All posts by Tracey Dowdy

Clean Your Phone Without Damaging the Screen

By Tracey Dowdy

I think it’s safe to say we’re all a lot more aware of how easily germs and viruses can be transmitted than we were a year ago. As a result, we’re also quicker to sanitize surfaces, and that includes our phones. Some guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control have changed over the past several months as we learn more about the risk of contracting COVID-19 through surface-to-skin contact. We now know that coronavirus can last from hours up to several days on surfaces and objects but has not been shown to survive past seven days. 

There are many ways to clean your phone, including Phone Soap, but if you’re looking for a less expensive option, not all cleaning methods are safe. Follow these guidelines to ensure your phone is sanitized without damaging your screen.


Never use straight alcohol on your phone screen as it can strip the oleophobic and hydrophobic coatings that protect your display and other ports. There are DIY solutions such as creating your own mix of alcohol and water, but if you get the concentration wrong, you’re likely to damage your screen or fail to sanitize the device. Instead, use disinfectant wipes containing 70% isopropyl alcohol or Clorox wipes (Apple initially advised against Clorox or similar wipes on your phone, but they now say it’s okay). Another option is to spray a nonabrasive or alcohol-based (70% isopropyl) disinfectant on a soft lint-free cloth – not directly on the device itself – then wipe down while the device is powered down and unplugged.

Of course, the safest way to clean the screen and remove those greasy fingerprints and smudges is with a microfiber cloth. If it’s particularly dirty, wet the cloth – not the device – even though the latest phones from manufacturers like Apple and Samsung are water-resistant. Others are a mixed bag, with only specific models passing tests. You can also try a Microfiber Screen Cleaner Sticker designed to adhere to the back of devices, so you’re never without a cleaning wipe. 

If you have lint or other debris in the ports, use Scotch tape to lift it out. Lay it along the crevices or roll it up to reach into the charging port. You use a small tool like a toothpick or a micro vacuum tool to remove dirt from hard-to-reach places like the speaker port. 

Avoid using hand sanitizer, glass cleaners, anything with abrasive properties, vinegar, bleach, or any kitchen or household cleansers to disinfect your phone. Paper towels are a no-no as they too can scratch the surface over time, and compressed ait will only drive debris further into the device. 

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.

Move your Kids from “Screen” to “Green”

By Tracey Dowdy 

After what seems like forever, the weather here in the mid-Atlantic and much of the rest of the country, it’s time to move your little ones from “screen” to “green” – in other words, let’s go outside and play!

Don’t panic, I’m not suggesting you try to force your kids to go “cold turkey” and drop their devices altogether, but these free apps will show your kids what’s offscreen is just as magical as what’s onscreen. 

Wondering what kind of bird is perched on your porch? Merlin Bird ID can help! Simply answer a few identifying questions or snap a quick photo, and the app will pull up a list of possible matches based on your region. Once you’ve identified your feathered friend, the app helps them learn more about how the bird sounds and where it lives with easy-to-read facts and information.

Photo Stuff with Ruff is a camera app complete with a photo gallery and built-in selfie moments, because what self-respecting Gen Z or Gen Alpha isn’t obsessed with selfies? Based on The Ruff Ruffman Show, the app encourages children to explore science in the world around them by taking photos of different natural and man-made items to complete silly scenes.

If nature isn’t really your child’s “thing,” perhaps the fun of a scavenger hunt will be enough to lure them outdoors. Monkey Spot Scavenger Hunt has a host of different hunts, each with unique tasks, even in the free version. The app is more than just an outdoor adventure.  For example, there are art museum and zoo adventures that will make your family field trip more exciting as well as storytelling hunts they can create with their friends. Each hunt features a list of clues to find and solve by taking and labeling pictures. Get ready to discover, create, perform, personalize, and inquire with clues like “Ask the favorite food of someone at your table,” or “Find a machine that uses gears.”

The Play and Learn Science app was developed alongside early childhood experts to provide families new ways to explore science together through play. The app includes fifteen games and activities like playing with shadows, choosing the best materials for an umbrella, and controlling the weather. The helpful parent section provides you with tips for parent-child engagement and activities for extending the learning into the real world. 

Plum’s Creaturizer is based on PBS Kids’ Plum Landing. The app encourages kids to dive into their imagination by creating their own creepy-crawly creature. Kids can then go from screen to green and back again by taking their creature outdoors to explore habitats where they think they might live. Kids can even take photos of their creatures superimposed onto real-world scenes within the app. 

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.

Should Your Child Have a YouTube Channel?

If I asked you to name 2020’s highest-earning YouTube star, pulling in 30 million dollars and boasting 40 million subscribers, who would you guess? JoJo Siwa and her giant bows? Children’s entertainer Blippi? Gamer PewDiePie? Nope, nope, and nope. YouTube’s biggest earner is none other than nine-year-old Ryan Kaji. According to Forbes, Kaji earned $29.5 million from YouTube clips in 2020, up from $26 million last year, when he was also number one on the Forbes list. Kaji also led the way in 2018 ($22 million). He’s amassed roughly 41.7 million subscribers on his YouTube channels, including more than 27.7 subscribers on his main channel, Ryan’s World

Kids like Ryan make it look easy, but remember, he’s part of a carefully curated brand. As clever as he is, we know he’s not the one creating marketing strategies and negotiating lucrative business deals with YouTube, TV, and major retailers like Target and Walmart. 

If your child is begging you for their own YouTube channel and you’re unsure of what you’d be getting into, here are points to consider. 

YouTube prohibits children under the age of 13 to create their own accounts, and children between ages 13 and 17 may only open accounts with parental permission. Obviously, these rules don’t prevent parents opening an account for their child; this is allowed.

Allowing kids get to create their own videos enables them to explore their creative side. They can learn about lighting, camera angles, editing, sound effects, and production, and the importance of clear articulation when they speak. If they really want to build an audience, they’ll learn the importance of hard work as there may be times they need to put time into their channel, even when they don’t feel like it. They’ll also learn what it means to commit to a project and take responsibility for their creations. These are invaluable life lessons.

In our social media “Likes” driven culture, a successful video or channel can be a real boost to your child’s self-esteem. Amanda Biggar, whose six-year-old son has his own channel, says, “If someone subscribes or likes his videos, it makes him feel good about himself, and he has a lot of fun making the videos.” 

However, the flip side to their online presence is the potential for negative feedback and bullying. Even though comments can be flagged and reported, the impact these words can have is an important consideration. 

To maintain a level of control when you create the YouTube channel, make sure you set it to private, which means you’ll have to approve anyone who wants to subscribe and view the content. Older kids may resent the restriction because they’re trying to get “YouTube famous,” and the number of views they get is key to going viral. Later, you can always switch to Public – meaning anyone, anywhere can see the content – when you feel your child is mature enough to handle the potential negative feedback.

If you decide to make the channel public, you may still want to consider turning off the ability for viewers to comment and click “like” or “dislike.” As has been mentioned, negative comments can wound a child’s self-confidence and can lead to bullying, says Paul Davis, an educator who provides training in social media safety and privacy issues. 

Privacy is a primary concern, so it’s essential to keep your channel as anonymous and free of personal information as is possible. When you’re setting up the bio section, don’t include your child’s real names or affiliated website links. It’s also a good idea to have a rule that no video gets posted without you first screening it to be sure identifying details like where you live or where they go to school are mentioned. 

One crucial conversation you’ll need to have is about setting reasonable expectations. Ryan Koji’s videos currently have a staggering 46,202,145,056 views. You read that right – over 46 BILLION views. Again, this is after years of careful curation of content, marketing strategies, and partnerships with major retailers and Nickelodeon. Koji is the exception – not the rule. Encourage your child to focus on being creative and posting content they’re passionate about, not chasing acceptance from strangers on the internet. That’s a slippery slope that often ends in a therapist’s office. 

For detailed instructions on setting up a channel for kids under 13, check out this video from itisthatsimple with step-by-step instructions for parents.

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.


Best Tax Software Platforms

By Tracey Dowdy

Even though the 2021 income tax deadline has been pushed to May 17th, it’s a good idea to get started now, especially with The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. There have been changes to sick leave rules, unemployment insurance claims, changes to deductions for the self-employed and those working from home. Of course, don’t forget those stimulus checks (if you didn’t get one, you can file to recover your missing money). 

More and more Americans choose to do their own taxes, and there are a number of tax preparation software packages that can make filing efficient and as pain-free as possible. If you earn less than $72,000 annually or your tax prep is straightforward, you can easily file your taxes at no cost to you. However, if your situation is complicated – you had a child, bought or sold a house, collected unemployment insurance, etc. – or if you’re determined to get every dollar you’re owed, these reasonably priced platforms will are a good option. 

Jackson Hewitt Online promises the best refund insurance. The site features a user-friendly interface, a massive library of tax articles, built-in calculators, a free IRS audit assistance, and a Worry-Free Guarantee plan that promises to reimburse those who end up with a reduced refund or face additional tax liabilities. Like other platforms on this list, users can import previous tax returns even if they’ve been prepared on other platforms, receive tech support via live chat, access service for basic tax returns, and auto-complete the user’s state returns. ($20 – including federal and unlimited state returns).

H&R Block offers unlimited tech support to all users and phone and chat support for those who chose their more expensive packages. Its software platform is user-friendly and walks users step by step through the process. It’s intuitive and features calculators to help navigate complex tax questions as well as a library of articles to clarify both simple and confusing tax scenarios. (Free to $85 for federal; $37 per state; $40 to $145 for Online Assist)

TurboTax by Intuit offers comprehensive support for your tax return, even if your tax situation is complicated. It integrates with Quickbooks making it easy to import necessary data, a definite perk for real-estate investors and self-employed individuals. There are several options directed at specific needs. The most popular option, TurboTax Deluxe, will search for the standard deductions for a tax credit to ensure you get your maximum refund, while TurboTax Premier is designed for taxpayers with investment or rental properties. Whether you choose Intuit’s services or not, they offer a free tool to help customers navigate the government’s CARES Act assistance programs whether or not you use TurboTax to file. (Free to $90 for federal; $40 per state; free to $170 for TurboTax Live; additional $45 to $60 for Max)

Credit Karma Tax is relatively no-frills compared to others on this list, but it’s free, so it’s a “you-get-what-you-pay-for” situation. It’s straightforward, a glossary of tax-related terms, allows you to import a tax return from the IRS, as well as from TurboTax (Credit Karma’s parent company),. It will also walk you through itemized deductions, business income or expenses, self-employment taxes, and capital gains and losses. Credit Karma offers “audit defense,” which includes a consultation with a representative who can also attend a hearing on your behalf and help with tax debt resolution. One unique perk is that if you receive a larger tax refund or owe less in federal taxes after filing with Credit Karma, you may be eligible to collect up to $100 in gift cards. 

FreeTaxUSA is free for filing federal returns, but you’ll need to pay to file your state taxes. Users can import previous tax returns and file an amended tax return. If you choose the deluxe version, you have access to priority live chat and customer support, as well as access to its tax specialists and audit service. (Free for federal; $13 per state; $7 deluxe version)

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.

Why You Should Buy Refurbished Tech

By Tracey Dowdy

If you’re in the market for a new device, the debate over whether to buy new or used can come down to something as simple as budget. But, there is a third option – refurbished. Like used electronics, refurbished items must meet specific criteria so buyers can shop more confidently than if you were buying a used device from a random eBay or Craigslist seller. 

Still, refurbished devices aren’t cheap. What kind of warranty, buyer protection, accessories, and customer support post-purchase can you expect? 

Used vs. Refurb

When you trade-in for an upgrade or sell your electronics, it immediately goes through an evaluation process to determine its resale value. If it’s a newer device and in working order, chances are it will be cleaned and processed to be sold as a refurbished device. 

Refurbished device sellers (Amazon RenewedApple Certified RefurbishedBest Buy OutletOverstockSwappaGazelleWalmart) each have their own process and offer different purchase protection levels. For example, all Apple’s refurbished devices are classified as “like new.” Each is cleaned, any broken or damaged parts are replaced, and the items are put through a battery – pun intended – of tests. Also of note, a refurbished iPhone comes with a new battery and housing. Similarly, Amazon inspects, tests, repairs any broken parts and guarantees that the battery has 80% capacity. However, the housing is not replaced, so you may see some wear and tear on the exterior of their Renewed devices.

Buyer Beware

Sites categorize the condition of devices in categories like Fair, Good, or Excellent. Gazelle has a section that explains what you should expect when buying a phone in fair condition and even provides example photos. The photos aren’t of the device you’re purchasing but serve as a visual guide on what kind of condition the item is in and what sort of cosmetic damage to expect on the housing. 

Most sellers – at least the reputable ones like Apple, Amazon, Gazelle – will allow you to return a device if it’s not working or shows more physical wear than you expected. It’s always wise to check out the return policy before you buy, so you’re aware of what you’re responsible for if you’re unhappy with your purchase. Some may only offer a trade-in or a replacement device or expect you to pay for return shipping. 

What About a Warranty? 

Warranties vary across sites. Refurbished Apple devices come with a one-year guarantee. Amazon offers a 90 satisfaction guarantee during which you can return a Renewed device for a refund, and Gazelle has a 30-day return policy that’s also considered the warranty. However, buyers can purchase an extra year of protection through an extended warranty that also covers any accidental damage. 

If you’re buying a phone or tablet, be aware of whether or not the device is locked to a specific carrier. That great deal on an iPhone isn’t a deal if it’s locked to TMobile, but Verizon is your carrier. Also, make sure you’re getting the accessories you need with your purchase. All Apple and Amazon refurbs come with everything you need for the device, but like warranties, what accessories are included varies across sites. However, Amazon devices may come with an after-market charger rather than the official one from the manufacturer. 

One final tip, you can save even more money by selling your device to the company you’re purchasing your refurbished device from.

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.

Apps To Keep Women Safe

By Tracey Dowdy

This week’s shootings in Atlanta once again shone a spotlight on violence against women. In the wake of the shootings, the Democratic-led House hopes to revive a Clinton-era law, The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), that primarily uses federal grants to help victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking while trying to reduce those crimes. 

Whatever legislation is passed, it’s clear that women need to protect themselves against potential threats. Studies have found that it takes a criminal just seven seconds to decide whether or not you’ll be their next victim. Seven. Seconds. These safety-focused apps can provide the tools and resources you need to stay safe should you find yourself in a dangerous situation.

Kitestring: Kitestring was created because the developer noted many people don’t use personal safety apps because they’re too inconvenient. Users have to shake their phone or hit a button to activate an alarm. Instead, Kitestring has users schedule a text to check-in at a specific time. If you don’t respond, Kitestring will notify your emergency contacts. (FREE)

WalkSafe allows you to see crime hotspots are in your area, helping you avoid them & find a safer route by mapping police monthly crime reports. Data is updated twice a week so users can see where serious crimes have been committed, spot patterns, and identify regular trouble spots. (FREE)

bSafe is voice-activated, allows you to livestream your location, automatically records when an SOS alarm is activated, can fake calls, set up social guardians, and allows for your pre-selected friends or family to walk with you to your destination via the app. (30-Day free trial; bSafe Premium Weekly $0.49; bSafe Premium Monthly $1.99; bSafe Premium Annual $19.99; 24 hours Premium features $0.99)

LiveSafe works as a two-way communication system often used by businesses and universities. It provides a way to quickly connect with safety officials using text, pictures, video, and audio. It also offers peer-to-peer and self-service tools such as virtually walking with friends or family. (FREE) 

what3words – provides users with a unique three-word code to give a precise location if you are lost or feel you are in danger. It’s particularly valuable if you’re in a rural area without specific landmarks so emergency services can navigate directly to you. (FREE)

Parachute is the most expensive option on this list but is also the most comprehensive. The app will call, text, or email your emergency contacts, send live video, audio, and location from the scene – including details like the specific level of a parking garage – record the event discreetly, prevent accidental touches from ending the recording or blurring the focus. All evidence is saved automatically if your attacker takes your phone or itis lost, destroyed. (Free trial; Parachute Monthly $9.99; Parachute Micro – Yearly $2.99; Parachute Lite – Monthly $2.99; Parachute Family – Monthly $14.99)

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.

Zoom Meetings Still Stressing You Out? Here’s Help. 

By Tracey Dowdy

Many of us just hit the one anniversary of going into quarantine, and although so much has changed over the past year, one thing that seems to be here to stay is video conferencing. Once the purview of executives and freelancers with overseas clients, virtual meetings have become ubiquitous, with everyone from the President to preschoolers communicating and learning via a computer screen. 

If even after all these months, the thought of jumping on a Zoom – or any other video conferencing call – stresses you out, you’re not alone. Buffalo 7, A UK-based specialist presentation design agency, found that 73% of people have suffered from Zoom Anxiety this year. Which tasks cause the most anxiety? Presenting (42%); Interviews (25%); Client meetings (18%); Team catch-ups (15%). By far, the biggest trigger for that stress was having tech or audio problems and not knowing how to correct them (83%), followed closely by being unable to read other participant’s body language (67%). 

And, even though the vaccine rollout is going well, many companies aren’t returning to in-office work any time soon, and some have shifted their business model entirely, with more employees opting to continue working from home for the foreseeable future. 

If the thought of being trapped in an endless loop of Zoom calls stresses you out, here are tips and tools that can reduce your anxiety and ensure your meetings run smoothly. 

If you’re like me, having to stare at your own face for an hour, even when you choose Tile instead of Speaker View, means you obsess about how you look to the rest of the group. Do yourself a favor and turn off self-view. Once you log into the call and make sure you’re in the frame, right-click your video to display the menu. Select Hide Myself. The rest of the group will still be able to see you, but you won’t obsess about the random hairs sticking out at an odd angle or overthink the faces you’re making.

Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, who recently published a study on Zoom fatigue, says, “For me, the self-view is the most troubling. Never before have people stared at themselves so long per day. This adds stress both consciously — people worry about their appearance, grooming, etc. — and unconsciously, as psychological research has demonstrated that even when people aren’t actively thinking about their reflection, a mirror in their field of view causes them to increase self-evaluation.” 

If you don’t want to toggle back and forth or wish to block participants from seeing you all together, buy a simple camera shield or use a Post-It note to block your camera

Don’t forget, not everything has to be a video conference. Sometimes you can accomplish just as much in half the time through a phone call or an email. Before you set up that conference call, ask, “Could this meeting have been an email?” Don’t be afraid to speak to your boss or team lead and let them know that you want to participate but don’t want to talk over other team members or get bogged down with items on the agenda that don’t apply to you. Most leaders want their meetings to be efficient, so offer to dial in when the discussion is pertinent to your team. 

If it isn’t a required work meeting or is a social event, feel free to say no. We all had our fill of virtual happy hours and holiday dinners over the past year, so if you’re meeting-ed out, say so. Be honest about the impact on your mental health constant virtual meetings are having. Even the world’s introverts have had enough and are ready to give up life as a hermit. 

Finally, give yourself the grace you need, and if something goes wrong, don’t beat yourself up. Technical difficulties have been a thing since we used two juice cans and a string to make a call. Sometimes your kids will Kramer-into the room, your cat will jump in your lap, and you may even knock over your coffee mug while you dig for the reports you need. It happens. Remember, at least you’re not a lawyer trying to defend your client while appearing onscreen as a cat. Things could be worse. 

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.

Google messaging

Schedule Texts with Google Messages

By Tracey Dowdy

Ever forgotten to send a Happy Birthday text or missed reminding your husband to pick up milk on the way home from work? God bless the nerds at Google who heard our cries and included a text message scheduler in the latest update to Google Messages. 

It’s one of several updates to its Android apps including Google Maps, Google Assistant, and TalkBack.  Make sure you have the latest version of Messages. Simply open the Play Store app, then go to My Apps and check for updates. 

After updating, the first time you launch Google Messages and open a chat thread, a small pop-up window appears over the Send button. 

To schedule a text, start typing your message then long-press the Send button. (Do yourself a favor and set the scheduled time before you write the message, so you don’t send it immediately out of habit.) When you long-press Send, a pop-up window opens that allows you to choose from pre-set date and times or choose to customize the date and time. Once you’re done, tap Save. 

Not only can you send texts, but you can include pictures and videos as well. When you’re done, just tap the Send button, which should now have a small clock icon on top of the paper airplane. 

Once scheduled, the message will appear in the text thread with a clock next to it and a note that says Scheduled message below the message. If you don’t want to see scheduled messages, you can hide them.

If you need to edit the message or the scheduled delivery time, tap the clock icon. A menu will pop up with three options – update message, send now, or delete the message. Update message allows you to edit the text, add photos or videos, or select a different time for the message to be sent. Send now will immediately send the message and delete message will discard the text. 

Keep in mind that your phone will need to be connected to mobile data and/or Wi-Fi when the message is scheduled to go out. If you’re not connected, your message won’t send. 

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.