How to Keep Up With—and Stay in Touch With—Your Kids

With these three tips, your family can forge ahead into the digital future.

By Jacqueline Emigh

No matter how frequently and effectively parents use the internet and mobile devices, kids seem to stay ahead of them. And why not? They've been surrounded by digital culture their whole lives. Many children today can access their favorite apps on a phone or tablet before they can even talk. So what can parents do to keep up with their children and stay in touch? Here are three ways you can use digital tools to improve family communications.

1. Know what’s happening with your children’s texting

Texting is the most frequently used type of communication among all Americans under age 50, according to a poll by Gallup. But it's especially popular with teens. About 99 percent of all teenagers with smartphones use texting, says Pew Internet.

If you’re already big into texting, you probably realize that, although users can password-protect their phones, the same doesn't hold true for SMS text messages sent directly through wireless carriers. Some parents check their kids' phones, and some don't. If you do, you may find yourself in need of a translator in the face of such acronyms as ALAP ("as late as possible") and PIR ("parent[s] in room"). One useful internet resource is NetLingo, which maintains a dictionary of online jargon and text acronyms, as well as Top 50 lists dedicated to such topics as “Popular Text Terms,” “Business Text Terms,” and “Chat Acronyms Parents Need to Know.”

Meanwhile, both adults and teenagers are increasingly using password-protected free messaging apps like Kik (shown below) and WhatsApp; today, 36 percent of teens using such apps, according to Pew. If you haven't yet adopted these apps, you should familiarize yourself with these apps and talk with your kids about any concerns you may have about their use.

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Although WhatsApp formally requires that its users be at least 16 years old, many younger kids use it anyway. WhatsApp enables users to send texts, photos, videos, and audio messages to an unlimited number of people at no charge.

On Kik, a free app that promotes in-app purchases, users can message with friends (or strangers, for that matter) using only their Kik usernames. Members can also submit photos of themselves and screenshots of messages (some showing their real names) to contests.

Make sure that your children understand the dangers of divulging too much personal information about themselves online.

Whether parents should insist on knowing their kids’ passwords is something families have to work out for themselves. If your kids fail to comply with such a password request, you have the option of "digitally grounding" them by temporarily taking away their devices.

2. ‘Friend’ your children on social media

The list of social media sites and apps is virtually endless. Somewhat surprisingly, though, Pew’s research shows that Facebook remains the most popular social media site among grown-ups and teens alike: 71 percent of people in each age group use the platform. Among teens, the second most popular choice (at 52 percent) is Instagram, an app for editing photos and videos and sharing them, either publicly or privately, to a network of followers. About 26 percent of adults use Instagram.

By all means, "friend" your kids on Facebook. It offers a convenient way to share family photos and keep relatives in the loop about what's happening in your nuclear family. Family members and other friends can comment back and forth. You won't be able to view all of your kids' posts, unless you know their Facebook passwords or they share with you. But you will get their public posts. Also sign up for Instagram (pictured below), if you're not yet a member.

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Follow your kids on Twitter, too, and join their other social networks. Although Twitter permits users to send private tweets, teens usually opt for public ones.

If you're anxious to rein in your children’s online activities, you might want to use a parental control app to monitor their behavior and to block their access to certain social media platforms or other apps.

3. Play digital games with your kids

The most effective way to keep up with your kids and to stay in touch with them is to build a relationship of trust around technology use. University research performed in the UK shows that playing digital games together is a great way to promote bonding between parents and kids. And the earlier you start, the better. Plus, of course, playing games is fun.

Many game apps for young children are geared toward small fry only, but some entertaining multiuser games will appeal to almost everyone in the family, from preschool or elementary school youngsters to grandparents.

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For generations, kids have loved playing with marbles. Marble Mixer, an action-packed app for players four years old and up, puts a new spin on the classic pursuit. This digital version of the marbles is actually three games in one: a retro arcade game; a board strategy game; and "Monster Picnic," where you frenetically feed marbles into the mouth of the "Marble Munching Monster." The game accommodates one to four users and is available in versions for Android, iPhone or iPod Touch, and iPad. Pricing is free for the Android version, 99 cents for the iPhone/iPod Touch version, and $1.99 for the iPad version.

Heads Up! is a hilarious charades-like game supporting up to 100 players ages six and up. Created for Ellen DeGeneres's TV show, the game app requires players to use their friends' clues to guess the word shown on a card (or mobile device screen) placed against their forehead, before the timer runs out. Words on the cards (or screen) include celebrity names, animals, and much more. Heads Up! is available for Android (free) and for iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (99 cents). You can connect the game to a TV via Apple Airplay.

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Photo credits: Pixabay.com, Apple.