Seeking Healthier Screen Time
In the early days of the pandemic, when students of all ages were learning at home, Notre Dame senior Renee Yaseen noticed how much her 10-year-old brother, Daniel, missed his friends.
Since he couldn’t get together with them to play, they played online games. For hours.
Yaseen learned that even before the pandemic, youth in the United States averaged only about seven minutes of unstructured outdoor play a day, and a whopping seven hours in front of a screen. She brainstormed about how to help Daniel safely and meaningfully interact with his friends and be physically active.
“He wasn’t going to have the childhood that I had,” Yaseen said. “I wondered, ‘How can I build the best possible way to use screen time?’”
So the economics major who’s minoring in theology and philosophy, politics and economics set out to design an online platform on which kids could connect, explore, move, create and play with peers and family in real time.
The result: FriendOver, a startup that is harnessing computer vision technology (artificial intelligence that enables computers to process images and videos in the way people do) and machine learning to promote goodness in gaming.
The software combines features of videoconferencing with motion-interactive games. It works on any computer with a webcam; a remote or controller isn’t needed.
Yaseen is FriendOver’s founder and CEO, while Daniel earned the title of “Boy Wonder.” Together with a committed circle of students, Notre Dame alumni and mentors, they plan “to pioneer a global shift to engage with technology in healthier ways.”
Their plan and execution have already drawn support and attention. Last spring, FriendOver was named the Equifund Best Undergraduate-Led Venture and awarded $10,000 in the Notre Dame IDEA Center’s McCloskey New Venture Competition.
A few months later, it won the IDEA Center’s Race to Revenue Summer Showcase prize in the Proof of Concept category. And it was awarded a LookUp StartUp Social Innovation Grant for “designing a ground-breaking solution to digital wellbeing and humane technology.”
“Healthy tech use can be bridged with the real world and grounded in the motion of our bodies. And it still has that magic and fun that new technology brings.”
A local software studio has built out Yaseen’s vision. And Yaseen, who wants to someday illustrate and write a children’s book, digitally drew the majority of the game art by hand.
After graduation, Yaseen will be working to commercialize the product and make it available to the kids who need it. She will be managing a wide range of tasks — including marketing, product, customer feedback, design, accounting and recruiting.
“My hope is that FriendOver will suggest a ‘middle path’ to online socialization, education and gaming,” she said. “Healthy tech use can be bridged with the real world and grounded in the motion of our bodies. And it still has that magic and fun that new technology brings — we like to say ‘more human, less hardware.’”
Yaseen, from Granger, Indiana, had time to dedicate to the startup during a gap semester she took in fall 2020, a formative break that helped clarify her goals and direction.
“It was nice to stop barreling forward so fast and wait a minute,” Yaseen said. “I came here really unsure of what to do. I like to do a lot of different things and hadn’t explored any one thing deeply and independently.”
That interest in exploration is evident in the myriad activities she engages in. She has taken advanced coursework in Arabic and speaks it fluently, and taught English to a Syrian refugee through the nonprofit online tutoring group Paper Airplanes. She also helped write grants for Career Analysis Organization of America, a nonprofit that seeks to provide students of all backgrounds with high-quality vocational preparation.
That year, she got her start in social entrepreneurship as a finalist for the $10,000 C-Prize in conservation, climate change and clean energy innovation — her entry harnessed the power of behavioral science to increase campus reusable cup use.
She wrote columns for The Observer, including “Food for faith: What it’s like to be Muslim at Notre Dame,” which earned third place in the Indiana Collegiate Press Association Spring Division I awards, and “Where is the love?: Why fear is the wrong approach for climate activism” which was featured as part of Eaarth Feels Podcast’s “Best in Climate” series.
Three of her commentaries were published in the Wall Street Journal’s Future View section, wherein college students write about salient current issues. Yaseen also co-reviewed a book of poetry, published a comparative politics paper in the Department of Political Science’s Beyond Politics Review and had her poems published in “Re:Visions”and “Bluing the Blade.”
Intellectual opportunities inside and outside the classroom have boosted her agency, confidence and focus. And while some Notre Dame students plan to one day reserve the Basilica for their wedding, Yaseen’s friends joke that she’ll get married in the Snite Museum of Art because she spends so much time there.
Last fall, she co-produced the Snite’s ArtWords event, during which people shared poems inspired by the “Jim Dine: American Icon” exhibition. The Snite sent one of Yaseen’s poems to the acclaimed American artist and poet. He sent back a package with a sneak peek of both new (written during quarantine) and reshaped pieces slated to be published this July.
“In museums, I listen to the voices of all of these ingenious artists and creators, and I silently respond in my writing,” she said. “In this case, Dine actually heard me and replied back — and that was so meaningful. I’m grateful to everyone who works to make the Snite the most wonderful place on campus.”
Yaseen plans to take a year to launch FriendOver, as well as continue writing poetry, reviews and essays. Then she will pursue admission to a dual J.D./M.A. in political science, public policy or economics program. She will also begin a three-year term on the Notre Dame Arts and Letters Advisory Council.
“The support of my family, friends and mentors helped me make the most out of these four years,” she said. “Notre Dame has taught me to live out my values and dreams to the fullest, and that there’s a community of people in this world who are there for me through every successful and unsuccessful attempt.”