Cover Arcadia Kim spent hours as a kid playing Atari at a neighbour's house in suburban New Jersey (Photo Courtesy of Arcadia Kim)

Arcadia Kim, the founder and CEO of Infinite Screentime, wants to dispel the guilt, shame, and worry around tech and help families raise screen-smart kids

Arcadia Kim knows that video games are designed to hook you because that used to be her job. For about 15 years, she rose through the ranks of Electronic Arts, working on major franchises like Lord of the Rings and The Sims out of Los Angeles.

When Kim became pregnant in 2006, she couldn’t imagine continuing in her all-consuming role of chief operating officer. “I decided to retire to focus on being a stay-at-home mom, and I really thought I was going to go off into the sunset, stirring a pot of spaghetti in one hand and breastfeeding a baby on the other,” she says. “It was going to be beautiful and blissful.”

Spoiler alert: motherhood got complicated, with so many minefields, from trying to maintain her son’s feeding schedule to facing judgment from working parents: ‘what a waste for a Harvard MBA grad.’ (Kim’s LinkedIn profile now lists a past role as COO at The Pregnancy Pause.) At least she was confident she had technology under control—until the iPhone came out in 2007.

“Suddenly our games were travelling with us wherever we go,” Kim says. “This area became a huge amount of fear for me because everything we were hearing was how screen time can rot a child’s brain.” She reacted by becoming incredibly strict with her kids, and screen time devolved into constant yelling and negotiations. Her wakeup call came when her son, 10, threw an iPad at her head and nearly knocked her out.  

“I realised I was sending the entirely wrong message—I was saying, ‘this technology, it’s dangerous, it’s something that’s so powerful you can’t control it and you should be fearful’,” says Kim. “When in actuality, they need to become masters and figure it out because there’s so much this technology can do for good.”

Not only did Kim overhaul her approach to screen time, but she gradually became inspired to help other families do the same. She was living in Hong Kong by this point and struck by the diversity of perspectives among the multicultural parents. “There’s a lot to be learned from each other,” says Kim. “I want people to be able to have these conversations without stigma because these worries are happening in real time.” She cited Facebook’s Metaverse announcement as an example of how even technology we think we know is constantly shifting beneath us.

Kim launched Infinite Screentime in April 2020, choosing an intentionally provocative name that also indicates her belief in unlocking the infinite potential of technology. As Covid-19 escalated, the topic gained urgency as families struggled to manage the spike in screen time needed for school, work and socialising.

For Kim’s introverted son, home-based online learning had its upside. “He enjoyed it because he didn’t have to feel like he was performing; if everyone was on mute, and he raised his hand, the attention was immediately put on him whereas he had to fight for it in the classroom.”

Just as every kid is unique, so too is every family. Kim resists giving a one-size-fits-all amount of recommended weekly screen time—the question she gets most frequently. She works with families to set rules based on their values and how they want to approach the free time in their schedules.

“We need to start talking about screen time like it’s nutrition or physical activity or even hygiene, something that we all need to know how to do to survive and thrive,” says Kim. Below she shares six ways families can cultivate healthier screen habits.

Kim elaborates on her movement to stop the guilt, shame, and worry around screen time during her appearance at the TEDxTinHauWomen event on December 10, 2021.

Screen Time and Kids: 6 Tips for Healthier Habits

1. Distinguish between “veggie” and “candy” screen time

The lines can be very blurry, particularly for younger kids, who are trying to figure out what they’re allowed to do. One simple thing is to separate and categorise your kid’s apps. I like to call it Marie Kondo’ing them onto different pages of an iPad: the veggie apps on one page and the candy apps on the other. You can even talk through the categorisation with your child. How does this app make you feel? What do you think you’re learning?

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2. Talk regularly with your kids about their screen time

When I was a kid in New Jersey, it was a very safe neighbourhood where we kids roamed the streets and came home for dinner. I find my kids don’t have that same  flexibility; there’s quite a bit of pressure around being scheduled. So I’ll see them roaming around online, on Minecraft or Roblox, with their friends.

To be able to provide them that safe space to explore online, it’s about keeping communication open, so that they’re sharing with you what they are experiencing. Talk to them about their screen time just like you talk to them about school. What did you do? What was interesting, can you show me? What was fun and wasn’t fun? Why do you find that YouTuber so annoying or so fascinating? It also gives you a way to connect.

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3. Turn individual screen time into family time

I’m hoping to shift the perspective and reposition screen time as family time. For instance, you can all get on the couch or the bed, crisscross all your legs and everyone take out a device and start screening together. You don’t all need to be doing the same thing. You could be reading an article; your oldest playing Roblox; and youngest watching an unboxing video, which is really about wanting to be friends with a cool YouTuber and hang out together.

Even though you’re each experiencing something different online, that physical touch is like saying, no matter what, you’re connected. Also that way your kid is not hiding what they’re watching. Of course, you can also choose a family movie to watch and turn that into a tradition.

4. Bond over virtual games and projects 

I grew up with video games and now we play lots of games together as a family. We actually bought a Street Fighter home arcade machine. We have full-on tournaments, and it gets very heated! My 12-year-old daughter kicks all of our butts; she’s so good. We also love Pokemon Go, and friends of mine use Strava to see who can beat each other with the number of steps in a fixed amount of time.

When we used to go on vacations, we would have the kids make a family video at the end and that was a really wonderful use of screen time. The result is better than a scrapbook, and the kids can do it. There are a lot of really wonderful and easy apps like Magisto for video editing.

5. Let your kids be your tech teacher

I teach a course called Fortnite is an F word, during which a parent has to play the game while the kid teaches them. It’s hilarious because the kids are so excited; they love being the masters of their parents. I generally encourage kids to help troubleshoot, say with email settings or Zoom. It makes them feel confident and responsible and creates a very interesting parent-child dynamic.

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6. Be mindful of the purpose behind the screen time

When I started Infinite Screentime, I created my first Instagram account because that's where the moms are, so it’s important exposure for my movement and business. But I was finding myself on Instagram mindlessly. I now have a timer to keep my usage in check, and when it goes off after 20 minutes, I'm often shocked because I thought it was five. 

Any of these apps can be extremely seductive, if you’re not in that frame of mind about your why. For anyone who is in a tough mental state, screen time is the tip of the iceberg. What you see is, my kid’s playing games or on Instagram all day long, but underneath there may be something else happening. The screen time is the numbing effect and the avoidance. Having offline conversations about what’s happening online can help ensure everybody is in check. 

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