family and technology

Turn Off to Turn On: Make Time to Really Connect

Written on July 8, 2014 at 9:38 am , by


Truly connecting with your spouse, your kids or even a coworker isn’t a high-speed endeavor. Meaningful relationships can’t be jump-started by hitting send, condensed into 140 characters or easily deleted. They’re about a lingering glance, a tight hug or a pat on the back.

Unfortunately, high touch is being taken over by high tech. I’ve painfully witnessed couples more engrossed in their smartphones than in each other, fathers reacting faster to the ping of a text message than to their kids yelling “Dad!” and moms spending more time uploading family photos to Facebook than letting their kids download with them.

I know, I know, your teen is probably so obsessed with her Instagram account that she’s not paying attention to you either. But it’s hard to ask a teen to turn off a smartphone when you’re not paying attention yourself. My suggestion: Aim for as much real face time as you can. Create mini media blackouts by using a basket to collect electronics for a distraction-free dinner or having a family night devoted to offline entertainment like board games. Most important, teach your children when to pick up the telephone to reach out to someone by modeling that behavior. Our kids need to develop the keys to love and trust that come from a human touch-not a touchscreen.


Janet Taylor, MD, MPH, a mother of four, is a psychiatrist in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @drjanetRead more of her posts here.

Got a question for Dr. Janet? Email her at

5 Geeky Ways to Get Rid of Clutter

Written on June 25, 2014 at 11:00 am , by

I am in the process of moving. I’m excited about my new house, but the move also has me jumpy. Every time I open a closet, I slam it shut in fear. Out-of-date gadgets, clothes that don’t fit, shoes that were a bad idea and broken purses stare back, accusing me of procrastination. They are right. I don’t know where the time in this house went, but I clearly didn’t spend enough of it disposing of crap I no longer want or need.

I’m not alone. According a new Intel survey, almost half of Americans (47%) keep outdated tech devices long after they are useful. And according to a recent “spring cleaning” survey by used electronics marketplace, 68% of U.S. residents suffer from “compulsive gadget hoarding.”

We don’t keep this stuff because we love it and hate to part with it. We keep it because it’s too much trouble to get rid of it, we have sensitive data on old devices that we can’t be bothered to fetch, and we’d rather clean a toilet than wipe those devices clean of that info. It’s the same thing with the worn-out handbagsshoes that looked sexy in the catalog but not so much on a closet shelf, and kitchen gadgets that haven’t been used since the term “gluten” became synonymous with evil.

But reckoning day is here. At least for me. According to Nik Raman, chief operating officer of, the trick to getting past my fear of this overwhelming chore is to focus on one item at a time. And I knew just the item. My husband has been hauling around a suitcase-size backgammon board since we met. Inspired by a survey from moving marketing company Our Town America that found that one in three movers admitted to “accidentally losing” a significant other’s prized possession, I started my donation box with the backgammon board. That felt good. Next, since money is a great motivator, I decided to focus on getting rid of junk that someone would pay money for. I started this project three weeks ago. Today my house is nearly Spartan and my wallet fat with cash. I can’t understand why I held on to that stuff for so long. I had a good time getting rid of it and I’ll have a good time spending this cash.

Here are my top 5 strategies for getting rid of junk—and turning some of it into cash or nice new things.

eBay App

I had some kitchen appliances that I hadn’t used in ages which are popular on eBay and not prohibitively expensive to ship. I spread them out on my counter, snapped photos with my smartphone and, with a few taps on my phone, listed them on eBay. Then I put the appliances back in the cupboard. A week and a trip to FedEx later, I was not only $100 richer, with room in my cupboards, but I was also getting happy notes from people who were enjoying those neglected appliances. Fun!


I kept a couch I wanted to replace for two years because it was too much trouble to get rid of. I’d called the Salvation Army, but they wouldn’t take it since it had a small tear in the seat. This, however, is what Craigslist is for. Using the cPro Craigslist app (Apple App Store or Google Play), I took a few pictures of the couch, listed it as “Free” and waited. Within a day, someone took it away in a truck, thrilled to have a beater for the playroom that his kids could jump on. That went so well that I walked through my house snapping pictures of all the furniture I don’t want to move and adding prices and clever descriptions. Every few days, someone shows up, hands me cash, chats for a bit and happily carries off my detritus.

My son went on a phone-dropping spree, which resulted in a useless smartphone sitting on my desk. He had priced replacing the screen and found out it was cheaper to replace the phone. But used marketplace Glyde claimed that it could sell even a broken smartphone. I entered the model and was honest about its shattered screen. A few minutes later, the phone sold for $45. A few days later, a shipping box showed up in the mail and I dropped the phone in and sent it off.


Next stop, my closet. It was crammed with clothes that haven’t fit me since I lost those pounds I don’t want back. Some of them were nice labels, though, so I requested a shipping bag from This site buys clean, quality clothing and resells it online. I filled the bag with clean clothes in good shape and dropped it off at the post office. A week later, the site told me I had money to spend. When I get to my new house, I’ll order a few new things that fit.


I had a used smartphone that was too old—or perhaps too obscure a brand?— for Glyde or On Amazon, I clicked “Have one to sell?” after looking up the model. I didn’t even have to take a picture. I just typed in its condition and the price I wanted for it. It sold within the hour.


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

A Grassroots Effort to Bring Computer Science to Your Teen’s School

Written on May 22, 2014 at 11:18 am , by

Family Circle editor Jonna Gallo and I were on a whirlwind tour of the Microsoft campus. As it happened, there was also a field trip under way: Busloads of high school students who had learned programming through Microsoft’s TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) program, were enjoying a full day of activities.

The TEALS program, which puts Microsoft computer scientists and engineers in high schools across the U.S. to teach computer science, started with just a few volunteers. It’s been growing rapidly, nearly doubling in size this school year, offering classes in 70 schools in 12 states to more than 3,000 students.

“Do you want to look in on the YouthSpark app-building competition?” Lindsey, our handler, asked. “Sure!” Jonna and I agreed. I imagined we’d be lurking in the back of a computer lab while students worked quietly and teachers helped. What we walked in on was more like a rock festival.

The room was vast and crammed with over 1,000 students settled into friendly clumps on the carpeted floor with phones, tablets and computers. A speaker stood in front of a projector announcing coding challenges. And the kids were having a blast. They knew what they were doing and they were in it to win, laughing, cheering and pumped up by the throbbing music.

“Do you want to talk to one of the students?” Lindsey shouted over the din. I didn’t want to be responsible for any of these kids missing a solve—and a chance to win prizes (which included Xbox One gaming consoles). But somehow I found myself chatting with Justin Austin, a senior from Kentucky. He had enrolled in a TEALS class at his high school. That class came about almost by chance, when a Microsoft engineer on a rock-climbing trip found herself chatting with a local school-board member. There was no one in the county who could teach computer programming. But these days you don’t actually have to be in the room to teach, so a Skype intro to computer science class was born. Justin loved it and wanted more. With only six other students, he signed up for an advanced class, also via Skype from Microsoft. That’s how he came to be coding his way (if these reporters would stop distracting him) into the possibility of some sweet prizes. It’s also a big part of how he got a full ride to the University of Pennsylvania to study computer science.

There may be some debate about the value of teaching computer science in kindergarten, but there’s no doubt it should be offered in high school. Yet in many school districts it’s considered an elective rather than a core subject. That means guidance counselors don’t encourage students to take it, and students who are trying to get mandatory classes under their belt don’t enroll. This has to change at a legislative level. And many states are working on it.

Meanwhile, though, at least the remote approach taken by Justin’s school gives kids access to computer science education. It’s a grassroots effort, but those can be very effective once they get traction. If you’d rather not wait for a vacationing engineer to bring computer science to your school, contact the TEALS program directly at

11 Spring Cleaning Tips from the Geeks at Google

Written on May 14, 2014 at 12:00 pm , by


In my job, I get to ask some of the biggest geeks in the world to explain the tools and features they build into the consumer electronics we all use. This helps me stay just an inch or two ahead of my teenagers when it comes to knowing how to use a smartphone, tablet or smart TV. After speaking to someone at Google, I introduced them—and my husband—to Google Now. It was on their phones, but they didn’t know about it. Since then, that app has become part of most conversations in our house.

Example: “Do you think that actor is an actual hillbilly?” my husband asks while we are watching Justified. “No, I think he’s a good actor,” I reply. Then I ask my Android phone, which can access Google Now via voice, “Okay, Google, who plays Dewey Crow in Justified?”

The answer: Damon Herriman, an Australian. We are extra impressed with his southern accent.

Another example: “Mom! I need to go to the mall now!” my daughter announces, bursting into the room at 8:45 p.m. “Okay, Google,” I say to my phone, “what time does the mall close?” I hold the phone up to show that her timing makes this impossible. She leaves quietly. And so it goes, throughout the day. Answers, instantly. We all do it. What did we do before?

This app also knows where we are, where we tend to go, what we are planning to do next and offers helpful on-screen info at the time of day or night you most need it: weather, traffic, transit, appointments, flight and hotel details, package shipment information, news articles, TV show reminders and more. It shows places and events nearby, interesting photo spots in case you’d like to check them out, and more. You don’t need an Android phone to use it. It’s free and available on both iPhone and Android (look for the Google Search app), though not all phones let you speak your questions so easily.

In keeping with the theme of making life convenient, I also asked my geeks at Google for their best advice on uncluttering your Gmail—the buildup of inbox messages can be overwhelming. (As you can tell, I like Google products.) Here’s what they came up with:

Gmail Tips from the Geeks

1. NEVER SEND AN ACCIDENTAL EMAIL AGAIN. “Even the best of us sometimes type someone’s name wrong or forget to include an important detail in an email. Undo Send is basically an email mulligan. I set mine to 30 seconds to make sure I have plenty of time to change my mind!” —Alex Gawley, product manager on Gmail

2. MUTE GROUP EMAILS. We’ve all been on an email thread that just keeps popping up (for example, your coworker just shared photos of her new baby and everyone keeps hitting “Reply all” to say “Congrats!”). You can mute the thread by clicking the drop-down arrow at the top of the thread and selecting “Mute.” Don’t worry—muting doesn’t delete, it simply automatically archives the message for you.

3. STOP EMAILING YOURSELF TO-DO LISTS. Be honest: A lot of the emails cluttering your inbox are from yourself, with subject lines like “Remember to turn on dishwasher” and “Buy birthday card for Jackie.” Instead of adding to your unread count, create a task list that appears as a minimizable window in your inbox.  Simply click on “Mail” (right above the “Compose” button) and select “Tasks” to get started. Once you’ve created a list, you can email it by clicking the “Actions” button.   

4. SKIP YOUR INBOX. Keep your Gmail spic-and-span by setting certain emails to automatically skip your inbox and/or go directly to an appropriate folder. For example, you can set any emails from say, your alma mater, to automatically go into your “Alma Mater” folder, where you can read them when you have time. Go to “Settings,” “Filters,” “Create new filter.” After filling in your filter details, hit “Create filter with this search” and mark “Skip the inbox.”

5. MOVE YOUR CHAT BOX. Did you know you can move your chat box to the right side of your inbox? To enable right side chat, go to “Settings,” “Labs,” “Right side chat” and hit “Enable.”

6. CREATE A CALENDAR EVENT RIGHT FROM AN EMAIL. The next time someone emails you about meeting for coffee, you may notice that the day or date in the email is lightly underlined. Click it to create an event in Google Calendar with the relevant details pre-filled. It will even link back to the original email in case you need it for context later.

7. CHECK INTO YOUR FLIGHT FROM GMAIL. Instead of opening emails and digging through them for important information, use Gmail’s quick action buttons to check into your flight, rate a restaurant, go straight to a doc and more. You’ll notice an “RSVP” or “WATCH VIDEO” or “OPEN FILE” when appropriate—just click!

8. DON’T STRESS IF YOU FORGET TO SIGN OUT. While you should always sign out of your Gmail account when accessing it on a public computer, if you ever forget, Gmail has got you covered. You can click “Sign out all other sessions” to sign out anywhere else you are logged into your account.

9. DE-CLUTTER WITHOUT DELETING. “It seems like a simple thing, but a lot of people never fully embrace the power of the ‘Archive’ button. I never file away or delete anything: I just hit ‘Archive.’ If I need to look something up, Search in Gmail always gets me what I need.” —Phil Sharp, product manager on Gmail

10. UNSUBSCRIBE TO UNWANTED EMAILS. “Every time you report spam, Gmail’s spam filter adapts to your definition of unwanted mail and does a better job of catching similar types of messages in the future for you. Plus Gmail will ask you if you want it to unsubscribe you at the same time. Two birds, one stone! So put that ‘Report spam’ button to good use!” —Vijay Eranti, engineer on Gmail’s spam team

11. LOOK AT CUTENESS ALL DAY. “I use Custom Themes to set my Gmail background to a photo of my teammate’s newborn Cavalier King Charles spaniel. Every day, I get to enjoy reading, writing and checking emails while staring into adorable puppy eyes.” —Anissa Mak, product marketing for Gmail

Gamer Moms

Written on April 3, 2014 at 1:35 pm , by

When I met some friends for dinner at a popular restaurant recently, waiting for a table was a given. We all happily used the time to start catching up—except for Annette, who whipped out her smartphone. Hoping to lure her into our group chatter, I teased her a little about being all work and no play. “Oh, this is play,” she said. “My mother lives by herself in Texas, so we do our best to connect every day through Words with Friends.”

Turns out, as gamers, these two are in good company. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 74% of moms play video games, usually on smartphones and mobile devices. Even more surprising: Women over age 18 represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population than boys age 17 or younger. (Hello, Candy Crush Saga!)

Like Annette, I enjoy playing games on my smartphone and tablet. Developers at Zynga (the California-based social game company that racked up 10 million users in six weeks when it debuted FarmVille on Facebook in 2009) say women tend to gravitate to games that suit their personality. Artistic, visually driven types tend to enjoy FarmVille 2: Country Escape (Google Play, iTunes, free for April), in which players create beautiful environments as they complete short quests. Personally, I like logic, trivia, narrative and word games that test my knowledge rather than my reflexes.

For me, a few minutes playing Mah Jong solitaire is a terrific way to recharge my weary brain. So is playing QuizUp (iTunes, free) with a stranger whose total recall of literary character names never ceases to impress me, or clashing vocabulary swords with my game-addicted teen in Wordament. And when all is said and done, let’s just say I’m not averse to passing time by tossing birds at pigs (Angry Birds; all mobile devices) or growing plants to kill the invading horde of zombies (Plants vs. Zombies; Google Play and iTunes, 99 cents).

After all, as the old saying goes, fun is where you find it. And my smartphone is always within reach.