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tech nomad

Apps that aim to be very family-friendly

A screenshot from the Marco Polo app.screenshot

Smartphones aren’t the most treasured members of the American family, despite a third of US households having three or more of them. But they certainly get a lot of attention. Endlessly distracting, as rich a source of aggravation as information, smartphones have ruined more family dinners than turnips. (I love you Mom, but yes, that was a shot.)

But I’m not just talking about the kids. One recent study suggested smartphone use among parents was “causing internal tension, conflicts and negative interactions with their kids.” Another found that parents who can’t put their phones down have kids more likely to misbehave. Another found that they take, like, 10 minutes to send a single text and then have to call me to ask how to attach a photo to the text message. Granted, that was my own study. The point is, these things are a toxic timesuck.


Unlike turnips, however, smartphones aren’t entirely evil. Families can use the connective powers of their devices for good — and it can be done without cramping anyone’s social media style. No young person wired for the modern world needs their parents sliding into their Instagram DMs (I actually feel gross just typing that), and Facebook is a lousy place to ask Karen if she’s ever going to drag the trash barrels back in. (“OMG MOM!!!”)

There are a range of apps custom designed for families to stay in touch (or just keep tabs), get things done, and, most importantly, shut these damn things off for a while.

A good way to keep the whole family on the same page is to wrangle them on the same app; and for chat purposes, I’m having a hard time finding a better option than Marco Polo.

While most families are a little all over the place, mine takes that to something of an extreme. With the folks in Maine, and the brothers in Western Mass., Florida, Texas, and Thailand (plus nephews and nieces; hi nephews and nieces!), the prospect of sharing a live group chat is next to impossible unless we converge to defy time and space in the dead of night. Marco Polo is an asynchronous video chat app (meaning you send video clips like texts) that allows us to convene in a group, drop in messages whenever we can, and keep a running watchable log of the whole conversation — sort of like an Instagram story that doesn’t vanish.


The Houston Press recently referred to it as “Snapchat for old people” and — yeah, that kind of nails it. But the kids love it too — they can doodle and type live on top of their video messages, tap little hearts and thumbs-ups to send love the new-fashioned way, and alter their voices into chipmunks or robots. (Disclosure: I might do these things too.) For families, it’s a simple way to keep communication an ongoing part of every day, with enough bells, whistles, and privacy for it not to be a drag.

All smartphones come standard with some manner of calendar or organizer, and most people go on to adopt calendars tied to their work (i.e. Outlook or Google Calendar) appointments; but these apps aren’t really tailored to the tornado of precision chaos that is most families’ daily schedules. What’s more, it’s good to separate your work from your family time — and that goes for the way you manage it.


I recommend a simple standalone family scheduler like Cozi. It takes your family’s mess of recitals, practices, dentist appointments, and play dates off the corkboard and into your palm (and all of your other devices), sorting it all into color-coded ease. The app also handles the various lists that keep families functioning: shopping lists, to-do lists, checklists, gift lists, and in the Family Journal section, maybe a list of all the weird stuff Beverly says as she’s learning to talk. A premium “Gold” version of the app offers an ad-free experience, plus some extra features like a Birthday Tracker. (But you don’t need that, do you?)

For the family virtual medicine cabinet, I recommend both the Red Cross’s First Aid app, which gathers together all sorts of pertinent information you might need in your hand when the kid puts his hand through a window trying to catch a fly ball. From a variety of first aid techniques, to one-tap access to emergency procedures, this one’s just good to have around. Ditto Epocrates, an app primarily used by physicians, but a useful searchable resource for any parent concerned about drug interactions, and a step up from the usual WebMD-induced panic attack.

And for those only just starting to field questions from on low about when they will get their first smartphones, even with these good app options available, your anxiety is understandable. But if you are ready to join the 56 percent of parents who have given smartphones to their tweens, ease yourself in with an app like Google Family Link. It gives parents (the Android-using ones, anyway) an almost Google-esque level of power over family smartphone use, letting parents manage which apps the kids use, how long they use them, and even set a “bedtime” for the device — not a bad feature for parents whose sleep aids have interacted negatively with Amazon Prime.


Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MBrodeur