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How 11 Families Use Tech to Have Fun and Stay Connected

published Mar 13, 2022
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Like many parents of young kids, Camille Chatterjee leaned into tech during the hardest months of lockdown. “Regular FaceTime calls have allowed my toddler to get to know her grandparents well even through the pandemic,” says the New York-based editor and mom. “She didn’t see either side [of the family] in person for over a year but when she finally did, she ran into their arms like she’d known them forever.” Could tech actually be a force for good?

But what about the downsides of screen time?

While screen time gets a bad rap, it can bring kids serious benefits including connection, says Jordan Shapiro, PhD, author of The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World. Children use devices to play, and playing is how they learn. What’s more: Whether they’re talking to Grandma on the iPad, playing Minecraft with friends, or navigating a middle school group text, “They’re getting exposure to and practice with the technology on which we depend,” Shapiro says.

Playing video games helps build multitasking skills; in fact, a study from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health links high video game usage in 6- to 11-year-olds with social and academic success.

Even time on social media has upsides: “We know that LGBTQ kids and kids with eating disorders are finding unbelievable communities and outlets that they were not able to find before,” Shapiro says. According to Urs Gasser, former director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and author of The Connected Parent: An Expert Guide to Parenting in a Digital World, tech is helping kids join forces to fight racial injustice and climate change.

The other worry is kids are overdoing gadget time. What’s key is staying involved in their digital life, advises Shapiro, who is also a dad, a professor at Temple University, and the author of the new book Father Figure: How to Be a Feminist Dad. “A lot of parents make the mistake of thinking they have to give their kids privacy on social media. Why should Mark Zuckerberg be able to see everything your kids post, but not you?”

By staying involved in their online life, it’s easier to raise happy and kind kids. “Kids need adults to teach them how to regulate the time they spend doing it, the emotions they feel while doing it, and their behaviors while doing it,” says Shapiro. To help your crew get the most out of tech, consider these ways families are using it to play, learn, and have next-level fun.

Dance, draw, repeat!

Jenna Autuori Dedić’s 7-year-old daughter Evelyn loves to socialize in person, but when that can’t happen, she FTs her friends — but don’t picture couch-potato screen time. “They have dance parties,” Dedić shares. And on her own, Evelyn drops in for virtual art classes on Art for Kids Hub on YouTube. “She has become a much better drawer because of it. It’s also our special mom and me activity,” Dedić says. “The dad who’s the artist running [the Youtube channel] is like a mini celeb in our family!”

Geocaching near and far

Want to use tech to be active? Geocaching puts you on a scavenger hunt for real-world and virtual treasures via an app. The Morgan family of Brooklyn, New York, started geocaching as a way to get their kids, Masana and Mack, outside more. Ten years later, they’ve gone geocaching in San Francisco; Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Raleigh; Rome; Paris; Madrid; Reykjavik — and close to home. “The clues are a lot of fun, as well as educational,” says Richela Morgan. At each site, there’s usually a log to sign, leave comments to help other geocachers, and see where everyone is from. “I think that’s what really got my kids interested in geocaching internationally,” Morgan says. “I would like to think it also inspired them to be world travelers.” 

Credit: Shutterstock

Building an island together

Thao Thai grew up in the NES heyday, and has fond memories of playing Super Mario with her cousins. “But recently, our family received a Nintendo Switch for Christmas, and we’ve begun playing Animal Crossing with our 5-year-old,” she says. It’s a sweet, very slow-paced social simulation game where you help build a remote island into a fully functioning community. “The characters are friendly, there’s zero stress, and the scenery is truly delightful,” she says. “My daughter loves to check in on ‘our island,’ do some fishing, and plant flowers; we love to tell stories about the other game characters and dream up possibilities for our idyllic little society.”

Getting every “Why?” question answered via video

Lindsey Palmer writes BrainPOP educational videos for a living. “It’s been fun now that my daughter (almost 5) is aging into them,” Palmer says. “When she’s curious about something like butterflies or the planets, I’ll say, ‘There’s a BrainPOP movie about that — let’s watch it together.’” You can tune in to learn about everything from parts of a plant to Frida Kahlo (if you’re curious, you can test it out for free; subscriptions are $129/year). 

Discovering #booktok

“I was slow in allowing social media for our daughter, now 14. I really feared it,” says New Jersey-based therapist Cara Birnbaum Harmon. But she has been happy to discover her daughter is using it (in part) to connect with her favorite authors. “She’s watching live interviews, finding out about/pre-order books that are coming down the pike, etc. She’s always been a voracious reader, and it seems the #booktok phenomenon has only enriched this for her,” Harmon says.

Sharing Wordle scores and more

Andrea Pyros, her husband, and their two kids text each other their Wordle scores each morning. “It’s really fun,” she reports, and a way to stay connected during the independent teen years. Sometimes there’s — gasp! — actual conversation involved (“I love to hear what everyone else’s first word was,” Pyros says).

My family shares Quordle and NYT Spelling Bee scores, too, but our favorite thing to put in the family chat is anything to make each other laugh — from goofy photos of our puppy, Clark, to Onion headlines, to viral videos of animals like Hank the Tank, the 600-pound bear. The new saying: A family that texts together, stays together!

Doing STEM Camp from home

To learn about animation and engineering, the 15-year-old son of Betsy Dowling Stephens has been going online to watch instructional YouTube videos. “Last summer, he asked us if we would pay for him to attend an online camp by Mark Rober [a former engineer with NASA]. The ‘campers’ learned to solve everyday problems with electrical and mechanical engineering,” she says. “For his final project, he created a motion sensor to turn his lights on or off when he entered or left his room.” Even though the camp is over, he keeps doing engineering projects on his own, Stephens reports.

Credit: Shutterstock

Watching each other’s families grow

Krista Williams and her husband and three kids live in New York but their extended family is scattered. “So we have a group photo album with our extended family and we get to see lots of pics of the latest baby in the family,” she says. “It really helps us all feel connected even though we live far away.” 

Another way to stay up on each other’s lives: a digital frame. Once you have one, your family and friends can email photos to it straight from wherever they are (from the delivery room to peewee soccer games to Disney). Think of it as Instagram without all the annoying other people.

Getting up close and personal with their favorite animals 

Many zoos have live cams, providing a moment of delight and a lesson in zoology. You can also watch pandas play and tumble at the Smithsonian National Zoo, tigers roar at the San Diego Zoo, or head to the Cincinnati Zoo’s Facebook feed to follow The Fiona Show, about the smallest premature hippo to ever survive. Prefer marine life? When they can’t get to the Elephant Seal Rookery in Cambria, California, in person, Susie Oleinik’s family likes visiting via the live cam. Meanwhile, Sharlene Breakey’s college-age daughter recently sent her mom the link to watch the Sea Otter Cam at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Aww.