Family & Technology

Social Media Sharing Can Boost Your Holiday Spirit

Written on December 18, 2013 at 12:00 pm , by

Google’s Auto Awesome tool can help you find your holiday spirit.

I’ve been so busy this holiday season that I’ve had a hard time getting into the spirit. Fortunately, sometimes it doesn’t take much to go from “Bah, humbug!” to singing Christmas carols. For me, it was a photo of a Christmas tree that did it. While I was traveling, my family trimmed our tree. I’d told them to go ahead whenever they had time, even though I wasn’t there. I didn’t think I’d mind, but when my husband sent me a text picture of the trimmed tree, the effect just wasn’t the same as sitting in front of it with a roaring fire. I fixed that quickly, though. Since I’d started using Google+ for my photos, I took advantage of a new feature in its Auto Awesome tool.

I simply uploaded the photo my husband had sent to Google+. And that’s all I did! Google’s Auto Awesome tool automatically animated the lights so they flickered and twinkled. When the work was done, I got a notification. Then I shared that animation with my family. Suddenly, I’m in the (geeky) holiday spirit!

You can also turn snaps of snowy landscapes into wintery animations by uploading them to Google+. Auto Awesome will automatically animate your photo with falling snow, let you know when it’s finished, and make the animation easy to share with friends via Google+ or email.

If you’ve ever signed on to go caroling and found yourself standing in the cold lip-synching because you can’t remember the words, Google and your phone can help with that too. Just tap the microphone on Google Search (on your iPhone or any Android phone) and say, “Let’s go caroling.” Before any of the search results, you’ll get a list of popular songs. Click the one you want to sing and your phone will play the music and show you the lyrics. All you have to do is follow along.

 

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.

 

Teach Your Kids to Create the Future

Written on December 5, 2013 at 12:33 pm , by

If you are among the 141 million people who shopped online on Cyber Monday or participated in the brawl that was Black Friday, and if you put any technology in your cart, I encourage you to take a minute to think about how much human brilliance went into creating a world where a $200 tablet is possible. And when shopping for your kids, I suggest you think about the role you can play in nurturing that sort of brilliance.

You might know that much of the amazing innovation we have seen in our lives started with a famous statement by John F. Kennedy that began the commitment to go to the moon. But it is a statement made by Bill Gates much more recently (in his 2008 testimony before the House Committee on Science and Technology) that worries me. He is one of the people who contributed to creating a world where you can wrap that sweet tech gear and put it under the tree for your kids. And he’s concerned about the future. “The United States’ preeminence in science and technology,” he says, “has long been the source of our global economic leadership…But that position is at risk.” Why? Because there is a “severe shortfall of scientists and engineers with the expertise to develop the next generation of breakthroughs.”

Take a minute to stop and think about the innovation that went into that smartphone or tablet. Twenty years ago a machine that could process that much information or display that quality of graphics was the stuff of science fiction. According to the Computer History Museum’s time line of computer history, Apple introduced the Lisa in 1983. This was the first personal computer with a graphical user interface…and it wasn’t much of one. The Lisa’s sloth and price ($10,000) led to its failure.

The Internet you intend to connect to with the $200 tablet you tossed into your cart for the kids? In 1983 it was in such a state of infancy that there was nothing to connect to. Then called ARPANET, it was a way for universities and the military to collaborate, and would not be renamed the Internet until 1995. Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web (which is what essentially made the Internet usable for the rest of us) in 1989, but no one really noticed until 1990.

Do the math: Technology transformed the world in my 17-year-old son’s lifetime.

My point? If you are raising kids, help them understand that people accomplished all this in a very short time, and not because someone taught them exactly what to do in school. For the most part, those people were once children who liked to play with toys that let them build stuff. Steve Wozniak, for example, liked to build things as a kid. So his father took the time to explain electronics to him. Woz sites that as a major reason for the path he took toward building the first personal computer and thereby changing the world.

I’m all for buying the tablet, smartphone or computer and putting it under the tree. But would you teach your kids to read and not teach them to write? Why not also take a minute to help your kids envision themselves as creators of the future of technology, the people who will develop the next generation of breakthroughs? It might not take that much effort.

 

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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VIDEO: Social Media Eases Fear of Bullying for Boy with Glasses

Written on December 4, 2013 at 9:30 am , by

 

We all know that bullying hurts. But sometimes the fear of being bullied can be just as painful.

Four-year-old Noah Fisher burst into tears when his mother, Lindsey, told him to put on his glasses. Noah was afraid that everyone was going to laugh at him because he had to wear them. So with the help of her friends, Lindsey used Facebook to show Noah that glasses were pretty cool.

She started the page “Glasses for Noah,“ and to her surprise around 40,000 people from all around the country expressed their support for him. They posted various pictures of themselves in glasses, and even some famous faces made an appearance. Noah’s favorite was The Hulk. According to his parents, Noah is getting more comfortable in his glasses every day.

We think Noah looks pretty cute and happy in his glasses. Don’t you?

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.

Picking Your Battles as a Parent

Written on November 14, 2013 at 9:00 am , by

Have you ever walked away from a situation with your child and then realized that you were being irresponsible or inconsistent? I have. I’ve let my boys watch TV or play video games way past the time limits I mandated in our family screen time contract. I’ve also let them spray whipped cream from a can directly into their mouths—even though we have a rule that no one in the family can eat or drink directly out of a container. Or worse, I’ve watched a movie with them, realized about 10 minutes into it that some of the content was inappropriate, but because we were having such a good time, I didn’t turn it off.

As much as we set down rules, it’s the rare parent who always adheres to them. We get tired. We get distracted. We decide that—just this once—it really doesn’t matter. But inconsistently enforcing rules results in our children not taking us seriously. Worse, if we don’t abide by rules ourselves, we lose credibility as authority figures and we role model that they don’t have to take those rules seriously either.

So what’s the difference—or is there one—between bending the rules and hypocrisy? What are the rules that we can never relax? For me, there are three. It’s always good to have concrete examples, so I’ve chosen a few recent ones that I hope will be good discussion starters with your kids.

1. No one is above the rules that everyone else has to abide by.

ABC News photo. Gansler, center, in white.

When Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler stopped by a house during Beach Week to talk to his son, he walked into a party filled with underage drinking.

Anyone who grows up in that area (and I did) knows that Beach Week is where you go after school ends in June to party your butt off. So either Gansler was a completely out-of-touch parent, or he walked into that situation knowing that kids would be drinking but, because it was his son and kids he knew, they would get special treatment.

The precise nature of his job means he is in charge of upholding the law. Yet there he was, surrounded by teens breaking the law. He was condoning underage drinking and signaling to every teen there that they are above the law when a person in authority gives you special treatment.

 

 

2. You can’t participate in the humiliation of another person.

After the suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick this fall, one of her tormentors posted on Facebook, “Yes ik [I know] I bullied Rebecca nd she killed her self but IDGAF [I don't give a (expletive)].”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s not focus on the disturbing reality that a 14-year-old girl would be proud to say she doesn’t care that she contributed to someone’s death. Instead, I want to focus on the more than 30 kids who “liked” that post. As a parent, using the “likes” is a more realistic example of what it means to contribute to someone’s humiliation. But here’s what we need to communicate to our children. Even if you don’t directly bully someone, if you support the bullies in any way, you are contributing to the misery of another human being. As the target, it’s horrible to be bullied by one or two people, but it’s when everyone else supports them that life becomes unbearable. Those “likes” make the target feel so isolated, desperate and anxious that it can seem like there’s no escape. So parents, the “likes” supporting someone’s humiliation have to stop.

 

3. If you work hard, you have the right to belong to a group without being degraded as a condition for acceptance or a demonstration of loyalty. The same rule applies for anyone else. 

The recent revelation that Miami Dolphins player Jonathan Martin was hazed by fellow player Richie Incognito is a horribly good example of what can happen to new players on any kind of team. It can and does happen in the NFL, just like it can and does happen in high school and college.

Associated Press/AP Photo. Incognito (left), Martin (right).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are people who believe that you have to pay your dues to have the right to belong to their group, and those dues often mean being abused by the people who have been in the group longer than you.

We need to have explicit conversations with our children explaining that paying dues is about hard work and working “clean.” If your child contributes to abuse in any way, no matter how good they are, you will forbid them from playing. Because teaching your child to be a decent person is way more important than any championship game.

The bottom line comes down to this: Once in a while I’m going to let my children spray whipped cream into their mouths. It’s a little gross. And it’s also probably a little more fun because they’re breaking a house rule. But they aren’t hurting anyone. Where the rules can’t be broken is when you hurt others and refuse to be held accountable for your actions. That’s always going to be my bottom line.

What are the unbreakable rules in your household? Post a comment and tell me.

Rosalind Wiseman is the author of the new best seller Masterminds and Wingmen as well as Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads. For more info, go to rosalindwiseman.com. Do you have a parenting question? Email askrosalind@familycircle.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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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.