Christina Tynan-Wood

Why I Use Google+ to Capture Family Moments

Written on November 20, 2013 at 1:30 pm , by

I have been having a blast with my photos since I started using Google+ (free; apps available for Android, iOS and Web) to back them up online. I once took photos with the intention of someday finding time to edit them, turn them into little animated vignettes, create slide shows and share them with friends and family. Now I just take the photos, and the Google+ Auto Awesome feature does the rest. Even uploading my shots to Google+ happens automatically.

I discovered Auto Awesome completely by accident when I snapped a series of photos of my husband at the beach. He always makes a face (not his best face) when I point a camera at him. He wanted a new picture for his Facebook profile; I wanted one picture of him not making that face. So I took 20 photos in a row, hoping I would catch a candid expression. When I opened the Google+ app on my phone to browse through the photos, though, I discovered it had automatically made a short animation of my husband from some of the shots. The animation was terrific. It was short, but it caught the movement of his hair, the wind and the ocean, and a range of expressions that eliminated all my concerns about “that face.” It was like those animated newspaper photos in the Harry Potter movies. I sent the animation (GIF) to my husband and he loved it so much that he posted it all over his social media pages. He was impressed with my photo-editing and animating skills, and grateful that I had spent so much time on the project. I didn’t explain. I just said, “You’re welcome.”

Since then, I intentionally take a burst shot of photos or a series (I take at least five to give Auto Awesome enough to work with) whenever I’m shooting something that looks like it would make a fun animation: the cat chasing our bird, my daughter goofing around, sporting events, a car race, birds on the beach. It’s super fun. And I don’t have to do anything except check out what final result Auto Awesome has come up with.

Auto Awesome is not limited to animations. Sometimes it decides my photos would make a nice panorama, so it stitches my landscape photos together. Sometimes it takes a series of portraits and merges them into one really great shot of my subject. Sometimes it decides a series of pics would translate nicely into a photo-booth-style grid. And sometimes it just fixes the colors or lighting in my shots. I can undo any of this, of course. (It marks any photo it has retouched with a sparkly Auto Awesome icon.) But mostly I’ve been very impressed with its choices. (And I can also do editing of my own online if I get ambitious.)

Google has just launched an Auto Awesome movies app feature. (To access it, you will need the latest version—4.3—of Android.)  Choose the photos and videos you want to turn into an Auto Awesome short film, and the app does the rest. It’s a great way to share a happy moment—like this man did of the day he became a dad—or a holiday get-together with friends and family.

 

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

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It’s Midnight. Do You Know Where Your Teen’s Mind Is?

Written on November 14, 2013 at 12:00 pm , by

 

Being a parent has gotten pretty technical. Our kids are immersed in a world of online learning, social media, cyberbullying and Internet addiction. All of it comes to their impressionable minds through a limitless, invisible signal. I’m a fan of that signal. Much of what rides in on it is incredibly enriching. For example, my son’s knowledge of ancient history—a subject rarely taught in any of his schools—well exceeds that of most adults I know. This is because he has a curious mind and has known how to tap that signal to satisfy his curiosity since I showed him how to do a Google search when he was 4. But some of what comes in over that signal is too mature, violent, dangerous or distracting for a young mind. And all of it needs to be turned off regularly so that mind can pursue activities in the real world.

I have two teens, and I’ve struggled with managing the signal throughout their lives. I know I’m not alone. In fact, a recent Microsoft survey found that, overwhelmingly, parents let their children use technology (specifically computers and gaming devices) unsupervised starting at the age of 8. Is that because parents don’t want to supervise their kids or because supervision is a technical nightmare? I’m going with the latter. That’s why I’ve taken advantage of my access to high-tech companies to harass, cajole, badger and wheedle them to build better tools to help parents manage the information that comes in through the signal. But until yesterday, the tool I’ve been asking for has been in short supply.

I feel pretty strongly that control over this signal has to happen—first—at the Wi-Fi router. If it doesn’t, I have to install something on every device my kids use, which—at least in my house—is difficult to negotiate. While I don’t mind getting technical to install a router, I don’t think consumers should have to. So I want a router that’s plug-it-in-and-use-it simple. Next, I want it to let me assign my daughter’s tablet, computer and phone to rules that apply to her alone, not to individual pieces of hardware. In her case, I want to shut off the signal after her bedtime and set an appropriate age restriction on content. I also want separate rules, adjusted for his age, for my son. But when one of my teens goes rogue and blows off chores or gives me attitude when I ask for help with dinner, I want to be able to quickly and easily, amid the fray of family life, change those rules to reflect a demotion in household privilege. I don’t want to have to speak in code to set any of this up. I don’t want to have to access software that’s only on my computer. And when I’ve decided my kids are awesome and mature enough to handle it (which they usually are), I want to be able to give them complete freedom—with some assurance that I’ll know if they slip into some dangerous corner of the World Wide Web. Yesterday I finally installed a router in my home that gives me all of this: the Skydog Family Router Service ($149 with three years of subscription service).

Easy to Use

I’ve installed a lot of routers over the years, and this was the easiest to install by far. It asked me some questions. I answered them (while my old router was still delivering the Internet). Then I plugged it in and it went to work and set everything up the way I wanted it.

Web App

Now that I have the router installed on my network, I control it through an online portal. I can access that portal from any Web connection. It lets me see every device on my network (most of the devices have easy-to-understand names such as “Christina’s IPad”), assign those devices to users and set up rules for each user. My son is 17, but he has a hard time shutting off the signal and going to bed. So while I didn’t do much to filter his access to information, I did locate his phone, tablet and computer and set them all to go dark at midnight. There’s no reason for him to be idly surfing that late. I tracked down my daughter’s devices too, gave her a bedtime of 11 and shut off Netflix during her homework hour. (TV is her procrastination Achilles heel.)

Control and Monitoring

Since my son isn’t exactly a child, I don’t do much to filter his Web access, though I could block specific sites or choose a level of filtering set up by Skydog. If he’s having trouble staying focused on homework, I could set up a schedule that blocks specific distractions during specific hours. But since I didn’t do any of that, I asked the service to monitor his Web history so I can check once in a while to be sure there’s nothing going on I need to worry about. I also set up an alert that lets me know if one of my kids visits a site I consider dangerous, such as one of those that lets them video chat with strangers.

I know I can’t stop the signal. I wouldn’t want to. But I am glad to finally have a simple way to control it.

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

New Smart Toy Brings Video Gameplay to Your Living Room Rug

Written on November 7, 2013 at 12:31 pm , by

My son loves video games. I don’t object to them—as long as he has balance in his life and keeps his grades up—because I know there are benefits (as well as hazards) to this highly engaging form of entertainment. In fact, for a smart boy with his temperament, video games offer something that is otherwise largely missing from his world: challenge and control.

Dr. Leonard Sax, author of Boys Adrift, told me (for another article) that the immense appeal video games have for some boys can be an indicator of the “will to power” personality. This term, coined by Friedrich Nietzsche, describes the need—in some people—to control their environment. It is a basic, immutable personality trait that trumps other basic impulses such as the will to please. Video games feed that need by offering control over a vast, complex world that requires lightning-fast reflexes, nuanced decision making, extensive memory and ruthlessness. So I let him play, within limits. But I often wish there were a way to deliver that experience outside of a screen, perhaps in a format that would allow me to more easily play with him.

It turns out that there are some very smart geeks who wanted that too. And they had the know-how to build it. I sat down with the creators of Anki Drive in their San Francisco offices for a demo of the video-game-like driving game they created with an impressive amount of robotics and artificial intelligence technology. This game, which is delightfully reminiscent of the Hot Wheels cars my son loved when he was small, is like a video game that has been pulled out of the virtual world and set down on the living room rug.

It is actually set down on a mat that you unroll onto the rug. That mat—though light, flexible and unassuming—is an important part of the game because it carries, printed under the image of the racetrack, information the cars use to understand where they are in the real world. And the cars— though they are small, durable and look like toys—carry the artificial intelligence of an onscreen avatar. They learn as you play, can earn new weapons and skills, and are capable of playing on their own.

After we talked about the technical challenges of bringing state-of-the-art robotics to a $200 toy, the company founders rolled out a mat, set down some cars and handed me an iPhone (the controller is an iOS app so it can run on an iPod, iPad, or iPhone) and we played. I suspect they were being kind to me because my car did not die immediately—at least not until someone suggested I play against the machine. And then I got to see what lightning-fast reflexes, nuanced decision making and ruthlessness really look like. My son would love this game. I would love to play it with him. Fortunately, there’s a holiday coming up that will give me an excuse to buy one for him.

 

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

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Raise Your Hand If You Want More Work Flexibility!

Written on October 30, 2013 at 11:30 am , by

I have worked from home—primarily—since my 14-year-old was a baby. The fact that I’ve always been available, even if I needed a babysitter and a closed office door, has been an important part of my relationship with my kids. I’ve been able to attend school events. My work didn’t suffer when a child was home sick. And these days, I’m there to make sure my teenagers aren’t getting into trouble after school. I am very attached to my flexible job. It allows me to be good at both parenting and work. In fact, I believe strongly that more people should have access to flexible work if they want it. This would go a long way toward fixing everything from video game addiction (my kids would spend much more time in front of a screen if I wasn’t there) to education (flexible parents have more time to volunteer). It does not surprise me at all that, for many women, work flexibility is more important than the size of their paycheck. A recent study done by Flexjobs.com found that 89% of respondents consider work flexibility the most important factor in choosing their next job, with competitive pay being the second most important at only 50%.

“Independent and flexible is absolutely the future of work,” says Benjamin Dyett, cofounder of Grindspaces.com, a members-only collaborative work space and professional community that serves this type of worker. “By 2020 there will be 64.9 million flexible workers.”

Sara Sutton Fell, founder and CEO of FlexJobs.com, a site that helps people find work-at-home jobs, part-time work and other forms of flexible employment, is passionate about making this a reality for parents long before 2020. Her job board already helps connect people looking for flexible work with companies that offer it. But she felt there was a need for everyone—employer, employee and interested organizations—to have a say. So she spearheaded 1 Million for Work Flexibility, a national initiative to create a collective voice in support of work flexibility.

“My company is absolutely a passion project,” Fell says of Flexjobs.com. “And through it, I found myself in the position of evangelizing for workplace flexibility. This initiative is the natural extension of that role.” Fell hopes it will unite business leaders, nonprofits and for-profit companies to join her in these efforts.

If you are part of the 89% looking for more work flexibility, sign up to make your voice heard, be in the loop on news and trends on this topic, and learn.

 

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

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Movies That Help You Talk to Your Kids About Bullying

Written on October 23, 2013 at 11:00 am , by

image from ABC Family’s Cyberbully

Talking to teenagers about stuff like using the Internet responsibly and bullying (or sex, drugs and rock and roll for that matter) can be tricky. I have one boy (17) who clams up when I raise difficult topics. And a girl (14) who tells me—in no uncertain terms—to back off. Both responses are difficult to deal with. Sometimes I just forge ahead and blurt out the information I need to convey despite this wall of resistance. But I prefer to be clever about engaging my teens in conversation. My favorite way is by using a TV show or movie to get things started. When the players being discussed are fictional characters rather than my own teens, it’s much easier to have a calm discussion. So when the folks at Netflix offered me a list of their favorite movies for opening a conversation with kids about bullying for National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, I was intrigued.

Netflix recommended some titles that address bullying head-on to provide some characters around which to hang a conversation, and talk about actions and choices that lead to positive outcomes. The critically acclaimed Bully is a hard-to-watch but powerful documentary about bullying in U.S. schools. In The War, Kevin Costner comes back from Vietnam and helps his son (Elijah Wood) stand up to a group of bullies. Billy Elliot is about a boy in a coal mining family who decides to take up ballet (a classic bullying scenario). Fat Boy Chronicles is the story of a boy who moves to a new school and is bullied. And Cyberbully—my daughter’s pick for opening a dialogue on this topic—concerns a girl who is bullied online. Even movies about cartoonish heroism can give kids role models with the courage to stand up for what’s right. Netflix suggests The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, Justice League Unlimited, Hercules, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and Ben 10: Alien Force.

Watching any of these movies with your kids is a start. But this isn’t a conversation you can have once and tick off your to-do list. Bullying—and in particular cyberbullying—is a moving target. The social media sites where bullying can play out change all the time, the tools within those sites for blocking and reporting bullying change pretty often, and bullying itself can shift almost daily. “We call it an ecosystem,” Common Sense Media’s parenting editor Caroline Knorr told me recently. “In it, the bully is not always the same person. One day the bully might be a bystander while someone else takes a bully role. And maybe the original target of the bullying reverses roles with the bully.”

The goal here is to give kids the skills they need to negotiate this complex social environment, both online and off, on their own. And that means they need to understand both the technical tools and the social ones. “It’s important for parents to understand that none of this is simple,” says Knorr. “In fact, it is very complex. Because of this, we advocate that parents not only help kids understand how to use the technical tools but also help kids believe they are stewards of the Internet.” Their actions matter not only to those people in their own immediate circle but also to the social ecosystem of the entire online world.

Once you open this conversation, there are so many things to cover: how to block or report a bully from a social network, empathy, courage, heroism, patience, thinking before you act and much more. “Bullies try to intimidate and isolate their victims,” says Knorr. “So the strongest thing you can do if you see someone being bullied is to befriend that person.” But that—like many things when it comes to standing up for right over wrong—is a choice that requires courage, empathy and an understanding that your own actions matter as much, if not more, than the bully’s. So this conversation, as many of the movies listed here illustrate, is not just about bullies. It’s about what it means to be a good human being. You’re unlikely to get that one solved in one afternoon of movie watching. But a movie is still a good place to start.

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

Evite Ink Solves My Party Invitation Indecision

Written on October 16, 2013 at 11:10 am , by

Whenever I throw a party, I face the same dilemma: Should I buy actual invitations and put them in the mail? Or can I get away with sending a digital invitation? A digital one is easier for me since I don’t have to buy and address invitations. And for many of my guests, it’s simpler too. They can usually just click to RSVP and tell me what they’re bringing. But there’s always someone on my list who will miss a digital invitation because they never check email. So what usually happens is that I get stuck at this decision. Then I leave it until too late. And I just end up just calling everyone at the last minute. Or worse, I decide to skip the party until the next holiday comes alone.

I am apparently not the only one thwarted by invitation indecision. According to a Harris Interactive survey, over 67 million Americans get stumped at the “buying stamps” step in this process. I rarely get that far. But if I ever did, I’m certain that would be the next point at which my party idea would fall prey to “host’s failure to act.” So I was rather pleased when the folks at Evite called me recently to tell me they have a solution: Evite Ink, a service from this popular online invitation service that lets me create all my invitations online. All I have to do to put an invitation in the hands of those guests who live their lives primarily offline is click a box. Evite Ink will print those invitations, place a stamp on them and drop them in the mail for me.

So that settles it for my next party. I build my guest list online at Evite.com, choose who gets a digital invitation (people who live with a smartphone forever in one hand) and who gets a printed one (people who rarely fire up their ancient computer). I pay $2 plus postage for the invitations I want printed and mailed. The others go out for free. Everyone—whether they get a printed invite or a digital one—can log on to RSVP. And all the information I need about who’s coming and what they’re bringing is automatically stored in one place online. Digital natives and digital refuseniks can now all come to my house for libations.

Maybe I do have time to throw a Halloween party.

 

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

Social Media Helps Kids to Dream Big

Written on October 9, 2013 at 11:41 am , by

Written by Christian Tynan-Wood 

When it comes to teenagers and social media, most parents worry. Are the kids posting too much information? Are they being approached there by creepy strangers? Is that photo too risque? Is that a cry for help or just more song lyrics? Rarely do we suggest that our teens join a social network and start befriending adults. But at a certain point in a teenager’s life, I think you need to do just that.

A positive, professional social media presence — one that highlights your teen’s accomplishments, internships, and interests — makes it easy for colleges and future employers to get a sense of who a teen is, why she stands out from the pack, and why he would make a great fit for that school or workplace. But more importantly the online profiles and connections of the adults in their lives, can show your teen what a career looks like, the path those people took to achieve those careers, and what they actually do every day at work. “This allows kids to dream big,” says John Hill, Higher Education Evangelist for LinkedIn of the access teenagers have to detailed career information on LinkedIn. “And high school is a great time to do just that. Teenagers can see people who succeeded and how they got there.”

To this end, LinkedIn recently opened up the site to teenagers fourteen and up in the U.S. And Hill suggest that parents – and other family members – invite teens into their profiles and act as mentors there to show teens how adults network, how to create a positive online brand, and how to make connections that can advance goals. And if your teen is shopping for colleges, be sure and check out the university pages that allow them to learn about schools, connect with them, and get a real sense of what a school they are considering is like — without the cost of visit. Invite them into your network, let them see how professional interactions happen, encourage them to research careers they would like to emulate, or even just see what a career is and what people do to promote their own work.

I love this idea. When I was a teenager this sort of information was very difficult to come by. I had to take the word of parents and teachers and scan the help-wanted ads in the paper. No one I knew shared my own aspirations, though, so it was very difficult to get any real information about how to follow my dream. I was pretty much on my own. My kids will have access to so much more information.

If you are still worrying – of course you are; that’s a parent’s middle name – read up on LinkedIn’s safety tips, start your kids off at the Teen Center, and study up on the privacy settings that LinkedIn automatically applies to a teenager’s profile.

Social media takes a lot of heat when it comes to teenagers. But more than 238 million adults use social media (on LinkedIn alone) to find work, promote their careers, and reach out to employees. It’s not all bad. Maybe it’s time to teach the kids what’s good about these tools?

 

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

The New Kindle Paperwhite Is a Must-Have Gagdet for Students

Written on October 2, 2013 at 12:31 pm , by

I’ve had a lot of luck getting my kids to read simply by putting an e-book in their hands. At 10, my daughter quickly went from someone who enjoyed reading to a voracious consumer of the written word when I handed her a Kindle. (This is not true of the Kindle Fire, though. That proved to offer too much temptation to not read.) For her, it was the Kindle’s ability to deliver the next book in whatever series she was reading instantly that kept her momentum going and had her burning through book after book instead of stopping at just one. I’ve also heard that kids who get easily overwhelmed by long books do better with digital ones because an e-book stays the same size no matter how many pages are in it. Younger kids or struggling readers who feel intimidated when there are too many words on the page can bump up the font size so that they’re flipping through pages at a satisfying pace.

I got the new, sixth-generation Kindle Paperwhite ($119, available October 10) to check out some features that sounded to me as if they would help my daughter be an even better student of the written word. She is in honors English in high school, so we have moved from just reading to having to analyze and write about books.

The new Paperwhite has a whole mess of technical upgrades: a higher-contrast screen that looks more like actual paper, a built-in light, a faster processor, better touch response and more-versatile page turning. These are all nice. But it was the less-technical features that intrigued me as helpful school tools.

I downloaded a copy of Macbeth to test out some of those student-focused features. It was great fun— and made me wish I’d had a Kindle in college. One problem kids have when they tackle classical works like Shakespeare is that it’s easy to get confused by unfamiliar language and a large cast of characters. The Paperwhite’s smart lookup offers some nice solutions to that confusion. I had only to tap on a character’s name—Banquo, say—to get a pop-up explanation of who he is, his relationship to Macbeth and a bit of historical context explaining a literary choice Shakespeare made when creating the character. Tapping on an unfamiliar word instantly brought up its definition. And I could turn on X-Ray (available in select titles) to access a map of the book—every occurrence of a character or theme. (So handy for term papers!) Every time I looked up the definition of a word, the Paperwhite added it to my vocabulary list (shown above), keeping a running tally of the words I was learning for study purposes. It could even turn them into flash cards for me.

Later this year, Amazon plans to add some more nifty features targeted at students. Goodreads Integration will let kids connect to this social network that is all about reading right from their book. They will be able to share what they’re reading, see what friends are reading, share highlights and rate books. And FreeTime parental controls are being enhanced to be less about blocking and more about directing: They’ll let you choose books for your student, keep a progress report of what she has read and give badges for accomplishments.

A lot of parents ask me if it’s a good idea to get an e-reader for kids. “Aren’t real books better?” they ask. “I like to have something I can put on a bookshelf.” I like paper books too. And so does my daughter. But as long as the device isn’t also a TV (too tempting!), why worry what kind of paper (electronic or otherwise) the book is on as long as the kids are reading it? Besides, Amazon is launching Kindle Matchbook, which lets you buy the paper copy of any book you purchased the Kindle edition of for $2.99 or less. For those books you do want on the shelf.

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

Do Digital Devices Make Your Teen a Target for Bullies and Thieves?

Written on September 25, 2013 at 11:00 am , by

Remember the school bully who took your lunch money? Ah, the good old days. Now that bully has his eyes on a much bigger prize. And we often send our kids to school with a huge target on their back designed to attract that bully: a pair of pretty white earbuds or over-ear headphones.

The tech devices kids carry to school are worth so much more than our lunch money was. And those headphones announce, in big letters, “I have something expensive in my pocket that would be easy to steal!” Earbuds—and a kid who’s absorbed in whatever’s on the screen of the device he’s connected to—are not only pointing to an expensive item but also saying to any bully or thief that his target will be deaf to his approach and too distracted to notice a thing till it’s too late.

“We tell kids,” says Ward Clapham, a former police officer and the vice president of Investigations and Recovery Services at Absolute Software, which makes LoJack for Mobile Devices, “that device is like five crisp hundred-dollar bills. Don’t wave it around!” You may have gotten the phone for free with a contract or passed down an older one and would not be devastated by its loss. Or it might be a loss you can’t easily afford. Whatever the phone means to you, it’s always worth a lot of money to a thief.

When you think of it that way, walking around distracted wearing earbuds is asking for trouble. “These are great times for thieves,” agrees Clapham. It’s not only teens who do this. I looked around recently and saw all sorts of people—women walking alone, kids, adults on bikes—doing this. It’s no wonder that 1.6 million smartphones were stolen in the U.S. in 2012. And many people were beaten up or killed during those thefts. Absolute Software looked at where those thefts occurred and created a Top 10 list of places where laptops are stolen. And K-12 schools are number one that list.

Time to sit the kids down for a chat about theft prevention? I think so.

The theft is bad enough. But when it comes to kids and technology, the harm doesn’t end there. Kids live their lives on their devices, which have photos, texts, log-ins to social media accounts and much more. If the bully who steals a phone can access the data on it, the results could be devastating socially and emotionally. How about if the mean kid who once took your lunch money had your private photos and texts and an easy way to post them online for the world to see?

Kids need to understand that their phone is like cash to anyone who can resell it—and a gold mine for a bully. So teach them to stop waving it around. “Don’t wear white earbuds,” suggests Clapham. “Or only wear one in one ear. Hide it behind your hair. Get a Bluetooth headset that goes behind your neck and under a collar or hair.”

And password protect that phone! If you lose the phone, it’s expensive. But if your personal life is suddenly in the hands of a cruel enemy, it can be devastating. A password will make it much harder for a bully to do irreparable damage.

“But do not fight to keep the phone!” Warns Clapham. “If a thief wants it, give it up. Let the police recover it.” He has, unfortunately, seen too many instances of people getting hurt or killed trying to keep a thief from taking a device. He also warns against trying to recover a phone yourself using its GPS location tools. “That’s very dangerous,” he says. “Let the police handle it.”

Clapham also suggests that you install his company’s software, LoJack for Mobile Devices. On certain Samsung phones, that recovery software will even survive a factory reset, a disincentive for thieves.

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

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How to Keep Tabs on Your Smartphone-Toting Kid

Written on September 18, 2013 at 11:09 pm , by

Last week I made a case for why, “despite the hassles, confusion, worry and time it takes to supervise my kids online,” I think it’s well worth allowing them there and monitoring them. Even if I could stop my two teens from using social media, I wouldn’t. (And I doubt I could pull it off if I tried.) So I end up spending a lot of time supervising what they’re up to. My kids call this “stalking.” I call it parenting. Whatever you call it, it’s a lot of work and involves a lot of worry. I find it a challenge, and I’ve been writing about technology since the creator of Facebook was in kindergarten. So I feel for parents who didn’t start using social media until after their kids were online. And, frankly, the explosion of mobile devices that connect easily to social media from anywhere—much as I love them and fun though they are for the kids—has not made a parent’s job any easier.

This morning I sat in on a demo of Amber Child Safety, which only just launched, so I haven’t had a chance to try it. Normally I test technologies thoroughly before I cover them here. But I want to share this one because it follows so nicely after my last post about the necessity of supervising kids online. Amber Child Safety aims to simplify—by providing powerful technical tools to back up your rules—the enormous task of monitoring a smartphone-wielding, social-media-savvy child, tween or teen while offering guidance to parents on how to keep an eye on things and what to look for.

It has three parts:

Amber Database (free) Provides a secure place to store information on your child that you can release to law enforcement with a couple of clicks if anything goes wrong. It interviews you to get exactly the information law enforcement will need—even if that information isn’t what you would think to include.

Amber Internet ($9.95 per month) Helps you monitor and control social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. You’ll need your child’s password to install it on their social media accounts. Then you’ll get alerts when the service sees problems and be able to set limits. It gives you all sorts of choices about what to monitor, which will, of course, vary widely based on your child’s age and your own rules.

Amber Mobile ($9.95 per month) This is the part that helps with the cell phone. It lets you set locations and get alerts when kids enter or leave those areas, prevents texting while driving and lets you create lists of people who can and cannot contact your child. It also lets you block sites altogether or at certain hours, a great way to reinforce house rules or intervene if grades start to slip because of late-night texting or gaming. And your teen won’t be able to uninstall it. I asked a lot of geeky questions about this that I won’t go into here, but it sounds like even my clever, determined 17-year-old would not  be able to uninstall it. At the moment it works best on Android phones.

I plan to check this out more thoroughly in the future, but I just thought I’d share in case you’re currently wrestling with late-night phone gaming, worrying about texting and driving, or concerned about any of the other myriad issues parents face in the Internet age.

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

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Parenting in the Digital Age: Blocking Kids’ Access Online Isn’t the Answer

Written on September 11, 2013 at 11:05 pm , by

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I am bringing up the concept of having the “e-talk” with your kids…again. Every time I write about this topic, someone comments or says to me, “Can’t you just block or ban social media altogether and make the kids play outside like we did?”

So I want to answer that question.

My first reaction is, “Why would you want to do that?” (Block their access completely, I mean. I’m all for playing outside.)

Despite the hassles, confusion, worry and time it takes to supervise my kids online, I still think they’re growing up in an amazing era and, if anything, I envy them for enjoying a childhood where every question can be answered instantly, friends are a few taps away and staying in touch with people you meet anywhere is simple. The Internet is the most incredible learning and social tool ever created. I can’t even imagine how much I would know now if I’d had easy access to this much information all my life. But this tool is simply reality for my kids, and necessary to their future success in college and work. Refusing to let them learn to use it seems a bit like refusing to let them learn science because they might blow something up. Besides, in the same way social networking lets them connect more easily with their friends, it gives me a hundred new places to encounter my kids and see them interact with others. I think all this “supervising” (which I often do by joining them in their networks) brings us closer together.

My second reaction? If I block it, they will find a way to get there anyway without my knowledge. And then they’ll be using these tools without my help and guidance. Into the bargain, I will have alienated them by demonstrating how I failed to understand something important about their lives. I get the impulse to block it all, of course. There are lots of social networks, and most are not appropriate for all ages. It causes a lot of arguments. You have to come up with rules. You have to enforce those rules. You start to hanker for simpler times. But our kids didn’t ask for this. It just happened.

Spider-Man said it well: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Given how new this technology is and how fast it changes, many parents feel ill-equipped to handle the responsibility, and I understand. I also know it doesn’t require technical expertise, only a willingness to jump in and try. (Ask your kids for help!) Still, this is a pervasive feeling. I recently spoke to Microsoft’s chief online safety officer, Jacqueline Beauchere. It’s part of her job to help parents cope with this responsibility. “I was at an event recently,” she told me. “And we had prepared some materials to help parents have the e-talk with their kids. The moms were just snapping the materials up.”

But a comment here and there about “blocking it all,” much as it gets a rise out of me, is not a clear measure of what people—and by that, I mean you—think. So I was pleased to learn that Microsoft is fielding a survey to find out “How Old Is Too Young” when it comes to cell phones, social media, computers and the Internet. I’m looking forward to seeing the results. And I hope a lot of you Momster readers take the survey so that you’ll be well represented. If you do, you’ll be rewarded at the end with some specific advice on having the e-talk with your kids.

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

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If I Use Surveillance Cameras, Am I Spying?

Written on September 4, 2013 at 7:52 pm , by

I recently mentioned to a group of moms at a dinner party that I have surveillance cameras installed in my house. The cameras allow me to look in on my family from wherever I am, which I love. I was pleased with myself. But the looks of shock and dismay on the faces at the table made it clear that using technology this way is controversial. Then came the questions: “You spy on your kids?!” “Wow! What are you, NSA Mom?” “Do your kids like you?”

I am not spying. I’m not a covert government agency. And, yes, my kids like me. Most of the objections seemed to be based on misconceptions about how these cameras play out in my relationship with my family. None of these moms had actually tried this technology, so they were probably reacting to the word “surveillance,” which I’ll admit may not have been the best moniker. So I started telling stories that show how I’m not spying—I’m using this technology as a way to connect with my kids.

How It Works

Yes, it’s true, these cameras give me a live feed of what is going on at my house right now. I can open an app on my phone, from wherever I am (down the street, 3,000 miles away) and look in on my own living room or any room where I have installed a camera. (In my house, that’s the kitchen, family room and homework room.) The image is a little choppy—sort of like a time-lapse image sped up—but it’s very clear. And the cameras can see well even if the room is dark.

So this is certainly a technology that could be used as an instrument to spy on, mistrust and alienate my kids. But in itself it’s just a collection of machines. How I use it is up to me. I do not use it to spy. I do trust my kids. And I have no desire to alienate them. I use it to visit with my family when I’m away. The distinction may seem subtle. But it is important.

First of all, the cameras are not a secret. I showed them to everyone: my husband, both teenagers, the dog, the cat. Everyone knows they are there. None of them are in private spaces. They are only in rooms where you might expect to run into another family member. Any of them could be easily disabled simply by unplugging them. And when I look in on my family—if I’m traveling or at my office, for example—I usually (if someone is there) also text them to wave “Hi!” and say I’m looking in on them.

I do not show the feed to anyone else. Not even the moms at my dinner party.

It’s a Lot of Fun

This camera thing is fun. But if you are still imagining me spying, I’d better tell some anecdotes.

My daughter Ava, age 14, got a new kitten right before I left. So, when I knew she was home, I texted her to come out of her room and show me the cat on one of the cameras. She texted back, “Family room.” And I loaded that camera. The kitten is frisky. We also have a bird. Hilarious cat videos ensued. Ava had fun. I had fun. The cat had fun. (The bird hid in his cage.) And I got to spend a few minutes laughing with my daughter even though I’m very far from home.

On a day when I was eating alone and missing a family dinner, my daughter sent me a text: “Go to the camera.” So I launched the app on my smartphone (even though I was in a restaurant), typed in my password, and there she was eating an ice cream. “Nana bought these,” she told me via text, holding up the ice cream. “Mmmm, good. You are missing out!” She dragged my mother over to the camera to wave, blew me a kiss and went back to her desert. It was a very nice way to spend a moment that I otherwise would have spent returning work emails while I waited for my food.

And yesterday, while I was saying good night to her on the phone, Ava asked, “Did you see me cooking dinner?” I didn’t. I don’t actually spend all day watching the house. But she clearly thinks I’m there—like a ghost—keeping an eye on her even though I’m quite far away. I like that.

But I do check in frequently, briefly, to reassure myself everything is fine. In fact, I looked in this morning to make sure the kids hadn’t skipped school and saw that, though no one was home, the front door was wide open. I sent a text to a neighbor, who came over, closed and locked the door, and checked on the pets.

Moms Want This

By the time I was done telling tales of warm, fuzzy interactions through surveillance cameras at my dinner party, everyone had changed their tune. No longer was I Creepy Stalker Mom. Everyone wanted to know what it cost.

The answer: Not that much. There are lots of ways to set this sort of thing up. Some of the cameras I use are part of an in-home security system. (That can be costly. But it also alerts my phone if the fire alarm goes off and lets me lock doors remotely.) Setting up a stand-alone camera is inexpensive. Most of them use your Wi-Fi network and have no service fees. I recently installed the Samsung PetCam ($149). It was easy to set up. And it has a nice password-protected smartphone app. It allows you to install up to 10 cameras in your home and choose which to look at from your phone or the Web. It runs over Wi-Fi but doesn’t use your bandwidth unless you are looking through the camera. And—best part!—it lets you talk to your kids (or pets) through the camera.

What do you think? Would you “spy” on your kids?

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

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