google Play Replaces Family Apps With ‘Teacher-Approved’ Kids Tab

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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