Apps to Help You Through the Holiday Season

By Tracey Dowdy

The holiday season is upon us and to make sure that light up ahead is the light at the end of the tunnel and not the train coming at you, here are a few apps to help you enjoy and not endure the Holiday season.

Getting organized is essential to successfully navigating the holidays.

  • EasilyDo organizes everything from do-do lists to travel. Get weather and travel alerts, link to your bank accounts, email, Facebook, LinkedIn…it’s like having a personal assistant in the palm of your hand. You can track packages, pay bills, even get directions with estimated travel time for events in your calendar. (Free – iOS, Android)
  • Slice not only tracks what you bought, when you bought it, and when it will be delivered, but it will also let you know if the item goes on sale and help you get your money back. You’ll even be notified if the item is recalled by the Consumer Safety Board. Slice organizes your receipts for easy returns and tracks spending to help you stay on budget. (Free – iOS, Android)

Speaking of budget, finances are one of the top stressors for the holidays. Whether it’s purchasing gifts, travel costs, or hosting family and friends, it’s easy to end up over budget without really knowing how you got there.

  • Mint offers a comprehensive, real-time look at all your account balances. It sends alerts if you’re about to go over budget, organizes transactions, and it can even send push notifications about your bills. (Free – iOS, Android, Windows Phone)
  • Snagajob is a great resource for finding seasonal work to supplement your budget. Create a profile and upload your resume to apply for jobs directly from your phone for work in retail, restaurants, and customer service. Search by location, industry, job title or company and you’ll receive daily alerts that match your specifications. You can even upload a 30 second introductory video to help you stand out from the crowd. (Free – iOS, Android)
  • Black Friday sends you constant updates on Thanksgiving sales and lets you create a wish list to save all your favorite deals in one place. You can organize deals by store, compare prices, and sort items by keywords, store or price. (Free – iOS, Android)

There are more apps to help with food or recipes for the holidays than you can shake a spatula at, but two of my favorites are from Bon Appetit and Food.com.

  • Thanksgiving: A Bon Appetit Manual manages to be both gourmet and rookie cook friendly. The app offers step by step instructions paired with photos so you know exactly what you’re doing. If planning and preparing is overwhelming, switch to Menu View and choose from pre-selected menus. (Free – iOS, Android)
  • Food.com not only has a massive recipe base which is great for all year round, it can help you create a meal from whatever you have on hand – great for using up those holiday leftovers. (Free – iOS)

Time with family and friends during the holidays is priceless, which is a good thing because Holiday travel can cost a fortune. Luckily, there are ways to get around blowing your budget.

  • Gas Buddy lets you find the gas stations nearest to you offering the cheapest gas prices. Content is user-created and for every report you post you can earn points toward prizes. (Free – iOS, Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry)
  • Waze uses your phone’s GPS feature to find the quickest, most efficient routes and avoid traffic due to congestion, construction or accidents. Users submit reports on traffic or road conditions so you always know what ahead. Waze also lets you know where to fill up for the best price. (Free – iOS, Android, Windows Phone)
  • TripIt Travel Organizer lets you organize every aspect of your trip in one place. Forward confirmation emails (automatic if you use Gmail or Google Calendar) from airlines or hotels and TripIt will create an itinerary for you so you can be prepared each step of the way. You can get directions, check weather conditions, link to your calendar and share your trip plans via social media. (Free – iOS, Android)

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Why Grandma Needs a Smartphone

By Tracey Dowdy:

According to recent research from Pew, a whopping 77 percent of seniors have a mobile phone but only 18 percent of those devices are smartphones. Older generations have traditionally been slower to embrace new technology, whether it’s color TV or microwaves, so it’s no surprise they’ve been content with the most basic phones available.

Back in April of 2012, Pew reported that 59 percent of seniors (65 and older) went online on a regular basis and it’s safe to assume that number has only increased since then. Seniors are becoming more comfortable with technology and the transition from desktop to laptop to mobile device has become less intimidating. Clearly the time has come to connect grandma with a smartphone. Here are some reasons why:

Staying connected

Grandma will love her smartphone for the same reason you love your smartphone: keeping up with friends and family. Seniors often have limited mobility, so getting together in person can be more of an issue than it would be for younger family and friends. On the other hand, some seniors lead a more active lifestyle than past generations, so the ability to connect on-the-go is more important than ever. Think how much grandma will love being able to show that video of her granddaughter’s ballet recital to all her friends at brunch.

Managing health concerns

There are more apps to help keep track of blood pressure, insulin levels and dosage schedules than I could begin to list, as well as pedometers to keep track of all those steps taken while walking the mall. Perhaps no demographic could benefit more from these smartphone apps than seniors. Being able to monitor one’s health and then provide all that information to doctors or caregivers increases the quality of patient care and allows for greater independence. Plus, the lifesaving aspects and the peace of mind they can bring are invaluable.

Enjoying music and entertainment

How much do you love the music on your phone? So how much would grandma love playlists of Sinatra, the Carpenters or Prince? Seriously, grandma’s music taste is as varied as yours and she’ll love having it all right there in the palm of her hand. Plus, think of all the free games – and really, who doesn’t love free – that are available. Soduku, Solitaire, Candy Crush…the options are almost endless. Then there are video apps like YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, or just the simple fun of cruising through Facebook albums.

Budgeting and Shopping

Like us, many seniors live on a budget, so apps that can help with planning and paying bills, keeping track of sales, or finding the best price on gas are important. There are apps to create a shopping list that can easily be shared with caregivers and apps to track spending while you shop, making life for those trying to stick to that budget much less stressful.

Choosing a smartphone

Smartphone prices vary significantly but choosing a smartphone doesn’t mean breaking the bank. Choose a device with the options that grandma wants and then choose a plan. Mobile carriers offer more flexibility than ever, so users have more options to customize a plan to best suit their needs. Adding grandma to a family plan that allows for shared talk, text or data can result in even greater savings.

And just like plans aren’t one-size-fits-all, phones aren’t limited to a single style or presentation. Displays can be customized to increase font size, notifications changed to visual display or vibration instead of audio, and for those with limited motor skills that may find typing or using a touch screen challenging, there are apps like Voice Search (Android) or Siri for iPhones.

Once you’ve demonstrated the value of that smartphone, don’t leave grandma in the wind. Take the time to download the apps she’ll need and enjoy, customize the settings to suit her best, and go over the basics like placing calls, accessing her contacts, or how to use the camera. It’s second nature to you, and, with a little bit of help, it will soon be second nature for her too!

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

5 Things to Think About Before Buying Your Next Phone

By Tracey Dowdy

With so many options out there, the prospect of buying a new phone can be more than a little daunting. But, if you take the time to do a little research, think through exactly what you want and sort through your options, you’ll end up with the phone you need and not just what’s trending.

Cost

Before you start shopping you’ll need to decide whether you want a smartphone or a feature phone, as there is a significant cost difference between the two. Smartphones are more expensive as they function like handheld computers, with access to the Internet and a range of built-in and third-party apps. Feature phones, which are significantly cheaper, are used primarily for making calls and sending texts. There are often added features like a camera, a basic calendar and a few games, but again, the primary function is to communicate through calls and texts.

Not only will you need to look at upfront costs when choosing a phone but also the ongoing cost of a service plan. It’s great to have access to Netflix and Facebook, but the cost of carrying a data plan can be significant, especially if you go over your plan’s limit. Keep in mind that you’re investing in a product that should last you at least two years, which is the length of a standard contract. Low cost may seem appealing upfront, but two years is a long time to be stuck with a product that wasn’t worth the investment or doesn’t offer the features you really wanted.

Operating System

Currently the two most popular operating systems are Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. Android is by far the most commonly used, is available on dozens of devices in a multitude of designs, and is highly customizable. Apple, on the other hand, aims for quality over quantity, releasing only one or two phones a year. Apple offers a myriad of third-party apps but iOS allows very little customization of its user interface and configuration options are much more limited.

A third option is Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS. Users can integrate popular programs like Office and Outlook, which can give the phone a familiar feel even if the hardware is new to the user. If choice and customization are important to you, an Android phone is your best choice. To compare, the Apple store currently offers just four options: iPhone 5C, iPhone 5S, iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. In contrast, the Verizon store alone offers 26 different Android models.

Physical Characteristics

You wouldn’t buy a car without test driving it and a phone is no different. Take the time to visit a store and actually hold the phone in your hand. Does it feel comfortable? Is it too heavy? Too flimsy? Are you going to carry it in a pocket or your purse? How big is the screen? Think about it: if the primary use of the device is as a phone, screen size is less important than if you wanted to use your phone to read documents, watch videos or play games.

You’ll also want to consider your lifestyle. If you work or play in an  active or outdoors environment, you’re going to want a phone that can stand up to being dropped or knocked around. You can buy good cases to protect the phone, but you’re still going to want to choose durable hardware to put in that case.

Features

Innovation in technology moves at the speed of light but just because something is touted as hot or trending doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Consider what features are important to you and choose a phone based on those guidelines. Will you be on-the-go and have limited access to a charger? Look for a phone with a long battery life. Will you use it primarily as a phone? Look for a phone that offers call quality with clear speakers and a good mic. Touch screens are popular but if a QWERTY keyboard is more familiar, you may want to skip the iPhone and look at the options Android phones have to offer.

User Friendliness

It won’t matter how many features your phone has if you never learn how to use them. If you’re not tech savvy and don’t care to be, the simpler the phone the better. You don’t want to pay for features and services you don’t want or need. On the other hand, if you’re tech savvy or at least willing to learn, look for a phone with the features you want. Have the staff at the phone store walk you through a demo of what the phone can do and how to access those features. Once you’re home, there are countless online tutorials that will help you make the most of the camera, music player and other fun features.

Choosing a phone doesn’t need to be a chore. Think about what you need, set a budget, and explore. Take your time and ask your friends or family for their opinions and whether they’re happy with their own phones. Choosing a phone is a big investment and ultimately you want to choose the phone that’s right for you.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Friday, December 26: My 2014 Moment

VERIZON INSIDER TWITTER PARTY

#VZWBuzz

When: TODAY, Friday, December 26, 2014
12:00-1:00 pm PT
3:00-4:00 pm ET

‘My 2014 Moment’

Join @theonlinemom @RobynsWorld @geekbabe and @thetechdad at 12 noon PT (3 pm ET) TODAY for My 2014 Moment!
Join us as we look back at the past 12 months and recall the moments that defined 2014 for ourselves and our families, and shaped the memories that will last for many years to come!
RSVP and attend the party for a chance to win a Fitbit Flex wireless wristband or a Droid Turbo smartphone!
Plus, join the Video Recap right after the chat for another chance to win a Droid Turbo!

(Click here to learn more about our Twitter chats. You must RSVP and attend the party to be eligible for a prize.)

To RSVP:
  1. Email RSVP@theonlinemom.com (subject line: VZWBuzz) and include your Twitter ID.
  2. Spread the word and RT this link on your Twitter feed: http://ow.ly/E3S4g     
  3. Join us on TweetDeck or HootSuite (#VZWBuzz) today between 12 – 1 pm PT
  4. Tell your Twitter followers!
PRIZE WINNERS will be announced during the Party!

(The Online Mom LLC receives a fee for participating in certain promotional programs for Verizon Wireless.)

Monday, November 17: A Special Twitter Event

#balancedyou

When: TODAY, Monday, November 17, 2014
8:00 pm – 9:00 pm ET
5:00 pm – 6:00 pm PT

Join hosts @JoyceCherrier and @TheOnlineMom TODAY at 8:00 pm ET as we look at My Yoga, the ultimate resource to strengthen and awaken your body, mind and soul. 
  RSVP and attend the party for a chance to win one of three 3-month subscriptions to Gaia!

(Click here to learn more about our Twitter chats. You must RSVP and attend the party to be eligible for a prize.)

To RSVP:
  1. Email RSVP@theonlinemom.com (subject line: balancedyou) and include your Twitter ID.
  2. Spread the word and RT this link on your Twitter feed: http://ow.ly/E3IZ5
  3. Join us on TweetDeck or HootSuite (#balancedyou) today between 8 – 9 pm ET
  4. Tell your Twitter followers!
PRIZE WINNERS will be announced during the Party!

(The Online Mom LLC receives a fee for participating in certain promotional programs for GaiamTV.)

Get Your Kids Moving with Creative Playlists

By Robyn Wright

Music can be a great motivator for everyone, including children. Certain types of music can encourage our kids to get out of bed, settle down at night, get up and play, and even help them get their homework done! Creating playlists for these different types of activities is a great way to help kids get the most out of their days.

Morning music playlists should generally be upbeat and happy. The particular songs will depend on the age of your child. Look for songs with cheerful lyrics and a peppy beat. The music should encourage them to get up out of bed and prepare for the day,  as well as create a positive outlook.

Reading music may seem contradictory but classical Baroque music with about 50-80 beats per minute can help children concentrate. This type of music is also great for learning vocabulary and memorizing facts. Keep the music at a quiet level in the background while children do their homework in the evening.

Finding music that is related to topics your child is studying can help promote active learning. An example would be finding music from the appropriate era when discussing history or a historical topic. There are also plenty of songs available that are teaching tools on their own, like songs and raps about mathematics.

Music can also get the kids moving during the day. Create a playlist with songs that encourage movement and dance. Dance with your kids – it doesn’t matter if you’re not a good dancer, they will appreciate you giving it a try. Playlists for exercising with beats that match the pattern of the exercises will help keep them motivated.

We all know that lullabies help babies go to sleep, so try this for your older children too. They may not want classic lullabies any longer but finding calming and soothing music for an evening playlist can help your kids unwind and transition to bedtime.

Be sure to change up the songs occasionally. Keep the songs they really love but replace a few of the others. As kids get older, they can be more active in creating their own playlists.

I strongly recommend getting a wireless Bluetooth speaker for your home. This enables you to connect your mobile devices and move from room to room, allowing everyone in the home to enjoy your playlists and reap the benefits!

Robyn Wright is a social media specialist and blogs on her own blog, RobynsOnlineWorld.com, as well as several other sites. Robyn has a love for family, technology, food and lots of apps!

Parent-Approved Resources for Online Homework Help

By Stacey Ross 

The surge of technology offered to today’s students extends far beyond the school day and classroom setting. It has evolved into virtual learning, independent study programs, and platforms for peer-to-peer collaboration that offer a wide range of resources and educational benefits.

Online research empowers students

More and more, educators and parents are encouraging learning styles that require  discipline and focus due to the plethora of choices and opportunities that new technology offers. In a 2012 Pew survey conducted in conjunction with the College Board and the National Writing Project, 77 percent of teachers said that the Internet and search engines had a “mostly positive” impact on student research skills. And while they are concerned that students might be distracted by all the choices at their fingertips, they ultimately agree that such tools had made students more self-sufficient researchers.

Resources for homework help

Online assistance via websites and apps has become a valuable extension of the classroom. School counselor and blogger Lysabeth Luansing-Garcia shared, “Our school encourages students to use Khan Academy. Many of my students also use Google Drive to save all their papers and projects for easy access. We also have teachers who do their own tutorial videos that are accessible from YouTube.”

Resources like KhanAcademy.org help students find thousands of how-to videos for K-12 topics, including chemistry, mathematics, physics, finance, history, and more. Students who want to learn how to find the slope of a line, for example, can go to YouTube and search for “How to Find Slope Khan Academy” and a step-by-step video will begin to play. Try it and you will be blown away!

My girl’s favorite tool, Google+ Hangouts, provides her with a study aid from the comfort of her own bedroom. I can hear through the walls that she is staying on task, as she “talks shop” online with her colleagues via her own personal study group. Along with studying together, they quiz one other, work their way through difficult assignments (taking advantage of screen share options), and even collaborate on their presentations. I still find this futuristic, but I am particularly pleased with how it allows for social interaction as well as building time management skills!

E-mail and instant messaging tools to contact teachers or classmates about schoolwork are also very handy. SchoolLoop, a widely popular communication tool between home and school, has built strong ties between parents, students and educators, even allowing the exchange of assignments and PowerPoint presentations.

Homeschooling moms’ favorite sites

Mom and blogger TerriAnn van Gosliga has been homeschooling for nine years and suggests that younger students use EnchantedLearning.com, which she considers “brilliant.” Enchanted Learning has 35,000 pages on its website covering a wide range of topics. Its focus is to provide materials that build curiosity and exploration experiences for K-12 graders. Membership is $20 annually, but some things are free. TerriAnn also shares the value of online research: “We use a lot of Google images and download free e-books from our local library.” She also recommends MotionMath for its great math apps and BBCTypingTutor for keyboarding skills.

Diana, a homeschooling mom of two, shared that her favorite two websites are Math.com and BrainPop.com. The former is quite impressive: it provides free math lessons and math homework help from basic math to algebra, geometry and beyond. BrainPop is a group of educational websites with over 1,000 short animated movies for students in grades K-12, together with quizzes and related materials covering the subjects of science, social studies, English, mathematics, engineering and technology, health, and arts and music.

Technology as a Social Learning Tool

Educators are embracing methods of learning that are more socially interactive, problem-solving oriented, and explorative by nature. The idea that my own daughter integrates her social and academic worlds thrills me, as I can listen in and monitor her live homework groups as well as help direct her to online assistance. The convenience of being able to access so many tools via a home computer, smartphone or tablet opens huge windows of opportunity. So far, I love what I see.

Happy learning via web searching, video conferencing and apps!

Stacey_Ross_50Stacey Ross is an online consultant, social media enthusiast, freelancer and owner of SanDiegoBargainMama.com. A former teacher and middle school counselor, she is now a mom of two who researches and freelances about lifestyle topics involving family and well-being.  

Managing Screen Time: What’s the Right Approach?

By Tracey Dowdy

I recently read an article about Steve Jobs and was surprised to learn he was a “low tech” parent. Does that surprise you? It surprised me. I thought his house would be like that Disney movie Smart House, where the walls are projection screens. Plus, since it’s Steve Jobs’ house, all the floors would be tiled in early generation iPads and MacBooks.

Instead, Jobs limited the amount of screen time his kids were allowed to have. According to Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs, “Every evening Steve made a point of having dinner at the big long table in their kitchen, discussing books and history and a variety of things. No one ever pulled out an iPad or computer. The kids did not seem addicted at all to devices.”

After a little research, I found that to be true for a lot of parents who work in the tech industry. Screen time during the week is limited and usually involves homework, and though weekends are more unstructured, use is still managed and monitored.

Is screen time really that big a deal? I’m not proud of it, but I’m pretty sure I wept tears of joy when my toddlers finally sat still in front of Arthur or Sesame Street long enough for me to grab a bathroom break or start dinner. Getting a toddler to engage with a smartphone while you wait for a table at a restaurant or try to get out of Target alive can’t be that bad, right?

It’s less about being “bad” and more about what is age appropriate. Technology use for this generation is intuitive. The same way we don’t remember life without TV or the microwave, our kids don’t know life without smartphones. They are in their bedrooms, their classrooms and in the palms of their hands.

Managing technology, like every other aspect of parenting, can feel a lot like we’re making it all up as we go along. Really, is there an aspect of your life where you feel more vulnerable or more judged than how you parent? But we know not all kids fit the same mold and  you know your children better than any expert or blogger. There’s an excellent article by Judith Newman in The New York Times about how her autistic son Gus relates and interacts with Siri in a way he finds difficult with his parents and others. Obviously, Newman has thought long and hard about Gus’s relationship with Siri and made her choices based on what she feels is most appropriate for her son.

For most kids, limiting technology is a good idea. Overuse has been linked to obesity, sleep problems and academic struggles, as well as social and behavioral issues. For every kid, monitoring technology use is a good idea. While it’s easy to waste time online, there’s a lot of good out there. My daughter fixed her iPhone last week after watching a YouTube video and my other daughter frequently uses her laptop to arrange music and record original pieces. Neither would have passed high school chemistry without online tutorials.

The bottom line is to let common sense be your guide. Passively sitting in front of a TV or computer screen for hours at a time is a far cry from utilizing technology to connect, create, and innovate. Check out the American Academy of Pediatrics Guidelines or read what sites like Common Sense Media have to say. There’s a lot of good information out there and, as you know, an informed decision is always the best decision.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Tuesday, December 9: A Special Twitter Event

A SPECIAL FORD DRIVE SAFE TWITTER EVENT
  Ford_Drive_Safe_1

When: TODAY, Tuesday, December 9, 2014
8:00 – 9:00 pm ET
5:00 – 6:00 pm PT

Join hosts @TheOnlineMom and @geekbabe, together with special guest and sponsor @Ford, TODAY at 8 pm ET as we examine how in-car technology is helping to keep drivers safe.
From reverse cameras to collision avoidance systems, in-car technology is making a huge difference when it comes to driver and passenger safety. We look at the latest technology to be incorporated into vehicle design and explore the prospects for future innovation.
RSVP and attend the Twitter event for a chance to win a Kindle Fire HDX 7″ tablet or a Plantronics Bluetooth headset!

(Click here to learn more about our Twitter chats. You must RSVP and attend the party to be eligible for a prize.)

To RSVP:
  1. Email RSVP@theonlinemom.com (subject line: FordDriveSafe) and include your Twitter ID.
  2. Spread the word and RT this link on your Twitter feed: http://ow.ly/DKdOb
  3. Join us on TweetDeck or HootSuite (#FordDriveSafe) today between 8 – 9 pm ET
  4. Tell your Twitter followers!
PRIZE WINNERS will be announced during the Party!

(The Online Mom LLC receives a fee for participating in certain promotional programs for Ford Motor Company.)