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

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Luxury Car Technology That I Want in My Teen’s Car

Written on August 28, 2013 at 7:34 pm , by

When my daughter Ava was 5, she drove for the first time. It was a friend’s battery-operated toy Barbie car. She got behind the plastic wheel, pointed it directly into traffic, shut her eyes, floored the “gas” and screamed. Those toy cars top out at 5 miles per hour, so I caught her before it ended in disaster. But I have since lived in dread of the day when she would get behind the wheel of a real car. Well, that day has come. Yesterday she enrolled in driver’s education.

She has grown up a lot since the days when she took all her driving cues from Powerpuff Girls cartoons. But I can’t shake the image of her careening obliviously toward her own doom. The thing is, driving is dangerous, especially for teens. Even if she never texts or drinks while behind the wheel and always pays attention, which is unlikely enough, there is no getting around the fact that she is an inexperienced driver. Because of all these factors, car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens in the U.S., taking the lives of 5,000 teens every year. “And, on average,” points out John Ulczycki, VP of Strategic Initiatives at the National Safety Council, “half of all teens get into some sort of crash before they graduate from high school.”

So when I recently sat down for a tour of the technology inside the new Infinity Q50, it was an emotional experience for me. I want to wrap my daughter—and my son, who has been driving for a year—in the safety technology in that car. Even if I’m not there to warn her, that car will slow down if she drives too close to the car in front of her. It will warn her if it senses the danger of a forward impact and, if she fails to respond to that warning, apply the brakes to reduce the severity of the crash. And it will keep an eye on her blind spot and alert her—and bring the car back into her own lane—if she is about to hit something there.

I can’t afford a brand-new Infinity. And even if I could, it would be pretty crazy to buy a high-end luxury automobile as a first car for a teen. “I am never going to recommend that a parent spend that kind of money on a car for a teen,” agrees Ulczycki. “But I would love to see the day when this sort of technology is affordable for parents.” That day will probably come. In fact, cars have gotten much safer in just the last five years. And a car that corrects my daughter’s driving mistakes might even get here before she goes shopping for a car. New car technologies are often introduced first in high-end vehicles and end up in more inexpensive cars within a few years. Meanwhile, I will let her learn on our big, old, slow minivan. But it is tempting to envelop it—and her—in bubble wrap first.

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

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How to Shop for a Calculator

Written on August 21, 2013 at 6:39 pm , by

Every time I shop for back to school, I’m puzzled and frustrated by the request from the math teacher for a scientific or graphing calculator. I know the calculator is a necessary school tool. But it’s also an expensive piece of technology. And I like to do cost comparisons before I plunk down a credit card for anything pricey, especially technology. Usually my son—or daughter, whomever I’m buying for—is in the store with me. So I inevitably pelt him with questions he can’t answer: “Can’t you use the one we bought last year? Isn’t there a $3 app that can do the same thing? Why do I have to get this model when there’s another I like better?” My son, always laconic, just shrugs and puts exactly the model the teacher requested into the cart. He isn’t paying for it. So when I spoke to the folks at Texas Instruments about the TI Nspire(tm) Apps for iPad ($30) that I covered in my back-to-school app story, I also took the opportunity to ask all my stupid calculator questions. It turns out my son is right. But it helps, somehow, to know why.

So here are my questions, with answers from Tom Reardon, 35-year math classroom educator and Texas Instruments Teaching with Technology Instructor.


Do I have to buy the exact calculator on the teacher’s list even if there is a cheaper—or fancier—one?

When it comes to graphing calculators, teachers choose a model for a specific reason (age-appropriate, latest features, etc.) so, yes. Be sure to purchase the exact model the teacher recommends. For example, I had parents buy their student a TI-89 or a TI-92, assuming the bigger number meant a better calculator. But it is very difficult for a student to learn to use a different calculator on his own. Most often, that other calculator was not appropriate to the ability level of the child.

How can I tell the difference between models? They all look the same.

It’s true that in the store the calculators are packaged so you can’t explore them. But you can research them before you go to the store. Texas Instruments’ website provides details on features and allows you to compare models. While shopping, be sure to think ahead about what tests your student will take in the coming years. Certain calculators are allowed on tests, but others aren’t. You want to ensure your child can use the calculator they are most familiar with when they take the test. TI gathers info, which it posts online, on which calculators are allowed.

Is there an app that’s cheaper and works just as well?

Yes and no. The TI Nspire(tm) Apps for iPad ($30) has all the functionality of the TI-Nspire CX handheld, but the app isn’t necessarily a replacement for a calculator. Gadgets like iPads, tablets, smartphones and laptops are not allowed on tests such as the SAT, ACT, AP, etc., or in some classrooms. The app is also not compatible with science probes—yet. So that may limit its use in science courses that require plug-in data collection 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

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Online Homework Help

Written on August 14, 2013 at 3:21 pm , by

Ah, back to school. Early mornings, new haircuts, spiffy clothes, backpacks, and …. Homework!

If you saw my piece in the September issue (and here) then you know that I’ve been looking at a lot of apps (and Web sites) that aim to help kids really get good at their homework. Well, if your kids are like mine, they waste an absurd amount of time laughing at silly cat videos and who knows what else on YouTube so you probably don’t think of that site (or it’s app) as educational. But it can be. It’s just a matter of giving the educational stuff a chance against the pull of those cute, silly cats. I am doing that by getting my kids to install the YouTube app on their tablets and subscribe to CrashCourse,  MinutePhysics, SickScience,  and the KhanAcademy, some great educational YouTube channels. That way when they go looking for silly cat videos to procrastinate doing homework, they will bump right into teachers who make that homework almost as fun as the kitties.

There are quite a few YouTube channels built by teachers trying to take their classes to a bigger audience than a single classroom. In fact, the folks at YouTube recently sent me a great list of teachers who are somewhat lesser-known than the ones I listed above. These teachers offer fun and inspired lessons in everything from Algebra to Art History and physics. So, if your student complains that her math, social studies, science, or English teacher is boring, find her someone entertaining. Just click on the links below (or above) and subscribe to the channels you like. If your student has a tablet or smart phone, encourage her to install the YouTube app and subscribe to a good teacher so she can work on mastering her homework from anywhere.

Here is that list of teachers sent to me by the folks at YouTube. But I have lots more educational Web sites and apps left over from that article. So stay tuned for more.

Rob Bob / Tarrou’s Chalk Talk

What started off as a way to help his students at St. Pete High School when they were having a hard time, or if they had missed class, has now gone worldwide. Mr. Tarrou of “Tarrou’s Chalk Talk” started filming energetic math lessons from his house. Those videos have now been seen in hundreds of countries, hundreds of thousands of times, From New York, to Hungary, to Israel, Rob has over 3,000 subscribers and it is still growing.

Jennifer Recio Lebedev / JenniferESL

Located in Boston, Jennifer is a mother of two, and a former classroom teacher. She has YouTube students from every continent except Antarctica and has even received a marriage proposal from a grateful student. At over 30 million views, she is teaching English to a huge worldwide classroom.

 Alex Dainis / Bite Sci-zed

Alex from Mansfield, MA is “a biology nerd, music lover, film geek, and stress baker with an uncontrollable urge to teach you awesome science!” The ideas for her YouTube videos often come from conversations she’s having with her friends, like  ‘why do we get brain freezes when we eat ice cream too fast and why do we sneeze?’

James Earle / Amor Sciendi

High School teacher James of Southampton, NY describes himself as “a Renaissance nerd with limited mathematic ability, but a love of collaborating with mathematicians.” A few of his students from History of Math course encouraged him to start a YouTube channel on art history so he could meet Vi Hart (a famous education YouTuber) one day. His students helped him start the channel and even taught him how to use iMovie.

Keith Hughes / Hughesdv

Keith is a public school teacher in Buffalo, NY, who began using videos in the classroom in 2002 as a way for kids to express meaning in Social Studies. He now has over 100 videos covering topics in U.S. History and Government, Political Science and World History.


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

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Creating Tangible Memories from Summer Photos

Written on August 7, 2013 at 5:59 pm , by


I can’t believe summer is almost over. I’m sad about that. But I’m also looking forward to school routines and an end to the arguments over how much Xbox and Netflix is too much. But my teenagers are having a harder time accepting the end to endless days and late nights than I am. They have enjoyed having few demands on their time beyond a few chores and invitations to go to the beach with friends.

The thing is, we had a great summer. We took a road trip together and each of us took off on some solo camp and travel adventures. But since we all have phones with pretty good cameras, we have hundreds of photos of everything from the amazing sunset we watched from our kayaks to the kids’ friends from camp. Rather than let those memories languish on our phones, I decided to turn them into tangible remembrances that we can share with each other and friends. Maybe having a slide show of their summer’s adventures — or a wall showcasing those memories — will make the transition back to school easier? At least they will have a ready answer when someone asks, “What did you do this summer?”

There are tons of ways to take those photos and turn them into something easy to share. But here are three that are easy enough that teens might even get involved.



Before we went on our family road trip, I set up a notebook using Springpad, an online scrapbook and note-taking tool. It was a simple matter of clicking a button to remember the Web site for restaurants, museums, events, and activities I thought we might want to do. It displayed my research in a an appealing bulletin board on my screen. Then I shared it with my husband and kids and encouraged each of them to get the app for their own smart phone or tablet. That way, we all had my planning notebook handy at all times. While we were touring colleges, visiting museums, or enjoying a meal, I took photos and added them to Springpad thereby transforming my research into a scrapbook of our adventures. And since everyone already has the app, they could also add their own photos to it. And now everyone has a scrapbook – right in their pocket – of our trip. So when classmates ask, “What did you do this summer?” They can get out their phone and show them — with plenty of details., free; apps for iPhone, iPad, Android, the Web


Tablet and phone slideshows are handy. But I also thought it would be nice to use the walls in our house to turn some of our adventures into art. SnapBox made this super easy. I uploaded some photos I liked to the site – you can also email them directly from your phone or send them right from Facebook – and let the site take it from there. A few days later, a package arrived with beautiful canvas images showcasing moments from my adventures stretched over a box frame and ready to hang. They look great on my wall and remind me of the fun I had every time I walk past them., one 8 x 10 framed photo is $20


Upload your photos here, arrange them into albums, and build a stunning Web site to showcase your photos easily. Or share them from here to Google+, Twitter, email, or Facebook. Your photos will be securely – and privately if you wish — stored and easy to find, even if you drop your phone in the drink. You can also turn photos into prints, cards, coasters, books and business cards right from the site., plans start at $40 a year

Google +

If you use an Android phone, camera, or tablet to take photos, you can set it to automatically back your photos up to Google+. So, sharing an album of photos from a trip is a simple matter of choosing the photo, choosing who to share those photos with (I have a family group set up so this is easy) adding some commentary, and clicking “Share.”, free, mobile apps for Android and iOS


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

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5 Ways to Parent Your Child on Social Media

Written on August 6, 2013 at 2:12 pm , by

In our September “Dr. Mom Knows Best” feature, child psychologist Polly Dunn, Ph.D., offered smart advice on everything from boosting your mood to making your kid a better person. For this guest post, Dr. Dunn provides a handbook to staying on top of your kid’s social media presence. As she tells her children: “I’m your mom and I will friend, follow and like you.” Here’s how she says you can do the same—without being glued to a screen 24/7:

In the past week my daughter has asked for Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook. My answer? Absolutely not. Why Mom? You’re eight, that’s why!

She knows all about the latest social media trends from her older brother and sister, both teenagers and both with social media accounts. And not surprisingly even some of her eight-year-old friends are using these applications.

But in my house, the answer is a firm no. I know enough about social media to understand that it’s no place for an eight-year-old.

Social media sites for our kids are advancing so fast that for parents it often seems impossible to keep up. But it’s not. With a little effort, we can do our part to stay active parenting our kids both online and off. Here’s how:

1. Follow the age requirements. Most social media sites require children to be 13 to sign up, but Vine requires you to be 17. Not only should your child meet the minimum age requirement, but they should be able to use good judgment offline before becoming active in social media.

2. Be an active social media parent. If my kids are on social media sites then I am right there with them. I follow, friend and like them. I don’t comment on their posts or embarrass them, but I monitor what they are doing, just like I do in real life. You can call it stalking, but in this day and age it’s not stalking. It’s called parenting.

3. Encourage privacy. Remind your teens not to share personal information about themselves, their family or their friends online. Kids should keep all profiles set to private and make sure to only accept friends or followers that they know in real life.

4. Keep conversations going. Talk about their interactions on social media just like you would talk to them about their real world experiences. Discuss how to use manners, practice kindness and show respect online and then be a good role model of that with your own social media use.

5. Yank their social media privileges. You heard me. Using social media is a privilege, not a right. You can ground your kids from using Instagram or Twitter when they misuse it just like you can ground them from going out with friends when they miss curfew. When do they get their privileges back? When they show they can behave properly online.

Do you have any ideas to share on how to parent your children on social media? Do you agree with the ‘Friend, Follow, and Like’ plan? Let us hear from you in the comments below.

Dr. Polly Dunn is a child psychologist and a mom of four kids, ranging in age from 5 to 16. For more of her ‘Perfectly Imperfect Parenting Solutions’ visit her blog at


Tablets for Your Back-to-School Shopping List

Written on July 31, 2013 at 4:29 pm , by

Shopping for back to school? Me too. But as a geek Mom, smart phone and tablet apps are high on my list of supplies. They are cheap (or free), portable, and my kids don’t lose them. So after shopping for sneakers and dress-code appropriate clothes, I plan to sit down with both of my kids and help them download and get the hang of a few apps that will help them take better notes in school, keep track of their schedule, find a little extra instruction, and discover their intellectual curiosity. I rounded up quite a few of them for the print version of the magazine and you can find some of those here. What I didn’t have space for in that story was a roundup of smart phones and tablets you might want to consider if you want apps but don’t yet have a tablet or smart phone.

The great thing about being in the market for a smart phone or tablet right now is that there is lots of choice and the prices are compelling. That is, of course, the hard thing about it, too. There is so much choice that many parents ask me to just, “Tell me what to get!” I understand that not everyone enjoys shopping for tech gear as much as I do. But the answer isn’t that easy. You have to choose between Apple, Android, Windows, and even Blackberry. You have to stay within your budget. And your school might have some requirements.

But when you walk into a store, it can be daunting to even know where to start. So, in addition to your own needs and wants, here is a short list of gear you should consider to get you started.

The Galaxy S4 Active

$199 (with a contract at

The Galaxy S4 is a great Android smart phone. In fact, it is something of a showecase of state-of-the art technology. It will run all the latest apps, keep GPS tabs on your teen so he won’t get lost driving, has a great camera, and even makes eye contact so the screen won’t shut off when he’s trying to read the latest political diatribe. (You can even pick one up at Target.) But the Galaxy S4 Active will survive a dunk in the pool and a drop from a not-so-careful teen. In fact, you can take it right in the water and shoot video with it. My teens love this idea. And so do I! I’ve had to replace a couple of phones that died after an unexpected swim.

The IPad Mini


This is a great little device. It is a go-anywhere size and an easy-to-cope-with price (Especially when compared to the full-size iPad.) But it will bring hundreds of educational apps and organizational tools to your child’s fingertips. Even if you think this is outside your price range, you should stop by a store that carries it and take it for an in-store spin before you make up your mind. And take a look at my list of apps so you know if there is something you want that will only run on the iPad.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 8

$379 (at

This is like a bigger version (8.3” x 5.3”) of the Galaxy S4 with the addition of a built-in stylus and some software that makes taking notes with that stylus (in the old way: through handwriting) work exceptionally well. I got one in for review and became almost instantly completely dependent on it. Grab the pen to jot a note. Pull up the Kindle App to read a book. Check email, Facebook, Twitter. Run any of the apps in the Android market. All on a nice big (for a highly portable tablet) screen on a device that fits in your hand much like a trade paperback and in your purse like a small notebook.

Nexus phones and tablets

$229 – $399

This collection of Android phones and tablets from Google (creator of Android) is a super easy solution: Not only is this a very sweet hardware – great screen, thin, light, fast — implementation of Android but it’s easy to buy. Just log on and choose the size and price that suits your student and budget. The Nexus 4 Smart starts at $299 (no contract), the Nexus 7 (7” tablet) at $229, and the Nexus 10 (10” tablet) starts at $399. Aside from size, storage, and data connection (Wi-Fi or cellular), they work the same.

Microsoft Surface


This tablet is very nearly a laptop, especially if you opt for the optional (+$130) keyboard. And at this new low price it’s a great choice for students. It runs the tablet version (RT) of  Windows 8 and comes with Microsoft Office installed. The size is perfect for watching a movie. But it is also thin and light enough to bring everywhere. Just fold the keyboard up and it transforms into a cute cover — with lots of color choices. And the little kickstand that pops out to let the tablet stand on its own on a table is genius. I say it’s almost a laptop for purely technical reasons. Your student won’t know the difference unless she wants to install software — Photoshop perhaps — that won’t run on a tablet.

Any of these options will help your student get out from under that pile of paper, get more organized, and stay connected to both school and home. It will also free up your home computer – if you are sharing one. Still looking for justification? Go price scientific calculators. For a little more money, you can have a tablet that will replace the calculator, TV, phone, notebook, and much, much more.

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

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An Educational Vacation

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

My daughter recently attended an ID Tech Camp at MIT in Cambridge. These technology camps for teens and tweens are offered on university campuses around the country and offer a high-caliber of fun learning on geeky topics. We don’t live in the Boston area but the camp she was eager to attend – one that focused on photography and Web design — wasn’t offered at any colleges near us. And, as it happened, my son had expressed an interest in touring colleges in Boston. So we decided to turn it all into an education-focused summer vacation.

So while she got an impressive education in tech skills and met some like-minded nerds to add to her social networks, the rest of us toured colleges, museums, and sites. We had a blast, he fell in love with at least one school, and she ambitiously set her sights on a future at MIT. So that went well. I know that the tech world needs more women. And a woman with her out-of-the box thinking and creative mindset would probably enjoy working in high tech. So I’m happy to see her acquiring the technical skills she will need for that – and embracing her inner geek.

A Tour Guide in My Purse

This trip was about education in other ways, too, though. In fact, my husband and I make a habit of making our tourism as educational as possible. We went to science and art museums and famous historical sites, which was, of course, educational. But Boston itself is full of history, not all of it widely known. And historical events in the real world aren’t always explained in a plaque the way they are in museums. So before we left, I installed the Field Trip app (free; Android or iPhone) on my phone. As we traveled, it buzzed my phone whenever we went near something it knew something about. And, when it was convenient, I read what it had to say.

So when we were waiting for an Amtrak train at Union Station in Washington, DC, my phone buzzed to tell me the history of that building and show us some photos of the station during its construction and early days. When we sat down for a coffee in a café at MIT before Ava’s camp, it offered information about the building we were in (shown above), who built it, and what tech luminaries had offices in the building. When we walked down the street, it told us about movies that had been filmed near where we were, historical events that had happened around us, and even good restaurants nearby. The information was relevant and fascinating. It added so much to our travels, in fact, that whenever we rode the subway, my son sat next to me and waited for my phone to buzz so he could find out about the buildings and sites nearby – whether we could see them or not. I am already a fan of my smart phone as a travel tool but this transformed our vacation from one where my husband and I delivered a series of lectures based on information we had looked up, to one where we were learning together as we traveled. And the app will even net you free admission to participating museums if you are near those and using the app. Sweet! I left it running when we got home. And it has already told me a half-dozen interesting facts about where I work and live that I didn’t know before.

Christina Tynan-Wood writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle, and is the author of “How to Be a Geek Goddess.” You can find her at, as well as here on

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A Site That Helps You Meet Your Neighbors

Written on July 17, 2013 at 8:32 pm , by

I recently heard through the grapevine that a thief made a run through my neighborhood grabbing valuables from cars. He had dumped items he couldn’t sell quickly for cash, though, and a local police officer had a stash of these found items in his car. If I’d been a victim of these small crimes, I had only to call this officer and, hopefully, reclaim what I’d lost. The grapevine in my neighborhood has become so efficient these days that I heard this information within hours of the thefts even though I was traveling when it happened. How? My neighborhood recently joined, a social network that connects people to their own neighborhood.

The technical tools at the site are awesome. With a few clicks and a jotted note, I can let my entire neighborhood – but not strangers outside my neighborhood (or nearby neighborhoods if I choose) — know if my dog goes missing, if I’m selling a car or renting an apartment, or if I want to invite everyone to an event. I can set up small groups within the neighborhood to start a book or running club. And my kids can just as easily announce that they are willing to babysit or mow lawns or find out about neighbors looking for that kind of  help. And, because the site verifies every member, I don’t have to worry that my daughter will be approached by some creep on Craigslist if she advertises her babysitting services online.

I’ve been hearing how much people like for the last year or so. One woman I spoke to recently signed her kids up for summer activities and, after everything was good to go, learned that she couldn’t get the time away from work to drive the kids. It was just a few hours a week so not a very appealing job for someone looking for real summer work. But within a few hours of posting her dilemma at her local page, a neighborhood teen – home from college for the summer – contacted her and the problem was solved.

My neighbors resisted efforts to organize, though, until very recently. An ancient email list was already up and running. And, though it was not nearly as effective and didn’t let people create subgroups or post announcements to nearby neighborhoods, it was working well enough to keep people from feeling the need of something else. But suddenly, for reasons that are a mystery to me, our NextDoor site took off. And in that short time, I’ve met (or logged on and discovered names and faces to go with houses) a dozen neighbors I barely knew before. I’ve learned about rental properties, goods for sale, and that spate of thefts and what to do about it.

In fact, as soon as I’m done writing this, I plan to wake up my perpetually asleep teenager and help him post an announcement offering to mow lawns. He has already asked people we know and gotten nowhere. But I’m sure that if he widens the net to include our immediate neighbors (even those not in our current social circle) and adjoining neighbors, he’ll soon be busy. Hopefully that will solve his cash-strapped summer problems without necessitating that he don a hair net and work a deep fryer.

Christina Tynan-Wood writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle, and is the author of “How to Be a Geek Goddess.” You can find her at, as well as here on

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Not All Screen Time is Wasted Time…Even in the Summer

Written on July 10, 2013 at 5:42 pm , by

Ah, summer. The beach, sunscreen, kickball in the street, plenty of time to wander the neighborhood with a best friend. Oh, wait. That was my childhood. My own teens seem to see summer as a time to stay in and stare at a screen. And that means I’m working from home to see that they don’t do that. But not all screen-staring is bad. In fact, here are a couple of sites I’m encouraging my teens to stare at.

My daughter Ava took guitar lessons for a couple of years. She enjoys music but the lessons were a hassle. We drove across town at the end of the day at a time when she was tired and I needed to make dinner so we could spend 30 minutes in a lesson. Getting there and back took longer than the lesson. When she wanted to quit, I didn’t put up much of a fight. But she likes music and needs a teacher. So when sent me a note to explain that this service would help me find a local teacher, I checked it out — hoping for one she could walk to. didn’t have a teacher near me. But it did have a better option: virtual music lessons. I quickly roped Ava into trying it. She loved the idea and sat down in front of her laptop with her guitar at the scheduled hour. She met up with her teacher, Gordie, on Skype.  He asked a few questions about her ability, tested her answers by asking her to play. And when he’d judged her level, asked her what she wanted to learn. She immediately named her two favorite songs “Therapy” and “Lullabies” by All Time Low. Gordie, unfazed by this not-a-classic request,  impressed us both by Googling the songs, listening to a few bars, determining which of the two she might be able to play, and breaking it down into cords for her  – all in just a few minutes. He threw some fingering cords up on her screen and walked her through  the easier of the two songs until she could play it passably well. He told her she would have to learn a new cord, which he showed her, to master the other song. And the two said goodbye and signed off.  I didn’t have to drive anywhere! I didn’t even put on shoes. It was cheaper than our in-town lessons and the instructor was better. And the lesson took only as long as the lesson, no traffic jams. But it had another benefit beyond those obvious ones. Ava didn’t have to jump up, pack her stuff, and get in the car when the lesson was over. So she kept right on playing for another hour until she had mastered that cord. Now she wants another lessons so she can learn her other favorite song. That’s screen time I will gladly pony up for — once a week., 30 min: $20

Google Maker Camp

Summer camp can be expensive and require a lot of driving to and from. I just can’t do that every week in the summer, much as I like that it when my kids get out and do something productive. But if they stay in and do something productive, I don’t have to worry about the heat, transportation, or paying for camp. To that end, Google and MAKE magazine launched Maker Camp, a free virtual summer camp for teens aged 13-18 years. It started Monday and runs through August 16 on Google+. It’s bound to appeal to this age set: Aside from it involving their favorite screen-staring activity, it’s just a bit geeky and will have them building DIY projects to trick out their bike, build a rocket-propelled toy car, or play with computers. Every week they post new projects so, it’s a great, ongoing answer to that idle lament of summer, “I’m bored!” And it’s not just canned videos. It’s led by a team of DIY obsessed counselors. Kids follow along at home using Google Hangout’s video chat feature. All they need is a computer with an Internet connection. Every week ends with Field Trip Friday — a virtual field trip conducted via Google+ Hangout (past trips include NASA and Ford’s Innovation Lab).

Maker Camp, free

Christina Tynan-Wood writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle, and is the author of “How to Be a Geek Goddess.” You can find her at, as well as here on

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Help Your Teen Get a New Computer — Without Spending a Dime

Written on July 3, 2013 at 3:36 pm , by

“Mom! I need a new computer,” my son (16) lamented when his new game would not run on the under-powered machine he hauls to school. I didn’t bite.

I can postpone this purchase for a while. Right now, I figure, if he needs a state-of-the-art computer for gaming, he also needs a job and a way to pay for it. But that computer is on its last legs. When he goes to college next year (if all goes well), he will need a new computer. Not a gaming computer — that wouldn’t help his grades — but a good machine for school. He will also need tuition money, gas money, and a lot of other things. It’s a lot for a parent to fund.

So I’m thrilled with a new idea that came out of Microsoft recently: The ChipIn program. Microsoft set  the site up to help college-bound kids crowdsource the purchase of a new computer. With it, he will be able to direct the goodwill and offers of help from family toward a good computer at a good price. Microsoft has already contributed 10% toward the purchase price. And whatever computer he chooses will come with Office 365 University already installed. (That’s a four-year subscription to Microsoft Office for college students that would otherwise cost another $80.)

Here’s how it works: He logs on, picks the computer he wants from the selected-by-Microsoft-for-school-and-already-discounted list, and creates a profile with the name of his college and graduation date. Then he can just click to share his choice with his social network via Facebook, Twitter, or email. His grandmother, uncle, aunts, and even friends, can log on to give whatever they like from any internet connection. ChipIn keeps track of all the contributions. When it has enough to pay for the computer, it will ship it to him.

I do nothing, which will give him ownership over the process and help my budget. And family members don’t have to worry that if they send him cash, he’ll spend it on a tattoo, a road trip with friends, or fast food. They’ll know it went to something he needs for school. Relief, all around.

Christina Tynan-Wood writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle, and is the author of “How to Be a Geek Goddess.” You can find her at, as well as here on

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Steve Wozniak Parenting Advice

Written on June 26, 2013 at 10:42 pm , by

When I was starting college, my father gave me a computer he’d picked up at a yard sale. It was old, even at the time, but it changed my life. I think everyone who uses a computer would agree it is hard to imagine life without one. There is little doubt computers have changed our culture.

There are a few luminaries who made this disruptive change possible. And one of my heroes is Steve Wozniak (AKA Woz). He built the first personal computer and founded Apple Computers with Steve Jobs. In doing so, he changed the way most of us live and started us on a road that we are still traveling. So I was thrilled to attend an event at Ford Motor Company’s Detroit headquarters, where Woz was scheduled to talk on a panel about how technology is currently transforming the way we drive cars.

There  is a beauty to the fact that event was at Ford. Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile. He made it possible for everyone to have one. Similarly, Steve Wozniak didn’t invent the computer. He made it possible for everyone to have one. And it is that democratization of these machines that caused the disruptive changes to the way we live.

I expected to be in geek heaven at this event. And I was not disappointed. I’m still pinching myself. Was it just a dream?

What I didn’t expect was to come away with some inspiring  parenting advice. It wasn’t offered as advice. It was just a story Woz  told us. But parenting advice is what I took from it.

He told us that, as a shy teenager, he enjoyed playing with transistors and programming. (We sort of guessed that, right?) And he desperately wanted a computer. But like most teenagers, he didn’t know a lot about the world. And like a shy teenager was often too shy to ask.

“I told my Dad,” he explained. “That one day I would own my own computer.” His father didn’t tell him this was impossible. He didn’t say he’d need to be rich. He simply told him the truth: Computers are huge and cost as much as a house.

“That stopped me,” Woz said. “But only for a minute. Then I told him that, okay, I would get an apartment.” And he went on to reduce the size and cost of the computer so that he — and the rest of us — could have an apartment sized one.

As parents, we want to protect our kids from disappointment. And we want to steer them in the right direction. But it was an obstacle – the cost of a computer – that motivated Woz to change the world. So maybe we only need to point out the truth, with all its bumps. Maybe the kids will find a way to change it?

Okay, so here is a truth that everyone on that panel wanted to point out to any of us in the audience with kids. The technology industry needs engineers. And your kids — whatever their interests — might make good ones. The kids who study STEM subjects and get the right technical knowledge, will create the future. They don’t have to build the computers anymore. That work has been done. But whether they want to tell stories, make films, design clothes, or build cars, they will — increasingly — need to be (some sort of) engineer. Engineers create things in our world.  “Kids think it’s math and it’s hard,” says Woz. “But math can also be lots of fun. And engineering is really creative.”

Who designed that car in your driveway? The iPhone in your hand? The tablet you are reading on? The video game your teen can’t stop playing. Engineers. Or at least designers, writers, and artists with an understanding of engineering.

There is a good reason Wozniak has spent so much his time in the last couple of decades bringing excitement about math and engineering to schools. Think about it. What if  he had decided math was too hard or engineering too boring?

Christina Tynan-Wood writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle, and is the author of “How to Be a Geek Goddess.” You can find her at, as well as here on

Follow her on Twittter!

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