Facebook Rolls Out Messenger 4

Facebook has given Messenger a Face-lift – terrible pun fully intended.

Even if you haven’t refreshed the app recently, you’re seeing the updated version, called Messenger 4. Facebook rolled the changes out server-side, meaning the move is “automatic,” and you can’t avoid it by avoiding or delaying the update.

It’s had mixed reviews, which isn’t surprising. Any time an app changes its interface, some die-hards hate it and early adopters who love it. The first thing you’ll note is the display – it’s very, well, white. They’ve removed Facebook’s signature blue bar from across the top, and they’ve de-cluttered the bar at the bottom. Now, users will see only three icons – a speech bubble for Chats; two figures for People, and a compass needle for Discover. The top of the screen displays your profile picture, the category you’re in, the camera and the conversation icons. Just below the top bar is the familiar app-wide search option, followed by Facebook’s “Stories” options and Stories from your contacts. Your most recent conversations list is in the middle, as it’s always been.

Chats hasn’t changed much – it’s still the place to carry on conversations and make audio or video calls to your contacts. What is new is the option to choose chat colors. Go to your settings to change the display colors making it easier to identify specific groups at a glance. More features are promised, though Facebook hasn’t said what exactly we can expect. The People category is where you can look for friends, view their stories, and see who’s currently active. Users can start the conversation with a “wave” by tapping the hand icon to send a hello. Discover is where you can chat with businesses, access customer support, play games, and search for news and current events.

So far the biggest complaint seems to be that the app is too bright – all that white background and negative space is hard on the eyes. In response, Facebook has announced a “Dark Mode,” but there’s no word on when users can expect it to roll out, nor do we know if it’s going to come in an update or rolled out server-side like the new design.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

New Year’s Resolutions for Kids

This time of year, the mantra seems to be, “New year, new me.” The gym is crowded, grocery carts are full of produce after holiday indulgence, and our journals have at least a few consecutive days of entries. But, it’s not just adults that may want to hit the reset button and need a fresh start, perhaps your kids do too.

The weeks leading up to the holiday break can be a little chaotic, and if your child struggled with academics, organization, or even behaviors in 2018, reminding them the gift of a clean slate in 2019 can alleviate a significant amount of stress.

Here are a few tips:

Organization:

Are you even a parent if your child hasn’t handed you a permission slip/announced you’re supposed to send in three dozen cookies for a bake sale/informed you they need a crate of popsicle sticks and a kilo of uranium-235 for a project due that day? Create a routine where the first thing to happen when your child gets home is to empty that backpack. BeeVisual’s Choiceworks Calendar is a “full-featured, kid-friendly calendar app designed to help children learn concepts of time and help caregivers to keep them organized.” Because it’s picture based, even young children can take ownership of their schedule and learn to manage their time and responsibilities. Cozi consistently ranks at the top of lists of parent’s favorite apps for its user-friendly interface that puts all your family’s events and activities in one place and works across platforms and devices. ColorNote for Android and SoundNote for iOS make it easier for older kids to take notes, track what’s coming up, and share through SMS/MMS, email, Messenger, and social media.

Behavior:

Whether it’s teaching them to control their emotions or learn to put their dishes in the dishwasher, there’s an app for that. Chore Pad offers customizable chore charts allowing your child to earn stars and trophies for completed tasks. Busykid not only teaches chores, but it also teaches fiscal responsibility. You assign the duties, your kids complete them, and their allowance is direct-deposited each Friday. Sesame Street’s Breathe, Think, Do app is available for Android and iOS devices and teaches children self-regulating tools like deep breathing for stressful or frustrating situations. Headspace for Kids goes a little further, breaking things down into five themes: Calm, Focus, Kindness, Sleep and Wake Up, each with age-appropriate tools (ages 5 and under, 6-8 and 9-12.)

Academics:

 The Homework app allows students to upload their class schedule, know at a glance if it’s an A or B Day, a timeline of the day’s classes, a graph of the student’s workload for the next seven days, and quick options to contact teachers and instructors. Brainpop was created by a doctor as a tool to help explain difficult concepts to his young patients through games, movies, and engaging content. It’s a great resource for homework help and teaching complex subjects. Alternatively, Kahn Academy offers free, online instruction in everything from English grammar and algebra to art history and microeconomics.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

HDMI 2.1: What You Need to Know

If you’re like me, you pay attention to significant changes in technology – new phones being introduced, improvements or changes to our streaming services, etc. – but not a lot to the hardware that makes our phones, home theatres, and surround sound systems work.

That’s likely the case with the changes coming for the lowly – but indispensable HDMI cables that connect our systems, the literal “man behind the curtain” if you will. (HDMI, or High Definition Multimedia Interface, supports the connection that combines video and audio into a single digital interface for audio/video connectivity). It’s been around since the early 2000’s but has been largely unchanged until now, though you won’t need to upgrade or swap out your cables just yet, even if you’re planning on buying a new TV or stereo system in 2019. Consumers can’t upgrade current televisions to 2.1 specs, and there are no HDMI 2.1 sources commercially available yet.

CNET’s Geoffrey Morrison says, “This update is quite forward-thinking and takes into account formats and resolutions that won’t be widely available for years. However, if you’re considering certain new TVs in 2018 and 2019, you should make sure you understand the limitations of 2.0, and what 2.1 will offer if you choose to wait on your TV purchase.”

Morrison breaks down the “need to know” for HDMI 2.1 this way:

  • The physical connectors and cables will not change – they’ll be the same as today’s HDMI.
  • Bandwidth will improve from18 Gbps (HDMI 2.0) to 48 Gbps (HDMI 2.1).18 Gbps is sufficient for our current systems, but again, this is forward thinking and will allow for higher resolutions and higher frame rates as they are developed.
  • Can carry resolutions up to 10K, frame rates up to 120fps which won’t matter so much for watching video, but will be a feature that gamers will love.
  • New cables will be required for higher resolutions and/or frame rates. Just like that first generation of 4K TV’s aren’t compatible with 4K Blue Ray players, you may want to wait on that upgrade until TV’s have caught up with the new standard.
  • The first products were due in 2018 but never made it to market. Hopefully, some will arrive in 2019.

The bottom line, according to Morrison is this: “HDMI 2.1 is like a brand new, 10-lane highway in the middle of the countryside. There’s not much reason for it right now, but it offers an easy way to expand in the future. If you’re not considering an 8K TV then it’s a 10-lane highway in the countryside of a different state or country. Cool, but not something that will impact your immediate future.”

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

 

2019 Family Media Goals

Depending on your child’s school district, your little ones are likely back to school or gearing up to go back, and that means cracking down on screen time now that your family is getting back into its routine.

It also means that there’s no better time to examine your family’s media guidelines and see where you need to tighten – or lighten – up. There are no hard and fast rules and no one-size-fits-all guidelines for media use. Every family is unique and based on lifestyle and personality, what works for you may not work for your neighbor. But, having a few ground rules in place gives you a starting point, and by including your kids in the conversation, you can ensure you’re raising responsible digital citizens who understand the importance of a healthy balance of online and real-world experiences.

Start by being interested in what they’re interested in. Are they as obsessed with Minecraft as my nephew Tristan? Instead of allowing your eyes to glaze over and planning out your next vacation when they start to regale you with their latest achievement, be intentional in listening to what they have to say – they’re telling you because your opinion matters to them. Shared interests spark bigger conversations.  By sharing their online activity with you, they’re inviting you to be part of their world, an opportunity you’d be wise to take advantage of while they’re young. Besides, if they’re venturing on to sites or exploring YouTube territory you’re not happy with, your opinion and reasons for limiting or banning such content will carry weight if you can speak knowledgeably about the topic.

One of the most critical skills we can teach our children as they mature is self-control. Nowhere is this more tested than when it comes to screen time. Every online activity from social media games, apps, and streaming services like Netflix and Hulu are specifically designed to keep you engaged. Why do you think they all have an “Up next” pop up as your current video is ending? It’s an endless loop of entertainment, and children simply don’t have the maturity level to be able to say no. Frankly, most adults don’t either, but that’s a story for another day.

To help them get there, use apps like iOS12’s Screen Time or Android Pie’s (available on Pixel devices; rolling out to other users in the coming weeks) Digital Wellbeing to monitor online activity. There are several great apps available for both iOS and Android devices. It’s also a good idea to make sure parental controls are in place, and again, there are several user-friendly options available.

This is also the perfect time to talk about online privacy and safety. If we learned anything from 2018, it’s that our data is at risk. Talk to your kids about being careful what they share online, then go one step further by cleaning up your digital footprint. Not only is your information at risk, many companies skirt the Children’s Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA) and actively monitor and collect information on your child’s online activity in order to target them with ads.

Most importantly, lead by example. If you’re already doing a “device-free dinner,” go a step further. We used to play “Best Thing/Worst Thing” with our kids at dinner. It’s as simple as sharing the best part and the worst part of your day. Or, play another simple game like “Two Truths and a Lie” or “Never Have I Ever.” Conversation sans emojis is becoming a lost art. Help your kids stay in the game.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

 

 

Fitness Tracker Tips to Achieve Your Goals

If you’re one of the millions of Americans who received a fitness tracker for Christmas, you’ve no doubt already unwrapped it and put it to use. Fitbit alone has 24.5 million users, a mere 9.5% of the global fitness tracker market.

Statistically, about 30% of users abandon their tracker within six months, no matter how much was spent on the device. The reasons vary among users, but according to Deborah Lupton, Centenary Research Professor at the University of Canberra, those least likely to abandon their tracker are “People who were actively using Fitbits and had incorporated them into their daily routines… really did enjoy things like badges and the buzzes and the flashing lights. Those features of wearables like Fitbit were very motivating for these people.” Those most committed to their fitness trackers were the super-competitive, people who would actually march around their kitchen at night just to hit their required number of steps for the day.

But, for the rest of the world, the less-competitive shall we say, it takes being intentional if you want to incorporate your tracker into your lifestyle. You need to make it a habit. According to research, it takes sixty-six days to create a good habit. The same study found that if you miss a day, you haven’t completely gone off the rails, so don’t despair.

Follow these suggestions to make the most of your device so your health and fitness become a long-term, sustainable lifestyle.

It may seem obvious but start with reading the manual. Since many of us consider ourselves somewhat tech-savvy, you may be tempted to jump in and figure things out through trial and error. Not only is that a waste of time, but you’re also likely to miss out on many of the device’s features. Unfortunately, many times the manual is printed in a near microscopic font, so a better option is to go to the manufacturer’s website and download the manual there.

Another “Well, obviously!” is to remember to wear it. Charge it near your phone, place it by something you grab every morning like your car keys or toothbrush, or if you only wear it when you exercise, put it in your gym bag or running shoes so you don’t forget to track your work out.

Once you’ve read through the manual and nailed down the basics, set your goals. Decide if you’re counting steps, calorie, active minutes, or whatever other numbers your device tracks.

Most trackers have a goal function that can be personalized based on current fitness level and where you’d like to be in a set time frame. Once you’ve set your goal, pay attention to your progress and adjust accordingly. If you’ve aimed too high and are frustrated that you consistently fall short, consider setting a more reasonable goal. On the other hand, if you’re hitting your milestones with ease, step up your game and make it more challenging. You’re more likely to stick with your goals and make it a habit if you’re consistently meeting those milestones.

The key to it all is routine. Make putting on your tracker as much a part of your morning routine as brushing your teeth. Set reminders to check your progress throughout the day, and give yourself non-sabotaging rewards like a coffee break, walk outside, or a few minutes goofing off online.

Sixty-six days is just a little over two months – you can do it!

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.