MINNEAPOLIS — William Heathershaw thought he was being a cool uncle when he gifted his sister a tablet for her children to use.
It wasn’t until later when he realized the tablet was taking over the children’s lives.
“A couple of months later, when I went to visit them, it was very clear it was a blessing and a curse,” Heathershaw said.
His nieces and nephews loved playing games, watching videos and interacting using the tablet. But their mother and teachers were concerned about how much time was spent frivolously. It’s something Heathershaw said is unique to this generation.
“When I was this age, we didn’t have a computer at home,” he said. “Today, it’s very different for children — they have exposure to these personal devices.”
A screen-time app — which allows a certain amount of time online, or blocks everything but certain sites — seemed like the best solution. But kids hate them, Heathershaw noted.
“These apps have so many 1-star reviews from children who despise these restrictions,” he said. “We wanted to find a solution that children would not despise, and also enjoy.”
Heathershaw, a 2004 Waterloo Columbus graduate now living in Minneapolis, decided to start a company based on finding that solution.
So he and a team of engineers, researchers and advisers began UncleWilliam.org and have now released their first app, “Ava—Kid Screen Time Mentor (Preschool-Grade 1),” for Android devices. It’s available now from the Google Play store, and named after one of Heathershaw’s nieces.
In the app, Ava is a cartoon hare who rewards kids for using educational apps with carrots. Kids then spend those carrots on playing the games they use to unwind. And, like other screen-time apps, parents can monitor and restrict the apps and the time spent on a device.
“Our platform is not about blocking — that’s when you see children get upset. They were used to accessing content they are now no longer allowed to access,” Heathershaw said. “We say, ‘This content is OK — but we want you to first focus on something more productive.’”
“Productive,” he said, is defined as “anything that is educational in nature, inspires creativity or problem-solving.”
“We call them ‘class apps’ and ‘recess apps,’” he said.
That classroom language is intentional: Heathershaw is piloting a project in a few Twin Cities-area schools using “Ava,” and Heathershaw has been busy gathering feedback in order to roll out the app in more educational settings. He also wants to find ways parents and educators can partner up on a child’s device experiences.
“A lot of schools nowadays allow kids to be on screens, but parents often have no visibility,” he said. “And schools that have screen time apps often use apps approved by the schools, and these apps can be great for children at home.”
UncleWilliam.org also is looking to eventually expand into other age groups, with the idea the experience needs to be a positive one for kids as well as parents.
“There’s a lot of great content out there that is quite complementary to what a child is learning in school — we can’t demonize everything out there,” Heathershaw said. “Let’s make restriction essentially disguised, and allow the child to have more freedom.”