Like so many other parents Anne Zehren has plopped her two young sons in front of the TV from time to time to get some work done without worrying too much about it. But what’s on the TV and how long it’s on — along with computers, videogames and other media — is something all parents should be concerned about, according to Zehren, the president and chief operating officer of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that helps parents make sense of the digital world and offers ways to make informed media decisions for their families. The amount of time kids spend in that digital world is at a crisis level, she believes.
Zehren has been delving into the minds of youths long before she became a first-time mom just days before she turned 42. She was the publisher of Teen People, which let teens dictate the content and issues, and president of sales and marketing for Al Gore's Current TV before joining Common Sense Media in 2003. Earlier this year, Common Sense Media partnered with Disney to get kids and their parents thinking about how to safely navigate the Internet and other digital platforms.
Zehren lives with her husband, Harvey, 9-year-old stepson and 6-year-old son in San Francisco.
In many fields, women who rise to the top are either single or childfree. What has been your experience before you had children and once you became a mom?
I got married when I was 41, and it was very different. I didn’t mind staying out late or sleeping in on a Saturday; those days are pretty much have stopped. I try to limit my travel. I race home, take red-eyes, get up at of the middle of dawn to race home to kiss my kids goodnight. I’m constantly shrinking more time into my day at work; before, I might linger around the halls or stay an extra 20 minutes at lunch and now I’m just crunching and crunching and crunching. I make it a rule to be home at 6 at night. That’s really important; our kids are so young, they’re going to bed at 7:30, 8 o’clock. But, I am going back on the computer at 9, but that’s in my time, not theirs.
When I was growing up, we had a few media options — TV, radio, print and my beloved Princess phone. My mother didn’t allow comic books, but I still managed to sneak in some Archie and Veronica comics anyway. How has media made parenting easier and how has it made it harder?
Every mom needs that movie they put their child in front of or that TV show or that game to play because it’s really hard to find that “me” time, or to blow dry your hair in the morning, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you choose the right stuff, it actually can be good for your kids. What’s happened, however, is the media has become “the other parent” in our kids’ lives now, and the media might not be imparting values to them that we wanted to impart. The kind of shocking news that brought me to Common Media is that average child in the U.S., when you consider texting, is spending nine hours a day in front of a screen. That’s incredibly sad. I think it’s a national crisis. As parents, we’re competing with this other influential parent and you’re asking yourself, “What values are they teaching my child, what kind of role models are they seeing, what are they learning to improve their character and intelligence?”
One of the beliefs of Common Sense Media is that the media industry needs to act responsibly in creating and marketing content. But in a free marketplace, isn’t it up to the consumer — in this case, the parents — to ultimately take control of what their kids watch or read?
That used to be the case. In the old days, we had a TV in our living room and parents could talk with their kids or just tell them what they could and couldn’t watch. They had control over that TV. Now, it’s completely different. The access our kids have to media has changed 100 percent. A television in their bedroom, a laptop on their desk, a gaming console in the basement, and an iTouch in their backpack. They have a cell phone, which is really like having a computer in their pocket, and so the content they’re accessing, parents don’t have control over. Parents now need to teach their kids to make good decisions on their own.
You used market research and Trendspotters, your own network of ahead-of-the-curve readers, to help marketers and companies shape their decisions. Then you became a mom. Has motherhood changed your perspective, and if so, in what ways?
I’ve always had a lot of soul and integrity around the marketing process, so I don’t know if I would have done anything differently. One of our core beliefs at Teen People was to treat teenagers with respect. I think overall, one of the things I’ve learned is the responsibility of marketers to think about the impact they’re having on kids in terms of their role models they’re putting out there, and I think that’s especially true for girls. Regrettably, sex and violence sell and often the riskier the content, the higher the audience, I know from experience that having a conscience and doing the right thing can have big audiences and big sales as well.
You’ve said you joined Common Sense Media because you were “alarmed” by how much time kids spend with media. But our parents probably could have said the same about us once they brought the second TV home. Kids who grow up with the various new media adapt to it and learn how to navigate it quickly. So, what’s so alarming especially since parents themselves have started embracing Facebook and online dating and banking?
Parents do need to be role models with technology, and take a break from their Blackberry, iPhone, computer when they’re with their kids. … I think the difference with media use is considering the vast differences between adults versus kids. The judgment part of the brain in tweens and teens is not fully developed at all. Combine that with the fact that these are the years where they’re pushing boundaries, finding their way, and experimenting, and there’s trouble! When our tweens and teens go online to a social network, or text, they’re really experimenting in public and potentially leaving a permanent digital footprint at a time when they can’t think through things. And they don’t quite understand the long-term implications. … Now, if our kids are online and posting and revealing too much information or being unkind, it can be permanent, viral and searchable.
Some women say they could never work full time, others say they could never stay home. Where do you see yourself in that spectrum, and why?
I think my kids would kill me if I stayed at home full time (laughs). That said, I pick up my son Friday at 3 o’clock and he comes to work with me, most days, and hangs out. We have a lot of working mothers at Common Sense Media. I think it’s really important for my kids to see me working out of the home. At the same time, I have tremendous respect for women who choose to work in the home. It’s probably the hardest job anyone could imagine. The reward for me was, when I asked my son, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” my little 6-year-old, Cole, he paused and said, “You know Mom, I think I want to be the boss.” That just kind of thrilled me that he was thinking that way. He was thinking he wanted to be in a leadership role.
You’re a mom to one and stepmom to one. What have been some of the challenges of being a blended family?
We’re blended in a couple of ways. Yes, I have a stepson and the second is, we’re a biracial family; my husband is African-American and I’m Caucasian. So, it’s really enriching our family in a number of ways. I think step-parenting is the most unbelievable gift. It’s challenging in some of the logistics; my stepson lives in Piedmont and my husband works in Mountain View so logistically it’s challenging and takes some time in planning. But both families are incredibly collaborative and cooperative. If I could offer new stepmoms one piece of advice it would be have realistic expectations walking in, to do all you can to honor and reinforce the unique place their birth moms occupy.
What do you think you’re sacrificed as a working mom, and what have you gained?
I really don’t think I’ve sacrificed much. There are times when I sigh about not being able to be there in the carpool lane after school and have those little moments with the boys. But in the big picture I feel totally blessed to have such a full life with my kids while working. Luckily, our organization is all about families, so no matter what, families always come first. Whether you have a family or not, I really believe you won’t be successful unless you have a full life outside of the office
In what ways has motherhood surprised you?
Oh, it’s a crack up. My kids keep me laughing constantly. And you just never realized that your heart could have so much love in it. People talk about it, and there really is that moment when you see that little one staring up at you in your arms at the hospital, and you just cannot really explain the love you feel. And it’s amazing how inspiring kids are and how much they teach you about what’s important in life. My sons have taught me the importance of imagination, forgiveness, laughter, silliness, play, curiosity and kind hearts.
How do you manage the home-work balance?
It’s hard. I find prayer helpful to calm me down. My husband is very helpful despite the fact that he has an hour and a half commute each way. So, we really try to divide and conquer. The mornings are mine and, again, I made a commitment to home at 6 o’clock. We are fortunate to have a great, great nanny. I think it’s also very important to pay attention to your spouse, so my husband and I have a date night every Saturday night and sometimes that’s just walking around the block but we’re doing it together.
When your boys look back on their childhood, what do you hope they’ll think of their childhood and you as a mom?
I just hope they feel really cared for. And that my husband and I were an inspiration for them in terms of them reaching their potential, and that we were supportive of them going for their heart’s desire.
Common Sense Media President and COO Anne Zehren was interviewed by Vicki Larson, Around the Watercooler  contributor. She is a journalist and single mom.