Technology that rewards children with screen time in return for doing household tasks and outdoor activity is promoting positive engagement around screen management and creating a more harmonious family environment.
The idea for ScreenCoach can be traced back to an ordinary backyard barbeque on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
It was late 2018 and Gary Borham and group of parents from the local primary school were bemoaning the amount of time their children were spending on screens.
The conversation segued into wearable fitness trackers for kids and Borham’s wife, Liz, connected the dots.
“She said she would only buy a tracker if it could turn on and off all these other devices and that was the seed,” Borham remembers. “I thought about how much movement kids accumulate and creating a device that could equate that movement to time. Then, once that time elapses, it switches screens off – and if kids want them switched back on, they need to go outside and do more activity.”
For Borham, a behaviour change coach for the corporate sector with a background in education and training for small businesses, it was a project in his wheelhouse. But he needed some technological and theoretical muscle.
He approached past clients and friends Peter and Stephanie Kakris – an IT developer and child psychologist, respectively – and together, with Borham’s experience in sales and management, they had the ingredients they needed to turn the idea into reality.
And so ScreenCoach – a digital management tool empowering kids to earn their screentime through self-nominated household tasks and outdoor activities – has just hit the market.
The app and associated hardware have captured the public’s imagination, garnering significant interest online and in public trials and featuring in news items on prime-time television. Partnerships with major retailers and community groups are also brewing.
And supporting it along the journey, through two Accelerating Commercialisation grants totalling $1million, has been the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme.
“Courtesy of the of the Accelerating Commercialisation grants and other opportunities (including a round of family, friends and fans, or FFF, funding), we’ve raised a touch under $2.5 million for this project pre-revenue. It’s been two steps forward, seven steps back, five steps forward, two steps back, but here we are,” Borham says.
Point of difference
Borham says the support the start-up has received on its “non-linear” path to market has been invaluable. This is through the two rounds of grant money that has underpinned product development, and also by the way of mentorship and guidance from i4 Connect Commercialisation Facilitator Taylor Tran, who came onboard for the company’s second grant application as it accelerated towards market.
“We have a very strong relationship with Taylor, who has been in start-ups, understands the dynamic start-up landscape and is really well-connected,” Borham says.
Tran is a seasoned strategist with 20 years of experience in technology commercialisation. Thanks to his extensive network and connections, Borham was able to find a suitable IP lawyer to support the company’s IP strategy and identify potential investors and pitch opportunities.
“Because I’m highly active in the tech start-up ecosystem I could help with introductions and connections – as well as advice on strategy and commercialisation,” Tran says.
Borham says the process of applying for the Accelerating Commercialisation grant helped to shape and strengthen the business from the outset by requiring the team to articulate a strong value proposition and a point of difference in the market.
Unlike existing screen management products, the ScreenCoach combination of software and hardware allows multiple screens – including gaming consoles, tablets, phones, computers and televisions – to be controlled from the one app, replacing “time-consuming and fiddly” screen locking systems, Tran says.
“While it is possible to manage screens currently, it’s very complicated,” he says. “But with ScreenCoach you can manage all your screens at once.”
And more than just a tool for screen time management, the technology could help could transform family relationships, Borham says.
Through our focus groups, people would tell us some of the most amazing stories about the challenges they were facing with screens,” he says. “Parents were hiding routers and Xboxes under mattresses and taking PlayStations with them to work because their kids were so addicted they couldn’t control their usage and they were lying about it, and it was tearing families apart.”
Borham, a father of two who has extensively trialled the technology at home, says ScreenCoach utilises the same techniques that social media and gaming products employ to hook users in, such as rewards and time-based challenges, to create positive behaviour change.
“For example, using ScreenCoach in our house, if our children have their bags at the door ready to go at quarter to eight, they earn some screentime after school. And if they do it without me reminding them, they get double the time,” he says. “It’s been a couple of years now and I can’t remember the last time I asked my kids to get their bags ready. They are incentivised, and there has been lasting change in their behaviour.”
Using the ScreenCoach app, children earn points for completing various tasks – points that are then translated to screen hours. Once the hours are used, the screens are automatically shut down.
The beauty of the system, says Borham, is that children can take control, choosing to complete extra tasks – that may include household chores, as well as other activities such as playing outside – for more time. And through an ‘instant-time tasks’ feature, screen time is automatically doubled if they don’t have to be reminded to do a particular activity.
This positive approach to screen management is unique in the market, Tran says. And it reflects Borham’s enthusiasm for technology.
ScreenCoach isn’t designed to be punitive, but rather changing the family dynamic around screen time in a positive way, Borham says. “We’re advocates for technology. Screens are great for entertainment and fantastic for education, but some of us just need some help in regulating them.”
Borham says his ultimate hope for ScreenCoach is that it will help create more family harmony by flipping the script so that screen time isn’t something prohibited, but rather used as a reward.
“Currently for a lot of families, it’s an ‘us versus them’ mentality when it comes to technology, but we’re trying to change the dynamic so families work together,” he says. “And after trialling ScreenCoach, we’re getting emails from parents saying, ‘who are these kids – they’re making cakes and walking the dog when it’s just come back from a walk. This is fantastic’.”
Extensive real-world trials have been a critical part of the ScreenCoach development, resulting in important refinements to both the hardware and software on the product’s winding road to market.
“We’re building the parachute as we fall,” Borham says of the experience that has required the team to adapt as it has faced challenges associated with building a new product in years where supply chains have been interrupted by COVID-19 and global unrest.
In such an environment, the Accelerating Commercialisation service support has been critical in helping to establish manufacturing and distribution channels and develop a market-ready ScreenCoach product.
In particular, Tran’s insights have encouraged the team to refine their commercialisation strategy and supercharge their vision, broadening it from one focused on selling direct to individual families online to looking at partnerships with major retailers, health funds and educators.
And following the product’s official launch in February 2023, the ScreenCoach team is also building inroads into global distribution channels, including servicing Asia and India.
Despite the challenges, Borham is buoyed by his own experience, the feedback he has received, and the significant potential he sees for the product. “When we started out, looking at market size and the data on the frustration being experienced by families, we just felt like this could be something really big,” he says.