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Family-Friendly Technology Interview

Susie McGee
Aaron Burcell talks about family friendly technology.

Aaron Burcell is currently the VP of marketing and acting general manager of SmartyCard, a Gazillion Entertainment Company. He recently spoke to LoveToKnowKids about technology friend families.

Please tell us about yourself.

I am a native of Northern California, graduated from Stanford in 1995 and my wife and I are parents of two children. I've been working at the intersection of digital media and interpersonal communications since I was an undergrad. You can read more on my bio. I joined SmartyCard in 2008.

My interest in supplemental online educational content developed as my children entered the educational system a few years ago. While I was exploring available online educational content two years ago, a resurgence in educational games development was taking hold in Silicon Valley.

With several relatives teaching in grades K-12, and a grandfather that was a Superintendent of Schools in Sacramento, California and Fairbanks Alaska, I have an innate appreciation for the importance of kinder and grammar school education. I have an added appreciation for children's health and safety issues because many of my family members are nurses and social services professionals.

Why should families become more technologically savvy?

The development of technology has introduced new opportunities and risks. As information technology becomes more rich and more-easily delivered and integrated into our everyday lives, people everywhere have the potential to even the playing field irrespective of their origins or physical access to schools, libraries, etc. We should all be cognizant of this tremendous opportunity, and work to ensure access and opportunity. But, at the same time, we have to be mindful of the downside risk introduced by more frequent and accessible information technology - people and content that could harm our families.

Personally, I don't think enough people are aware that, in recent years, the methods for developing and releasing "beta" consumer web services are increasingly laden with risks of sharing personal identifiable information. While COPPA laws prohibit the collection of a child's personal identifiable information, there are plenty of current instances of products and companies unintentionally sharing too much information about an adult's personal information, status and physical location.

These technology developments make most parents think very seriously about what role technology should play in their lives, and concerned parents are rightly considering restricting and rethinking the benefits provided by these popular, widely-adopted Web services. Technology advancement like geo-location services present seemingly wonderful parental benefits, such as tracking children by mobile phone. However, we rarely stop to think how that data can be accessed and used without our knowledge. Or, worse, what if we lose control of that powerful data by simply losing our mobile phone?

Why do some parents hesitate to try any type of new technology?

  • Lack of privacy-For the reasons above, parents have reason to hesitate. And, interestingly, the prevalence and amount of media available via newer technologies like the mobile-web, SatelliteTV and Digital Cable, creates instances where media programming exploit perils and tragedies tangentially related to technology. Who can forget the poor girl that was taunted in MySpace? Clearly, that instance wasn't the fault of MySpace, but parents who don't understand MySpace were suddenly very afraid of what kind of communications and interactions were enabled via MySpace.
  • Lack of knowledge-And, this brings me to another reason why parents hesitate. Parents are frequently the less-technologically-sophisticated members of the family, and they're conscious of this fact. In a recent survey done by Google employees, filmed and posted to YouTube, only 8% of the people stopped in New York's Times Square correctly describe an Internet browser. That's really interesting when you consider over 100 million people use a browser each day. The Internet browser was invented nearly 20 years ago. It's not really new technology. My point is that people are using technology, but they don't really understand it. And, aware of this truth, parents hesitate to trial new technologies because truly understanding new technologies is an investment of time.

Please tell us about Smarty Card.

SmartyCard is a really simple concept. Kids play fun, grade-specific educational games, and they earn rewards. Parents fund the child's account to encourage supplemental learning. That's the value to kid and parent. The art is terrific, the characters are fun, and the educational content is top-notch. The rewards include the most popular virtual rewards, games from Nickelodeon and stuff from iTunes. Press, bloggers and kids love SmartyCard. SmartyCard won the gold medal from National Association of Parenting Publications. And, business and tech press love SmartyCard as well. Here is why SmartyCard is important from a business standpoint - this is a little more complicated.

Kids don't have credit cards; they don't have PayPal or debit cards for the obvious safety and control reasons. Parents know that this generation of tweens is the first generation to use the PC more than watch TV - and they know stuff on the Web contains a lot of brain candy. SmartyCard is putting up a "good for you hurdle" that reinforces the universal values of learning and earning. This reward system already exists in the home - any parent that has put homework in front of TV programming knows this. What's compelling from a business perspective is that SmartyCard is enabling this behavior to move online, keeping up with how kids are receiving entertainment. Over time, a significant portion of all tween-focused virtual reward premium subscriptions and virtual goods will be purchased and unlocked via SmartyCard.

Why should parents purchase Smarty Card for their children?

For parents, the great thing about SmartyCard is that you can see exactly how your child is progressing, and what he wants to buy. Rather than being the control mechanism, and getting nagged for various small purchases, you can track your kid and talk about math, reading, science, social studies, preview rewards. Furthermore, you can discuss whether or not your child really wants to get a specific reward, and engage children in conversations about saving and the merits of earning rewards like video games versus active sports equipment.

How can parents and educators use Smarty Card as a teaching tool?

Parents and children use SmartyCard as a tool primarily for drill and staying sharp. The summer is a big time for us. So too are holiday breaks, ski weeks, etc. Educators are using SmartyCard to drill in summer school, and, more recently, charter schools and private schools have started to recommend SmartyCard to parents. We don't have formal relationships with schools, but all of our content is specific to grades 2-6, leveled easy, medium and hard by experts, and approved curriculum.

What are some other tips or advice you'd like to offer?

SmartyCard is influencing other aspects of children's lives. S2H, gDitty from Hope Lab, SmartyRents and Rixty have all adopted aspects of SmartyCard's business. If I were to advise parents in this space, I'd simply say that you should get familiar with the concept. While parents may not agree with incentivizing education, they may find value in incentivizing fitness or health. My point is that parents and teachers should get familiar with incentive systems moving online, trial the technologies and understand the risks and opportunities.

Family-Friendly Technology Interview