In the 90s, parents hid Gameboys from their children on high shelves and under heavy mattresses.
This year, with face-to-screen time at record highs, Salma Jawhar wants kids to bring it on. She wants them to relish in their tablet addiction because now, children, parents have developed a tool to make sure kids play their way.
“As parents, we usually end up in a dilemma: either I ban the iPad or tablet, or they just let them have it for as long as they want… You can compromise by saying they can use it only on the weekends, but then they spend the entire weekend on the tablet,” said Jawhar, CEO and cofounder of Play My Way and a mother of two. Her cofounder, Dr. Ahmad Hammoud, is a father of five.
“We decided to make the best of the addiction,” Jawhar said.
The idea of Play My Way is simple: Educational apps are boring, Minecraft is not. Play My Way allows parents to interrupt their child’s tablet use, whether they are playing a game or watching Youtube, as often as they choose with questions from their school curriculum. Children must answer the question correctly before they can go back to what they were doing on their tablet.
“I’m giving a tool to empower parents to say the tablet is not a right, it’s a privilege. You can use this pad but on my conditions,” she said.
A modern child’s disease
In America alone, children with access to tablets has skyrocketed over the past five years. A 2013 study by Common Sense found ownership of tablet devices among families with children aged eight or below rose from 8 percent in 2011 to 40 percent in 2013. Children with access to smart mobile devices at home increased from 52 percent in 2011 to 75 percent in 2013.
According to a 2015 study by New York-based market research group Miner & Co. Studio, children prefered tablets over TV. In some cases, taking tablets from children and forcing them to watch television was seen as a punishment. The report found that nearly half of the children surveyed would prefer their iPad over dessert.
A both frightening and humorous video accompanying the Miner & Co. report shows bewildered parents watching children waist deep in a screen addiction.
“Have you ever put down your tablet when I didn’t ask you to?” says one mother in the video.
“Yes… And then I switched to my computer,” answers her child.
Now, in 2016, is would be hard to find a child without access to some form of a smart device in global urban areas. While there is no data available about MENA kids, parents will no doubt agree tablet addiction is not region specific.
My way, or no way
Launched in early 2016, Play My Way had previously worked for a year and a half developing 25,000 questions based on the curriculum of grades one through nine. Every month, they add 4,000 questions to their backend.
In addition to interrupting kids at set intervals, the app also includes a Quiz Feature where children are asked to complete a set of questions, chosen by their parents, before or during their game. After children complete the questions, parents receive a detailed progress report noting the child’s strength and weaknesses, and how long it took them to answer the questions.
At the moment, parents are able to download the app for free, try one chapter, and unlock a subject - math, science or English - for one dollar.
“It’s a way to keep them updated on their studies during the summer,” said Roula Itani, Lebanese mother of three who has downloaded Play My Way on all three of her devices at home.
“At first the kids were frustrated but now they are used it. I have one child that gets annoyed if he doesn’t score 100 percent of their quiz and asks me to repeat it,” she said.
The app also helped them take more breaks from the game, since games were constantly interrupted by Play My Way, Itani added. They played outside or did something else.
Earlier this year Play My Way launched its first beta version and within a month had 14,000 users sign up, Jawhar said. This year, they won March 2016 Best App for Children Award and received media coverage from outlets like NewsWatch.
The app has already received $1 million in seeding funding from two Lebanese investors in exchange for 10 percent of the company, valuing it at $10 million. Jawhar did not want to disclose the names of the investors. She is now in talks with Lebanon’s Ministry of Education to roll it out to more kids in Lebanon.
Although Play My Way's cofounders don’t believe they have any direct competitors, as they don't know of another app that interrupts tablet games in this way, the educational apps for children category is wildly saturated.
Still, Jawhar considers all educational apps, quiz apps, and parental control apps to be her competitors as they all tackle parts of the app’s features. Today, the app has eyes on the US. Both Apple and Google have reached out to help Play My Way get better featured and reach a wider American audience, she said.
“I tell my friends: Do you have an email from Apple in your mailbox? I do. Do you wanna see it?” Jawhar said, laughing with a glimmer of mischief in her eye.
Her excitement is contagious. Jawhar has no doubts the app will succeed wherever it lands because children’s tablet addiction is global, as is the parental determination to do something about it.