By Megan Bozman

I love technology. Taking new products to market and communicating about them throughout the sales cycle has defined my seventeen-year career.

I’m also a Mom to an eight-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. I like to joke about my children’s geek heritage. My son’s middle name is Alan for Alan Touring. And I bought this fantastic T-shirt from ThinkGeek to wear while pregnant.

“Geek Inside” Maternity Shirt from ThinkGeek
“Geek Inside” Maternity Shirt from ThinkGeek

There’s no doubt that technology has profoundly improved the lives of billions of people on earth. But I also realize that my children, as well as my husband and I, need time in nature and with fellow humans – screen free interactions. Too much ‘screen time’ with games, movies, and TV is detrimental for my children.

And thus I’m conflicted.

Grush: The Smart, Gaming Toothbrush

What prompted this post was Grush: the Gaming Toothbrush, as demonstrated at the recent Intel Developers Forum. The winners of Intel’s America’s Greatest Makers demo their product at 1:25 in the opening keynote video.

Grush lets kids see a visualization of their teeth and receive rewards, and lets dentists coach children by putting virtual ‘monsters’ on the spots they need to brush better. The smart toothbrush will be available for sale for $59 by the holidays this year.

IoT Products = More Screen Time

I can absolutely see how this product would be successful in getting kids to brush more, and brush more effectively, by hitting every spot thoroughly.

Unfortunately, it also works in direct conflict with the goal of keeping overall ‘screen time’ to a minimum.

Grush: The Gaming Toothbrush is an advanced Bluetooth motion sensing toothbrush, coupled with interactive and instructive mobile games. The smart toothbrush can guide kids' brushing and lets parents track the results.
Grush: The Gaming Toothbrush is an advanced Bluetooth motion sensing smart toothbrush, coupled with interactive and instructive mobile games.

I don’t want to single out this product. Grush is just one of many IoT products rapidly coming to market, including the smart trampoline. Screens, animations, and rewards are popping up everywhere, for everything.

The Downside to ‘Rewards’

Not having rotten teeth and smelly breath ought to be sufficient reward for effective tooth brushing.

Excessively rewarding children, whether with digital gold medals, praise, or tangible gifts, actually has downsides. It can diminish their own internal motivation as well as satisfaction at accomplishing a task. Growing accustomed to external rewards and praise, children can look to that external feedback instead of being self-motivated.

The Addictive Qualities of Gaming

Excessive screen time and the downsides of rewards are sufficient reasons for concern. But worse yet are the addictive qualities of gaming. As Dr. Nicholas Kardaras wrote this week, “We now know that those iPads, smartphones and Xboxes are a form of digital drug. Recent brain imaging research is showing that they affect the brain’s frontal cortex — which controls executive functioning, including impulse control — in exactly the same way that cocaine does.”

Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist Lorah “Bess” Hauf, LCPC, states, “Science is beginning to understand that a lot of things are addictive that seem positive or harmless on the surface, and one addiction is not better or worse than another. Digital media of every kind is addictive.

“I’ve worked with countless teens who began to see how hopelessly addicted they were to the screen. They would go away to a camp for the weekend, or stay at a friend’s house and realize that they were much happier away from the computer and phone. Despite this, many are up until 2 and 3 in the morning, then dragging into school miserable because they can’t tear themselves away.

“Is it ethical to use a tool with our children that is proven to be addictive, even if it does contribute to improved oral hygiene? It might be fun to use this technology for a few minutes in the dentist’s office, but I wouldn’t recommend it on a regular basis.”

The Grush smart toothbrush includes interactive and instructive mobile games like Monster Chase.
The Grush smart toothbrush includes interactive and instructive mobile games like Monster Chase.

Minimize Screen Time?

When engaged with screens, kids are not doing things that can be even more beneficial to their brains and bodies. To be fair, tooth-brushing should last two minutes, two times per day. Literally four minutes per day is not such a troubling quantity of additional screen time.

But as IoT use cases expand, I can’t help but view Grush a harbinger for the ubiquitous dominance of screens and digital rewards.

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