Use Alexa in the Garden

By Tracey Dowdy

 Based on the amount of rain beating down outside my window, I think it’s safe to say Spring is on its way. And, thoughts of Spring mean gardening is on my mind, and I’m planning out what will go in my little backyard plot.

Along with the usual gardening spades, shovels, and other supplies, I’ve added Alexa to my toolbox. You may be surprised at how useful it can be.

As the song says, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” Alexa’s “Beginners Gardening” skill is free and takes you step by step through planting your own garden. Even if you have never grown anything before, Alexa can walk you through everything from preparing the soil to what plants will thrive in your geographic area. In the words of one reviewer, “For those of us who are totally clueless about gardening this is a great skill to start with. It gives basics and walks you through step by step. Lots of information here.”

It may be obvious, but Alexa’s weather skill will come in very handy once your seeds or plants are in the ground. Living in Northern Virginia, it’s not unusual to experience all four seasons in a week, especially throughout the Spring. I use Big Sky to keep track of unexpected frost or a particularly hot day, outside normal weather patterns. Premium users can schedule weather alerts, and Alexa will notify you of events like temperatures above 90F, below freezing, heavy winds.

Speaking of alerts, as someone whose system of benign neglect works wonders with my succulents, having Alexa remind me to water my plants is quite useful, particularly throughout the hot and dry summer months. You can be as specific as you like. Just say something like, “Alexa, set a reminder to water the lettuce at 6 a.m.” At 6 a.m. the next day, Alexa will light up with a notification, and you’ll receive a push notification on your phone reminding you to water your lettuce.  If you’ve planted a variety of flowers, fruits, and vegetables, you can create a calendar to monitor each plant and then link it to Alexa. That way, when you ask for a Flash Briefing or say, “Alexa, my schedule,” Alexa let you know if it’s time to water any of your plants.

Or, you could skip the reminder and connect Alexa to a smart home sprinkler system like the Rachio 3 WiFi Smart Lawn Sprinkler Controller,  or RainMachine Touch. Both integrate seamlessly with Alexa and allow you to control the sprinklers with a voice command. You can be as specific as you like – “Alexa, turn on all the sprinklers,” or, “Alexa, turn on the sprinklers in Zone 1 for six minutes.”

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.

 

Reuse or Recycle Your Android or iOS Device

The first iPhone shipped to customers back in June of 2007 – less than 12 years ago, but somehow, it feels like smartphones have been around forever.

In those 12 years, we’ve seen a lot of changes and updated features for our smartphones and tablets, which encouraged us to upgrade, and upgrade again, and again…to the point there’s a good chance you have an old phone or outdated tablet sitting in a drawer or taking up space on a shelf. But instead of hanging on to digital clutter, consider these options to put your old devices to new use.

Smart Home Center – With devices like Google Assistant, Alexa, Nest, Hue, Smart TV’s, and Amazon’s Fire Stick becoming more common and accessible, it makes sense to repurpose your old phone or tablet as a dedicated hub for your smart home enabled tech. You can even use them to set up a media streaming center. The simplest way is to clear unused apps and free up as much data as possible. Download the streaming apps you need, along with any tools you’re using — Google HomeAmazon Fire TV RemoteNest, Hue, etc. – connect to the same network as the devices, and you’re good to go!

Your Child’s First Device – If you’ve ever handed off a $500 phone or tablet to a toddler, you know the gut-felt fear usually only seen in horror movies. But, handing off a phone or tablet that’s been sitting in a drawer or is being replaced with an updated version is a great idea. You’ll want to be sure to lock down any features you don’t want them to access through Parental Controls, and invest in a sturdy case as any device in the hands of a toddler is likely to take a fair amount of punishment.

 Digital Photo Frame – Remember the first digital photo frames? They were the hottest Christmas present of the year when they were first introduced, but the image quality wasn’t great, and they weren’t really reliable. But, your old Android tablet or iPad can make an excellent scrolling photo display, rolling through hundreds of photos an hour. How To Geek has a simple, easy to follow tutorial on how to make it happen on your Android tablet, and CNET has instructions for your iPad. Besides the vast improvement in image quality, both are WiFi connected, so you can set it up to automatically update to new images.

Security Camera/Baby Monitor – There are plenty of options for home security systems available, but remember, security cameras are simply network connected video cameras. Even the older versions of phones and tablets have network connectivity, so they’re perfect for use as home security cameras, baby or even pet monitors. There are many options available for both iOS and Android devices, but one that receives consistently positive reviews from experts is Alfred. The app allows any Wi-Fi connected phone to broadcast its camera feed to any other phone attached to the same account with no limit on the number of cameras you can connect to a single account.

Dedicated eBook Reader – I will always prefer an actual physical book to an eReader, but there are times when they come in handy. Using your old iPad or tablet as a dedicated reader, particularly for cookbooks, spares your cookbooks and primary device from the inevitable mess that comes from cooking and baking.

Help Scientific Research – Did you know you can take part in important scientific research with apps like BOINC for Android and DreamLab?  Both apps use your device’s processing power to run calculations for a variety of research projects – BOINC focuses on research on diseases, global warming, and space, while DreamLab focuses on finding a cure for cancer.

Recycle, Sell, or Donate – If none of these options are viable for you, you can always recycle, sell, or donate your old phones and tablets. The Environmental Protection Agency has a list of locations where you can take your unwanted tech and have it safely disposed of.  Many retailers like Target and Best Buy offer trade-in options, and the website Gazelle offers consumers cash for working or broken devices, and offers deals on refurbs, providing less expensive options when upgrading.

Lifewire has a list reviewing trade-in programs, including the good and the bad about trade-ins with Amazon, Flypsy, and YouRenew.

 

 

 

 

Thursday, March 21: Making the Most of Mobile

Making the Most of Mobile

When: Thursday, March 21, 2019
8:00 – 9:00 pm ET
5:00 – 6:00 pm PT
Join host Pam Rossi (@Always5Star) and the #AppChat team at 8 pm ET (5 pm PT) on Thursday, March 21 as we help you make the most of your connected devices!
We love our smartphones and tablets but are we making the most of everything they have to offer?
Whether it’s streaming media, managing your home or finding the best productivity apps, we’ve got the tips and tricks to enhance your mobile lifestyle
RSVP and attend the chat for a chance to win a brand new UE BLAST + POWER UP voice-controlled speaker or a Google Home Hub!
The #AppChat series is brought to you by #VisibleMobile – the only phone service that lives in an app!

(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: AppChat) indicating your Twitter ID.
  2. Spread the word and RT this link on your Twitter feed: https://bit.ly/2O57UqD
  3. Join us on TweetDeck or HootSuite (#AppChat) on Thursday, March 21 between 8:00 – 9:00 pm ET.
  4. Tell your Twitter followers!
PRIZE WINNERS will be announced during the Party!

The #trashtag Challenge

By Tracey Dowdy

Over the years, the internet has given us a lot of useless and sometimes dangerous challenges – think of Planking, The Tide Pod Challenge, Car Surfing, and the Cinnamon Challenge – but every once in a while, one comes along that actually does some good. The Ice Bucket Challenge back in 2014 raised over $115 million for the A.L.S. Association and helped scientists discover a new gene tied to the disease, bringing them one step closer to a cure.

The latest viral challenge is another wholesome one – the Trashtag Challenge. It’s been around for several years, with heritage lighting company UCO first issuing the challenge back in 2015 as a way to protect threatened wilderness areas. “Me and a buddy of mine were out on a road trip in California and a receipt blew out of a window,” says Steven Reinhold, who was a UCO people ambassador at the time. “We kind of felt bad about it because it was in a really pretty location, so we decided to pick up 100 pieces of trash.”

The challenge resurfaced last weekend after users on RedditInstagram, and Twitter used #trashtag to challenge others to clean up. The Instagram account @thescientistfacts encouraged “bored teens” to find an area “that needs some cleaning or maintenance” and “take a photo when you have done something about it.”

It took off with hundreds of social media users worldwide posting photos of city streets, parks, wooded areas, highways, creeks and greenspaces often dramatically transformed by their efforts. One parks and recreation staff member posted her appreciation to Reddit for the eco-friendly green initiative. Her post earned over 127,000 upvotes. “THANK YOU to anyone who has ever helped clean up a park. This river used to be covered in trash and it’s pristine again because of one of you. I hope #TrashTag never ends,” she wrote.

So far over 26,000 posts have been tagged on Instagram alone. @coastalangels posted a photo of their group of volunteers who picked up bottle caps, straws, and balloons off a California beach and included a link to their next clean-up project. “We are grateful that you took all the time today to give back to your community and help protect our coast, marine life, and people from plastics and other pollutants! Big thanks to@gwcpeaceandleadership for counting the bottle caps, straws, and balloons!”

Grounded, an organization works to improve community health from within, had 88 volunteers from The Mission Continues, Operation Better Block, and The Wounded Warrior Project show up to collect trash in their neighborhood, and Instagram user @veganmemedealer shared a photo from a #trashtag participant from Nepal.

UCO junior design engineer Craig Frazee says, “If we all pick up a couple of things, we can all pitch in and make an impact. This is a movement to inspire people to be better stewards of the environment.”

Would you look at that? Social media being used to make the world a better place. Now that’s a beautiful sight. 

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.

 

Educate your Student on the Risks of Campus Sexual Assault

By Tracey Dowdy

 This time of year, many parents and high school students are touring college campuses, making decisions about where they’ll spend the next several years of their education. But along with investigating which campus offers the best program for your student’s chosen field of study, it’s important to educate them on life outside the school’s lecture halls and labs. Many students will move into dorms or other on-campus housing and become independent for the first time, making them more vulnerable than they may realize.

The first six weeks of the college year have come to be known as the “red zone.”

According to statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, those first six weeks are when, the highest number of sexual assaults occur on campus – in fact, almost half of campus assaults happen between August and November. Some research suggests the red zone lasts the entire semester, while others allege the number of assaults peak in the days before classes start.

Regardless, the mere existence of the red zone shows us the need to educate both male and female students about the risks. 11.2% of all students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation (among all graduate and undergraduate students). Furthermore, 23.1 percent of female undergrads, 21 percent of TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, and nonconforming) students, and 5.4 percent of male students experience sexual assault.

A report by the National Institute of Justice reports that 90% of college-age sexual assault victims know their attacker, and data compiled from the Clery Act suggests that 74% of all reported rapes occurred on campus, in residential housing. What’s more disturbing is that the statistics are likely higher as many college-aged victims do not report their assaults. Alongside the physical impact, the psychological consequences including the risk of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) are well documented.

These are sobering statistics, but take comfort knowing you aren’t the only one invested in your child’s safety on campus. Virtually every college and university campus offers assault prevention education, usually included in mandatory orientation programs. Generally, the program focuses on the risk for first-year students who are often at higher risk due to a smaller friend group and less experience with alcohol and drugs.

Culture of Respect, an organization that seeks to “build the capacity of educational institutions to end sexual violence through ongoing, expansive organizational change,” has a comprehensive list of programs used by universities and the focus of each. For example, Northern Arizona University requires students to complete an online program that addresses diversity and sexual assault. Also, during orientation, they’re required to attend a session called True Life, focused on sexual assault, roommate issues, drugs, and alcohol.

So, while you’re touring campuses, take the time to investigate the university’s track record on student safety.  The U.S. Department of Education’s Campus Security and Safety allows you to search for specific safety and security related statistical data for one or more years at any college or university. You can search by entering the name or city, select specific categories, choose from your list of favorites, or select all schools. 

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.

 

Facebook and YouTube to Monitor Anti-Vax Content

By Tracey Dowdy

According to reports published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of children in the US who received no vaccine doses as well as the number of parents who have requested exemptions for their children continues to rise. While coverage for a certain vaccines “remained high and stable overall,” the number of unvaccinated kids under the age of two rose from 0.9% for those born in 2011 to 1.3% for those born in 2015. The report doesn’t address the reasons for the increase but suggests it may be due to caregivers not knowing where to access free vaccines and the shortage of pediatricians and other health care providers in many rural areas.

Another more subtle and pervasive reason may be the volume of misinformation surrounding vaccines and their – debunked – ties to autism. Two platforms at the center of the problem – Facebook and YouTube – have recently announced they will crack down on anti-vax misinformation content on their platforms. On Facebook, anti-vaccination sites promoting fake science and conspiracy theories related to vaccines appear at the top of searches when parents search for information about vaccinations. Also featured prominently is Andrew Wakefield, the discredited doctor behind the bogus science linking the MMR vaccine to autism.

Unlike Google, which filters out anti-vax sites to promote information from the World Health Organization, Facebook searches appear to be based on the most popular and active sites regardless of whether or not the information presented is based on fact or fiction. The changes will also impact Instagram, owned by Facebook.

“The consequences of publishing misleading information is a genuine risk to the public’s health – you only have to look at the widespread panic and confusion that was caused by unfounded claims [by Dr. Wakefield] linking the MMR vaccine to autism in the 1990s,” says Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs in the UK. Stokes-Lampard says she finds it “deeply concerning” that Facebook allowed posts that promoted “false and frankly dangerous ideas” about not only the MMR vaccine but other vaccination programs as well.

Ethan Lindenberger, who testified before Congress on March 5, 2019, stated that he had not been fully vaccinated because at the time he was due to be inoculated, his mother’s believed that vaccines are dangerous and could result in autism. Lindberger, who has since been vaccinated against his mother’s wishes, stated at the hearing, “For my mother, her love and affection and care as a parent was used to push an agenda to create a false distress. And these sources, which spread misinformation, should be the primary concern of the American people…My mother would turn to social media groups and not to factual sources like the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. It is with love and respect that I disagree with my mom.”

Lindberger, along with other speakers including Washington state Secretary of Health John Weisman; Dr. Jonathan McCullers of the University of Tennessee; John Boyle, president of the Immune Deficiency Foundation; and Emory University epidemiologist Dr. Saad Omer, challenged the federal government to fund vaccine safety research and launch campaigns to counter anti-vaccine messages similar to past anti-Tobacco campaigns.

YouTube (owned by Google) is also taking action. In a letter responding to a challenge by US Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Karan Bhatia, Vice President Global Public Policy and Government Affairs said it has been blocking anti-vax videos from appearing in its recommendation engine and search results. “I agree with you that anything discouraging parents from vaccinating their children against vaccine-preventable diseases is concerning,” she wrote.

Both Facebook and YouTube intend to discourage people from accepting conspiracies about vaccinations at face value and going forward will attach anti-vaccine material with educational information from authoritative medical sources.

Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of product policy and counterterrorism said, “We are exploring ways to give people more accurate information from expert organizations about vaccines at the top of results for related searches, on Pages discussing the topic, and on invitations to join groups about the topic. We will have an update on this soon.”

 

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.

 

Momo: Threat or Urban Legend?

By Tracey Dowdy

 If you’ve been at all active on social media over the past couple of weeks, especially on Facebook or mommy blogs, you’ve no doubt been exposed to the alleged “Momo Challenge,” purported to encourage children to harm themselves. Momo- a bird-like creature with huge eyes and an oversized grinning mouth that looks straight out of a Tim Burton movie – is allegedly accompanied by explicit suicide instructions spliced into YouTube clips of Peppa Pig or Fortnight.

Sherriff’s departments issued Facebook warnings about it, schools across the country have warned parents and students through emails, and none other than Kim Kardashian herself cautioned parents to be aware of what their children are watching online and asking YouTube and YouTube kids to step up and do better monitoring their content.

The problem is, the whole things appears to be a hoax. The image at the heart of the outrage is that of ‘Mother Bird,’ a sculpture created by Japanese artist Keisuke Aiso in 2016. When questioned about the creature, Aiso stated that the piece, made out of rubber and natural oils, had been destroyed last fall. “It doesn’t exist anymore, it was never meant to last. It was rotten and I threw it away. The children can be reassured Momo is dead – she doesn’t exist and the curse is gone.”

Aiso first became aware that the piece had been “hijacked” months ago, just weeks after he had thrown it out. “I know Momo appeared six months ago in South America, but it has come back this week so much, it’s been bigger and there has been more attention this time.”

The Momo Challenge is no more than the latest creepypasta-inspired internet urban legend to go viral. Unfortunately, much of the hysteria surrounds parent’s fear of technology and a willingness to assume “I read it on the internet so it must be true.” Just like fake news is spread when individuals fail to take the time to question the credibility of sources,  these online urban legends – think Slender Man, The Blue Whale Challenge – could be debunked by five minutes on sites like Know Your Meme or Snopes.

New York Magazine recently ran a story, “How Are Kids Supposed to Learn to Be Smart Online If Adults Are Such Big Dummies?”  It’s a fair question. If we want our children to be discerning, ask thoughtful questions, and not be duped by online predators, as parents, we need to be intentional about taking our own advice.

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.

 

Tik Tok – A Guide for Parents

By Tracey Dowdy

 Social media trends move faster than your toddler sneaking the treat you forbid them to eat. Don’t feel bad if you can’t keep up – that’s the nature of social media and toddlers.

One of the newer and most popular (over 100 million users) is TikTok – Real Short Videos, an app that lets you watch, create, and share 15-second videos from your phone. Users love it because it’s free, and allows them to add a soundtrack – including current chart-topping music – to create music videos with themselves as the star. It was the most downloaded free iOS app over the first half of 2018, and in September 2018, TikTok became the most-downloaded free app on Apple’s U.S. App Store. In  October 2018, it ranked first on Google Play.

Originally marketed as musical.ly in the U.S., it became TikTok when it merged with Douyin, a Chinese app that offered many of the same features. It combines elements of other popular sites and apps like the lip-synch app Dubsmash, creates short videos as they did on (no longer available) Vine, and is interactive like YouTube or Instagram, allowing users to connect with friends and build a fanbase through likes, comments or duets.

So how does it work? To create an account, users (ages 13+) sign up with a phone number, email address, or through Facebook, or Instagram. Once you’ve created the account and log in, users can search for popular creators, by category, or hashtags to find videos. Users can connect with friends already using the app through their phone contacts or social media. You can make the account private by going to your profile page and selecting the three-dot icon in the top-right corner. Tap Privacy and Safety. Then, toggle the switch for “Private Account.” You can edit who is allowed to send you comments and direct messages, or who can do a duet with you.

Because the app uses popular music across genres, not all content may be appropriate for kids. Though the app doesn’t allow you to use search terms like “sex” or “porn,” there is a sexual content with users wearing revealing clothing and dancing provocatively that may not be appropriate for younger users of the app.

TikTok has some safeguards in place through its Digital Wellbeing features. Once turned on, it limits the amount of time users can spend on the app as well as filtering some videos that may be inappropriate for tweens and early teens. To activate Digital Wellbeing, tap the three dots at the top right of your user profile. Then, tap “Digital Wellbeing” beside the umbrella icon. Kids can’t disable these settings without a four-digit passcode. Parents can also set Screen Time Management which caps use of the app at two-hours a day, or they can activate Restricted Mode, which blocks some content.

Like every social media app, there’s room for abuse and the risk of your child being exposed to content you’d prefer they not see. No matter how many safeguards these apps put in place, the best defense is a parent actively monitoring what the child is doing online. There’s no way to watch them every minute of the day, but it’s still a good idea to share that TikTok account with younger users. Ask them about their favorite creators and familiarize yourself with what they’re posting. If they are exposed to objectionable content, don’t panic. Have a conversation about what they saw, and talk about how the content doesn’t match your family values. These age-appropriate, honest conversations about respect for themselves and others is the surest way to ensure your children will develop a healthy worldview in the midst of all that’s available online.

 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.

 

Thursday, March 7: Mobile Bargain Hunting

Mobile Bargain Hunting

When: Thursday, March 7, 2019
8:00 – 9:00 pm ET
5:00 – 6:00 pm PT
Join host @DarleyNewman and the #AppChat team at 8 pm ET (5 pm PT) on Thursday, March 7 as we look at the apps and mobile shopping tools that can help you get the best deals!
Daily deal sites, price comparison tools, and custom store apps have turned smartphones and tablets into must-have shopping companions. Join us as we look  at the latest developments in mobile bargain hunting, and explore how major brands are adapting to this all-new tech-driven shopping experience!
RSVP and attend the chat for a chance to win a brand new iPad!
The #AppChat series is brought to you by #VisibleMobile – the only phone service that lives in an app!

(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: AppChat) indicating your Twitter ID.
  2. Spread the word and RT this link on your Twitter feed: https://bit.ly/2Et7F4m
  3. Join us on TweetDeck or HootSuite (#AppChat) on Thursday, March 7 between 8:00 – 9:00 pm ET.
  4. Tell your Twitter followers!
PRIZE WINNERS will be announced during the Party!