Technology helps keep busy parents feeling at ease
For Wendy Brown, keeping an eye on her toddler from the office meant using a NannyCam to ensure the caregiver was changing her daughter's diaper and reading her books. Now, she has graduated to Skype sessions with her 13-year-old, who logs on from a laptop the minute she arrives home from school. "It takes a lot more to keep an eye on a teenager."
Video alerts, smartphone applications, e-mail and other digital tools are gaining popularity as working parents try to monitor and communicate with their 21st century kids. Today, technology can allow parents to know who their children are with, what they're saying about their school days and whether they are safe — even if Mom or Dad is away on a business trip, out on a sales call or stuck late at the office.
With the new school year kicking in, parental use of technology is evolving. "It not just about using technology to monitor or track them; now, it's about communicating with them," said Monica Vila of TheOnlineMom.com . "If you work all day, there's the guilt thing. You feel, 'What am I missing?' Technology now allows you to bridge that gap and add quality to your communication."
For communicating, texting is the most common between working parents and their children, particularly when they reach middle school. A teacher friend of mine leaves before her children in the morning. "I feel a sense of calm when I get the text from my son that the bus arrived and he's at school safe," she said.
Some parents are taking it a step further. Vila, for example, creates video messages for her teen daughter to watch on the family computer when she arrives home. "I might say, 'Check Aunt Judy's Facebook; she left a really funny post.' Then I'll blow a kiss. It's simple, and it's a different quality communication than a text message."
Going forward, she says, communication will get better because myriad new smartphone apps are rolling out that use location-based technology. For example, the new app I'm OK, in the iTunes store, is kind of a private Foursquare for parents to ensure that their children are safe "without the nagging." Family members check in from the library or Starbucks and let Mom or Dad know what they're doing and that they are OK — then it rewards the child for doing so. They can even upload photos of the book they checked out. "It allows them to share more," Vila said.
Beyond communicating, some parents want to be able keep their kids on task — even from their workplace. From her law office, Eden Rose, a legal administrator at Buckingham Doolittle & Burroughs, uses her iPhone to access the iCam on her 10-year-old daughter's laptop. "It helps me know she actually is studying when she says she is." Rose also uses a smartphone to send her daughter afternoon reminders to take her medication or check email alerts from new websites her daughter has visited. She uses Google Latitude to track her daughter's location. "It's been a big help to me. If she's supposed to go to a friend's house, I know that's where she is."
There's always that fine line between monitoring and snooping, but safety remains a big concern for working parents. When developing Total Connect 2.0, a home security system, Honeywell saw the uses for video beyond the typical monitoring for an intruder, marketing it as "the perfect system for the working family."
The home security system is set up to take a 10-second video of your child disarming the alarm and entering your home. It then sends the clip as an e-mail. Honeywell has created a smartphone app that will send the video to your cel lphone. "It lets you know what time your child got home and who he's with," said JoAnna Sohovich, president of Honeywell Security & Communications. "We've moved from safety to helping parents with peace of mind."
More parents are using GPS tracking devices on kids' cel lphones and in their cars. My son's friend recently showed me his cell phone and told me his mother had a locator on it. This was after an incident a few days earlier when he had turned off the ringer on his cell phone during the school day and forgot to turn it back on. After school, he came home with my son. I later learned his mother was frantic when hours went by and he hadn't arrived home.
Sprint is just one of the wireless carriers that offer the Family Locator service (available as an app). It shows the phone's GPS position on an interactive map with street addresses and landmarks. The service is password-protected, so only authorized parents and guardians can locate children from their Web-enabled phones or computers. A creative variation, the AwareAbouts iPhone app, uses the location features of the phone and a system of mutually agreed upon check-in times. When a check-in time comes, the app alerts the child on his phone that he needs to check in with you. The child has the option of calling and talking to you or sending a message that includes his coordinates.
Beyond monitoring whereabouts, working parents are going online at work to check their children's grades, now posted in online grade books in most counties. And they're looking over homework and giving feedback through document-sharing sites such as Google Docs.
The key with using technology is knowing what to do with what you learn, says Peggy Sapp, president and CEO of Informed Families/The Florida Family Partnership. "Decide what the rules are, post them at home and discuss the consequences."