Category Archives: family

That’s no Moon! How my son and I built our own ‘Death Star,’ and had a ton of fun doing it

The “Death Star” Imperial battle station my son Jack and I built over the holidays. It’s refashioned from an old fire house play set and includes bristling cannons and LED lights. (Tony Lystra)

In 1982, the best toy you could get for Christmas was Kenner’s Death Star play set. It was big, rising seemingly to your waist, and included three floors upon which you could reenact some of the coolest scenes from the very first Star Wars move, “A New Hope,” which was released in 1977.

Kenner released the Death Star play set in 1978. It cost $19.99. Today you can find the original online for $600.

You could swing Luke and Leia across a gaping cavern to escape from a Storm Trooper ambush. You could plummet Han, Chewie and the rest into the trash compactor, where they took refuge from a blaze of Imperial blaster fire. And you could fire a cannon against oncoming X-Wings or pit Obi Wan Kenobi against Darth Vader in a fated light saber duel.

But the great thing about the Death Star was that you could do anything with it.

I remember a cousin and I reimagining the battle station as a skyscraper, the centerpiece of a sprawling space-port city, which we built for our Star Wars figures out of oddly shaped styrofoam packing materials, plastic bowls and cardboard boxes.

Like its menacing tractor beam, the Death Star pulled you into the world of Star Wars. It helped bring to life all the things your little grade-schooler mind dreamed during the morning walk to school — fighting your way through a throng of Imperial troops or spiraling the Millennium Falcon through a swarm of TIE Fighters. (These fantasies were best accompanied by a hummed soundtrack of the “Imperial March.”)

Darth Vader, Obi-Wan and R2-D2 illuminated by our LED lights. That giant gun in the background used to be a bunk bed. (Tony Lystra Photo)

The Death Star cost $20 in those days, which is just more than $60 in today’s dollars, and you were darn lucky if you found its sizable box wrapped and tucked behind your Christmas tree.

It was the kind of box that was so big it was obvious what was in it. That meant parents brought the Death Star out for a big, surprise reveal. It was just that good.

They don’t make the Death Star anymore. (I found an original for $600 on Ebay. An empty Death Star box can sell for $75.)

In fact, despite Disney’s reboot of the Star Wars films, they still don’t make anything like it. (Lego’s $460 Death Star kit is certainly cool, but you can’t play with it like you can the old one.) Maybe it’s because kids these days are foregoing action figures for Pokemon cards and console games like the Star Wars shooter Battlefront.

I’m not one to dis the next generation — the kids are alright. Despite all these screens, and in many cases because of them, our little guys are going to be just fine. But I do think there’s something to be said for getting lost in play, gone to the boring real world and off on some snowy planet or cavernous space station.

Jack rigs the LED lights. (Tony Lystra Photo)

This Christmas, my 8-year-old son, Jack, and I decided to find a way to get lost on our own. We set out to build our own Death Star — or whatever we want it to be depending on our whim: a Rebel hideout or Imperial outpost. We went all out. And we are, in fact, having a riot. The wise men may have had their Christmas Star. This Christmas we have a… Death Star.

Jack and I started with an old, wooden fire station play set my wife and I got for his fifth birthday. (We thought we were the best parents ever at the time — he played with it… once.) Then Jack and I headed to Home Depot and roamed the aisles, snatching up a bunch of PVC piping, plumbing joints and electrical parts. We have no idea what this stuff is for in real life, but it’s perfect for bringing our Star Wars world to life.

We started with this fire house play set.

We spray-painted it all in the grays and blacks of the Empire. Then Jack began arranging the pieces to create gun turrets, computers and control stations, vents and machinery.

We’re drawing our inspiration from the Star Wars films (Jack and I agree “Rogue One” should be considered a Christmas movie) but we’re letting our own imaginations carry us away, too. The old fire house’s bunk bed and some PVC pipe became a brutally powerful cannon. Another gun, at the battle station’s pinnacle, became the Death Star’s planet-killing laser. It’s powered by what used to be the firehouse’s pole, now a Kyber-crystal-fueled green beam that flashes through a tunnel each time the Death Star fires. (I’ve always thought the two guys who work in that tunnel have the worst job in the Empire.) 

The coup de gras: I ordered a few packages of small LED lights, and we’ve been splicing them together with nine-volt battery connectors.

I have very little idea what I’m doing when it comes to electricity, but I was reassured by an Amazon review from a teacher who said she used these lights and battery packs during her sixth-graders’ science experiments. If those kids made it, I figured Jack and I would survive, too.

An Imperial walker pilot holding one of our simple LED lights. (Tony Lystra Photo)

Now in my 40s, I’m suddenly faced with the possibility of building the Death Star I always wanted as a kid. That means our project has been an exercise in letting go, getting out of the way and letting the kid have at it, even if he messes up a little. After some trepidation, Jack quickly took to wiring our lights together. He stuck with it even after he got a little zap. (“Red to red, black to black, kiddo.”) And he’s particularly adept at drilling the little holes for the lights throughout our Imperial battle station.

This is Jack’s show now. He decided to paint the copious glue gun remnants on the main cannon green. He called it “leaking” Kyber fuel. Darth Vader and his Imperial officers would never stand for such sloppiness, I thought to myself. (And, yes, I’m poking a great deal of fun at myself here.) The results of Jack’s ideas look great.

We drew plenty of inspiration for our “Death Star” from the movies.

There are no limits to the realism and detail you can bring to a project like this. Prefabricated Death Star wall panels are available from a website called the Galactic Trading Post; a “starter set” of nine panels costs a seizure-inducing $110. Tutorials on how to add the perfect blaster scorch burns to your Star Wars models abound.

We aren’t model builders, Jack and I.

In fact, we’ve never taken on anything like this before. Yet, we keep coming up with cool ideas for what we can do.

We’re both infatuated with the textures of our Death Star, an obsession we’ve been cultivating for years as we’ve watched the movies and read books at bedtime.

When I was a kid, the Star Wars movies weren’t just great stories — they were canvases where my imagination played. I obsessed over seemingly every detail — the little gray boxes, bumps, exhaust ports and lights on, say, a Star Destroyer.

What, I wondered, are those things for, exactly? What do they do?

Since Jack was little, we’ve been curling up together at bedtime and reading about Star Wars space ships in Jack’s beautifully illustrated books, which show each part of an X-Wing Fighter or, yes, the Death Star. (A favorite is DK’s Star Wars: Complete Vehicles.) A few years ago, Jack assigned himself the job of spotting the “hyper drive” on each page and learned to read those words early.

Jack glue-guns electrical parts to fashion the “Death Star’s” equipment and machinery. (Tony Lystra Photo)

I admit it’s hard to tell who’s the bigger kid here. And all of this begs a question parents everywhere have to ask themselves: “Am I pushing my childhood stuff off on my kid?”

My family has put up with a fair amount of Dad’s Star Wars geekery. During a recent car ride, I passed the time by sharing the intricacies of the “Han Shot First” movement. (He did!) My wife nodded along patiently; the kids reached for their headphones. Our two oldest, Sydney, 16, and Cole, 14, have declared themselves too cool for all of this and have launched a rebellion of their own, which is exactly the way it’s supposed to be.

Jack’s passions these days are Fortnite, Pokemon and Call of Duty, and there’s little question he sees the Empire, the Rebel Alliance, the First Order and the Resistance as a chance to bond with his dad. But there’s a place in his own heart for Star Wars, too.

On a recent night when I had trouble drifting off and Jack had abandoned his own bed and crawled in between us, I quietly fired up Rogue One on my phone and plugged in some headphones. Sometimes it’s nice to fall asleep to the TV you know best and love most. (My wife calls this “warm milk” TV.)

It wasn’t long before Jack quietly popped up over my back, groggy but quickly coming to at 2 a.m., and startled me with one word: “Cool!” I had to switch it off so he’d go back to sleep.

Saturday night, as we were wiring in our Death Star’s lights, Jack declared, “This thing is a masterpiece!” Later, he called out, “This is so rad!”

He was still gushing when I tucked him into his bed, well past his bed time and with glue and paint stuck to his fingers.

“All of this from our imaginations!” he said.

When I’m older and grayer and look back, that probably won’t make the top five of my proudest parenting moments, but it’s got to be up there, right?

Consumer advocacy groups call on FTC to investigate kids’ apps on Google Play

A coalition of 22 consumer and public health advocacy groups, led by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), have today filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission asking them to investigate and sanction Google for how its Google Play Store markets apps to children. The complaint states that Google features apps designed for very young children in its Play Store’s “Family” section, many of which are violating federal children’s privacy law, exposing kids to inappropriate content and disregarding Google’s own policies by luring kids into making in-app purchases and watching ads.

Google Play ‘Family’ section

Google first introduced its “Designed for Families” program back in 2015, which gives developers of kid-friendly apps meeting certain guidelines additional visibility in the Play Store. This includes a placement in the Family section, where apps are organized by age appropriateness.

To qualify, “Family” apps must abide by specific content policies, Google’s Developer Distribution Agreement and the Designed for Families DDA Addendum. The apps also must meet the Designed for Families program requirements. Legal compliance with federal privacy laws, including COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule), are among the requirements.

COPPA is designed to protect children under the age of 13 by giving parents control over what information sites and apps can collect from their kids.

Above: Google Play store showcases children’s content in its own dedicated sections

COPPA violations

But the new FTC complaint claims that Google is not verifying COPPA compliance when it accepts these apps and, as a result, many are in continual violation of the law.

“Our research revealed a surprising number of privacy violations on Android apps for children, including sharing geolocation with third parties,” said Serge Egelman, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, in a statement shared by the group. “Given Google’s assertion that Designed for Families apps must be COPPA compliant, it’s disappointing these violations still abound, even after Google was alerted to the scale of the problem,” he added.

TechCrunch asked the coalition if it had some idea about how many apps were in violation of COPPA, and were told the groups don’t know an exact number.

“From our survey — and more comprehensive analyses like the PET Study — it seems fairly prevalent,” Lindsey Barrett, Staff Attorney at Georgetown’s Institute for Public Representation, told us.

“The PET Study found that 73 percent of the kids apps in the Play store transmitted sensitive data over the internet, and we saw apps sending geolocation without notice and verifiable parental consent, and sending personal information unencrypted,” Barrett said. “Further, under COPPA, children’s PII cannot be used for behavioral advertising. Yet, many of the children’s apps we looked at were sending information to ad networks which say their services should not be used with children’s apps,” she added.

Other harms

The apps also engage in other bad behaviors, like regularly showing ads that are difficult to exit or showing those that require viewing in order to continue the current game, according to the complaint. Some apps pressure kids into making in-app purchases — in one example, the game characters were crying if the kids didn’t buy the locked items, it notes. Others show ads for alcohol and gambling, despite those being barred by Google’s Ad Policy.

Above: disturbing images from TabTale apps

The coalition additionally called out some apps for containing “graphic, sexualized images” like TutoTOONS “Sweet Baby Girl Daycare 4 – Babysitting Fun,” which has more than 10 million downloads. (The game has a part where kids change a baby’s diaper, wipe their diaper area, then rub powder all over the baby’s body.) Others model harmful behavior, like TabTale’s “Crazy Eye Clinic,” which teaches children to clean their eyes with a sharp instrument, and has more than one million downloads. (The game is currently not available on Google Play and its webpage is down.)

The complaint also broadly takes issue with apps that use common SDKs like those from Unity or Flurry (disclosure: Flurry and TechCrunch share a corporate parent) to collect device identifiers from the children’s apps.

“Nearly three-quarters of the apps in the Family section transmit device identifiers to third parties,” reads the complaint. “There is no way for us to know for sure what the device identifiers are used for. Since many of the apps send device identifiers to third parties that specialize in monetizing apps and/or engaging in interest-based (behavioral) advertising, it seems unlikely that this information is being used solely to support internal operations,” it says.

Above: Strawberry Shortcake Puppy Palace was called out for aggressive monetization efforts. Strawberry tells kids to buy things to keep the puppy happy — the implication is if you don’t pay, you’re making puppies sad.

The groups say that Google has been aware of all these problems for some time, but hasn’t taken adequate steps to enforce its criteria for developers. As a result, the consumer advocacy groups are urging the FTC to investigate the Play Store’s practices.

The coalition had previously asked the FTC to investigate developers of children’s apps aimed at preschoolers who were using manipulative advertising. But today’s complaint is focused on Google.

“Google (Alphabet, Inc.) has long engaged in unethical and harmful business practices, especially when it comes to children,” explained Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “And the Federal Trade Commission has for too long ignored this problem, placing both children and their parents at risk over their loss of privacy, and exposing them to a powerful and manipulative marketing apparatus. As one of the world’s leading providers of content for kids online, Google continues to put the enormous profits they make from kids ahead of any concern for their welfare,” Chester said.

Apple was not similarly called out because a similar analysis has not yet been done on its app marketplace, Josh Golin, executive director at CCFC told us. In Google’s case, he explained, two major studies found widespread issues with the Play Store apps for kids. One from Berkeley researchers found widespread COPPA non-compliance; the other, by University of Michigan researchers, found children’s play experience was often completely interrupted and undermined by aggressive marketing tactics.

The complaint comes at a time where there is increased scrutiny as to how tech companies are misusing and abusing consumer data and violating privacy. Kids game have already been the subject of some concern. And this morning, an NYT investigation into Facebook revealed it had shared more of users’ personal data than disclosed with major tech companies, following a year of data scandals.

The issue of data privacy is an industry-wide problem. Tech companies’ failures on this front will likely lead to increased regulation going forward.

Not all the named developers were immediately available to comment this morning. We’ll update if comments are provided. (Update: TutoToons says they removed the inappropriate content from the app after becoming aware of the complaint. They urged parents and child advocacy groups to reach out to them directly in the future.)

Google says it’s taking the complaint seriously. It has removed thousands of apps from its Designed for Families program this year, and rejects a third of applications.

“Parents want their children to be safe online and we work hard to protect them. Apps in our Designed for Families program have to comply with strict policies on content, privacy and advertising, and we take action on any policy violations that we find,” a Google spokesperson says. “We take these issues very seriously and continue to work hard to remove any content that is inappropriately aimed at children from our platform,” they added.

The full complaint is below.

Google’s search data shows YouTube’s influence over this season’s hottest toys

If there was any doubt about YouTube’s power to influence children, look no further than this year’s list of the hottest holiday toys, based on Google shopping search data. According to the search giant, at least four of the top 10 most searched toys were among those heavily featured in YouTube unboxing videos — subsequently turning them into the most in-demand and best-selling toys of the holiday season. Plus, another top toy is the JoJo Siwa Singing doll — a product from the YouTube star of the same name.

Clearly, we’re long past the days where TV commercials are the ways toy makers are reaching children. Instead, they’re leveraging the power of YouTube to drive hype and interest in their products, as Google’s list and those from the major retailers themselves show.

In particular, MGA Entertainment is having a great 2018 holiday season. The company, which is best known for disrupting Barbie with its Bratz dolls back in the day, is today the force behind some of the most in-demand toys, like L.O.L Surprise! and Num Noms, plus top preschooler brand Little Tikes, and others.

The toy maker has not one but three of its L.O.L. Surprise! toys on Google’s list this year, which the search giant points out were also all the subject of numerous YouTube unboxing videos over the holiday shopping season, which helped drive searches. The most searched for toy — Spin Master’s Luvabella doll — was also regularly featured across YouTube, the company notes.

This search data turns into real-world sales, too. Though we’ll have to wait for the holidays to wrap to get the final count, already L.O.L Surprise! toys have made their way onto Amazon’s Holiday Toy List, for example, and its Best Sellers. In fact, L.O.L. Surprises have claimed half the spots on Amazon’s top 10 list of the Best Selling Toys & Games, as of today. (And they’ve snagged spots further down the list: L.O.L Surprise! toys are the No. 13 and No. 34 best sellers, too.)

Not coincidentally, L.O.L. Surprises are the sort of toy that’s designed perfectly for the YouTube era. They’re basically made for unboxing.

The toys themselves are not sold in transparent packaging, but are rather hidden away inside some sort of container — a box, case or a ball, for example. The excitement for the kids comes from the unboxing process itself — only then will they see their doll and all their accompanying accessories. Sometimes there’s another step, too — like decoding secret messages on the outside of the packaging, or dunking a fizz in some water to reveal the enclosed toy.

With multiple steps to even get to the toy itself, it’s ideal content for YouTube. Combined with YouTubers’ high-pitched squeals of joy as they work their way through the process, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for selling toys.

Other most-searched toys from Google’s list also made an appearance on Amazon’s Top Toy list of 2018, like LEGO Friends Heartlake City Resort and the Kano Harry Potter Coding Kit, for example.

Google’s list is also biased toward tech toys, with top searches for things like the DJI Tello, VTech Kidizoom Smartwatch DX, as well as the Harry Potter kit, in addition to classics from NERF and LEGO.

Amazon’s best sellers include some VTech and Melissa and Doug products, but not the specific SKUs Google had picked up on.

YouTube’s influence can be spotted on Walmart’s toys list, as well.

In its list of top toys rated by kids, L.O.L Surprise!, Pikmi Pops, Hatchimals and Fingerlings — all of which star in dozens upon dozens of unboxing videos — make several appearances.

And then, of course, there’s Ryans World Giant Mystery Egg, which comes from one of the best-known YouTubers to date — the 7-year-old millionaire and toy unboxer supreme, Ryan of Ryan ToysReview who scored a lucrative deal with Walmart to launch his toy line. Walmart senior buyer Brad Bedwell recently told Yahoo Finance the toy egg has been “the big winner of the season.”

Walmart was pretty savvy to scoop up Ryan for this exclusive deal.

“Years ago, kids would have been glued to the TV watching the traditional channels, and now they’re watching content everywhere. They’re still watching TV, but they’re also watching it on tablets and parents’ cellphones,” Bedwell told Yahoo. “Everywhere they are, they can look at and consume content. And YouTube is now up there with the major TV channels with how many kids watch it.”

Teen debit card Current now acts more like a real bank account

Current, the app-controlled teen debit card that’s managed by parents, is starting to look more like a bank. Today, the startup announced it’s now adding support for routing and account numbers to its debit account for teens. That means working teens will be able to direct deposit their paychecks from after-school and summer jobs to their Current account, then use the Visa debit card when they need to make purchases – including when shopping online.

The company first launched its debit card and app for teens and parents last year, with the goal of giving parents a more modern way to dole out allowances and reward their kids for household chores.

Through the app, parents can set chores, transfer funds, and track their child’s spending. They can also set limits on how the money can be used, including restrictions on the amount that can be pulled out of an ATM as well as ways to block spending by category – like blocking purchases at bars or airlines, for example.

Meanwhile, by offering the funds on a debit card, teens get a sense of autonomy as well as a way to practice money management and financial disciple.

Now, the company wants to better serve its teenaged users who are working outside the home.

Today, traditional banks will offer accounts to teens in some cases – like if they have a recurring deposit from an employer, for example. But Current won’t have the same restrictions, the company says. Teens who are earning money on their own – but not necessarily on a recurring schedule – can opt for Current instead.

“Gen Z’s entrepreneurial spirit is strong, and they are looking for ways to earn money on their own
terms, taking part in the gig economy and starting their own businesses,” said Current founder and CEO Stuart Sopp, in a statement. “These working teens need a debit card for supplies and services, and a way to get paid including direct deposit and routing and account numbers so they can connect with e-commerce
platforms,” he noted.

The launch of account numbers follows Current’s recent addition of instant transfers, which allows parents to immediately fund teens’ accounts without a wait or any extra fees.

The startup charges parents a $36 annual subscription for its service. It competes with other teen-focused solutions in the fintech space, including Greenlight Financial and those from traditional banks. Current is backed by $10 million from QED Investors, Cota Capital, Fifth Third Capital, and others.

My parents are wowed by Amazon, LimeBikes and more as longtime visitors return to big, new Seattle

Dick and Kathy Schlosser take in the Amazon Spheres — a new addition to Seattle since their last visit to the city. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Getting together with family during the holidays — especially with members who visit from across the country — is a great time to assess all that has changed. Grandkids get taller, adult kids get grayer, and parents get a little slower. And cities like Seattle get more unrecognizable.

My folks traveled to Seattle for Thanksgiving this year after having not visited the city for about four years. They love Seattle and have been big fans since my brother and I moved west more than 20 years ago. Back then I tried hard to get Dick and Kathy to relocate, and I tried even harder when we had their first and only grandchildren. But Seattle was unaffordable then, and now moving from Western New York is not even a conversation worth having.

What we did talk about was the explosive change in Seattle, even in the few years since my parents last visited. And, as usual, we talked about technology and how it impacts my city and my family. It was fun to notice how they reacted to some of the newer things around town, even if those things feel like they’ve been here for some time now. I’ve collected a few post-holiday highlights below:

Seattle growth

The Space Needle stands out amid cranes and construction materials in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo /
Kurt Schlosser)

Even 20 years ago, Seattle felt a little big for my folks. They’re not fans of traffic, or sitting in it to get anywhere, even though one of their favorite things to do, at 82 and 78 years old, is get in the car and go for a drive.

Driving through Ballard and Fremont, they noticed the proliferation of new apartment buildings. “Wow,” they would say, staring up at five-story building being constructed on what they remember as a sleepier corner.

During a favorite walk of theirs, from my house to the neighborhood bakery, plenty of older houses have been replaced by modern boxes. “People are stacked on top of people now,” my mom said.

Amazon

Dick Schlosser watches an information video at Understory, a visitor center located beneath Amazon’s Spheres. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

I felt like the best way to show off the change in Seattle was to take my parents to the epicenter of it all. The day after Thanksgiving we headed down to Amazon’s headquarters for a look at the Spheres, mostly from the outside and from the Understory information area that is open to the public.

Walking around in the cold drizzle and staring up at Amazon’s Day 1 and Doppler towers, and the Block 21 project that is rapidly taking shape across the street, I could sense my parents running numbers in their heads. So I told them, 45,000 people now work for the tech giant in Seattle.

The city where they live is home to Kodak, and that film giant, which once employed 60,000 people, is a shell of what it once was. My parents have a hard time, in 2018, imagining the same thing could ever happen to Amazon.

We walked past the first Amazon Go store and they just kind of chuckled when I told them there are no cashiers, you just grab items and walk out. My parents live in a city that is home to Wegman’s, one of the most revered grocery chains in the U.S. It’s a joy for them to shop there, and talking to the people who work there is a big part of that joy.

Inside the Spheres’ visitor center, they watched a video about some of the plants that live in the structures above, and they learned a little about Jeff Bezos’ philanthropic pursuits from informational kiosks. I reiterated that the Amazon CEO is the richest man on the planet. “What about Gates?” my dad asked. “Yeah, twice as rich as Bill Gates,” I said.

We drove through South Lake Union and I explained that most of what they were looking at was also Amazon, with some Google and Facebook and Paul Allen ventures sprinkled in. “There sure are a lot of cranes,” my mom said. “Yup. More than any other city,” I told her.

Amazon’s Day 1 tower, with an Amazon Go store and the Spheres. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Bike sharing

We talked a lot about transportation during this visit. My dad drove a truck for UPS as a career, and I always catch him checking out the delivery drivers at the crowded Pike Place Market, as if he’s watching them navigate the throng of tourists and saying to himself, “No thanks.”

My wife now works for an e-bike company in Seattle and as a family we have about eight bikes in the garage. I raced BMX with my dad a long time ago, so bikes are always a hot topic. Around Seattle these days, Dick was flabbergasted by all of the LimeBikes.

“What’s with all the green bikes? How do they work? Why are they left on the sidewalk?” he asked. “There’s another one. Oh, there’s a Lime. Someone left that one on the grass!”

His reaction was typical of anyone dropped into the city in the last couple years, since bike sharing became a thing. I’m glad he wasn’t here when the colorful addition to our commuting lifestyle also included yellow Ofo and orange Spin bikes. But, he did get to ask what was up with the new red Jump bikes from Uber.

Meeting Alexa

We have an Echo Dot in the kitchen at home, and it was the first time my parents interacted with Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa.

Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving, my mom was prepping her apple pie. “Want some music?” I asked her. “I can play whatever you like. What’s your favorite?”

I asked Alexa to play the Bee Gees. “She’ll play anything?” my mom asked, as her eyes widened by the small black disc sitting on a shelf.

Throughout the week, Alexa was employed by my kids to answer a variety of questions — or make a cat noise. Each time my parents were kind of surprised by the artificial intelligence living among us.

My mom, who loves her iPad, thought she was already ahead of the game.

“When I have a question I always have to go to the Google,” she said.

Screen time

Dick Schlosser plays a YouTube video for Kathy Schlosser on an iPad. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

I thought I’d have to defend my kids’ screen time during my parents’ visit, but a funny thing happened during down time around the holiday. At certain moments, all six people in the house were checking some sort of device. My wife and I were on our phones; I used my laptop for work; my son played games on an iMac in his room; my daughter drew pictures or watched a show on an iPad; my parents played solitaire on their iPads.

At night it was an even funnier sight, as our family headed for bed and left my parents on the couch. Both of them were wearing headphones, watching separate Netflix shows on their iPads.

“Goodnight!” they yelled over what they were listening to.

I have to tell a 5-year-old, regularly, that she’s had enough “My Little Pony.” I didn’t have the heart to unplug “The Great British Baking Show” from her grandmother.

PREVIOUSLY IN THIS SERIES:

Mom and dad unplugged: How 10 days with my parents taught me to love the way they use tech

After 58 years, my parents ditched their daily print newspaper for iPads — here’s the scoop on that

Pew: A majority of U.S. teens are bullied online

A majority of U.S. teens have been subject to online abuse, according to a new study from Pew Research Center, out this morning. Specifically, that means they’ve experienced at least one of a half-dozen types of online cyberbullying, including name-calling, being subject to false rumors, receiving explicit images they didn’t ask for, having explicit images of themselves shared without their consent, physical threats, or being constantly asked about their location and activities in a stalker-ish fashion by someone who is not their parents.

Of these, name-calling and being subject to false rumors were the top two categories of abuse teens were subject to, with 42% and 32% of teens reporting it had happened to them.

Pew says that texting and digital messaging has paved the way for these types of interactions, and parents and teens alike are both aware of the dangers and concerned.

Parents, in particular, are worried about teens sending and receiving explicit images, with 57% saying that’s a concern, and a quarter of them worry about this “a lot.” And parents of girls worry more. (64% do.)

Meanwhile, a large majority – 90% – of teens now believe that online harassment is a problem and 63% say it’s what they consider a “major” problem.

Pew also found that girls and boys are both harassed online in fairly equal measure, with 60% of girls and 59% of boys reporting having experienced some sort of online abuse. That’s a figure that may surprise some. However, it’s important to clarify that this finding is about whether or not the teen had ever had experienced online abuse – not how often or how much.

Not surprisingly, Pew found that girls are more likely than boys to have experienced two or more types of abuse, and 15% of girls have been the target of at least 4 types of abuse, compared with 6% of boys.

Girls are also more likely to be the recipient of explicit images they didn’t ask for, as 29% of teens girls reported this happened to them, versus 20% of boys.

And as the teen girls get older, they receive even more of these types of images, with 35% of girls ages 15 to 17 saying they received them, compared with only 1 out of 5 boys.

Several factors seem to play no role in whether the teens experience abuse, including race, ethnicity, or parents’ educational attainment, Pew noted. But having money does seem to matter somehow – as 24% of teens whose household income was less than $30K per year said they received online threats, compared with only 12% of those whose household incomes was greater than $75K per year. (Pew’s report doesn’t attempt to explain this finding.)

Beyond that factor, receiving or avoiding abuse is directly tied to how much screen time teens put in.

That is, the more teens go online, the more abuse they’ll receive.

Forty-five percent of teens say they’re online almost constantly, and they are more likely to be harassed, as a result. Sixty-seven percent of them say they’ve been cyberbullied, compared with 53% who use the internet several times a day or less. And half the constantly online teens have been called offensive names, compared with just about a third (36%) who use the internet less often.

Major tech companies, including Apple, Google, and Facebook, have begun to address the issues around device addiction and screen time with software updates and parental controls.

Apple, in iOS 12, rolled out Screen Time controls that allows Apple device users to measure, monitor and restrict how often they’re on their phones, when, what type of content is blocked, and which apps they can use. In adults, the software can nudge them in the right direction, but parents also have the option of locking down their children’s phones using Screen Time controls. (Of course, savvy kids have already found the loopholes to avoid this, according to new reports.)

Google also introduced time management controls in the new version of Android, and offers parental controls around screen time through its Family Link software.

And both Google and Facebook have begun to introduce screen time reminders and settings for addictive apps like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.

Teens seem to respect parents’ involvement in their digital lives, the report also found.

A majority – 59% – of U.S. teens say their parents are doing a good job with regard to addressing online harassment. However, 79% say elected officials are failing to protect them through legislation, 66% say social media sites are doing a poor job at stamping down abuse, and 58% of teachers are doing a poor job at handling abuse, as well.

Many of the top media sites were largely built by young people when they were first founded, and those people were often men. The sites were created in an almost naive fashion, with regard to online abuse. Protections – like muting, filters, blocking, and reporting – were generally introduced in a reactive fashion, not as proactive controls.

Instagram, for example – one of teens’ most-used apps – only introduced comment filters, blocklists, and comment blocking in 2016, and just four months ago added account muting. The app was launched in October 2010.

Pew’s findings indicate that parents would do well by their kids by using screen time management and control systems – not simply to stop their teenagers from being bullied and abused as often, but also to help the teens practice how to interact with the web in a less addictive fashion as they grow into adults.

After all, device addiction resulting in increased exposure to online abuse is not a plague that only affects teens.

Pew’s full study involves surveys of 743 teens and 1,058 parents living in the U.S. conducted March 7 to April 10, 2018. It counted “teens” as those ages 13 to 17, and “parents of teens” are those who are the parent or guardian of someone in that age range. The full report is here.

Google’s parental control software Family Link expands to teens

Google’s parental control software for mobile devices, Family Link, will now help parents of teenagers, too. The company announced this morning the addition of new features aimed at parents of children over the age of 13. Perhaps the most controversial choice Google has made with this expansion is that teens can choose to turn off supervision via the software. While this does send an alert to parents, it’s a decidedly odd choice.

After all, if parents are planning on controlling smartphone use through Family Link – which lets them do things like manage and track screen time, view the location of the device, or control which apps are able to be installed, for example – it seems that parent and child would have already had a conversation about the topic.

And while it’s a nice gesture to ask teens to give consent to monitoring, it’s a hollow one – teens, after all, are still children, and parents likely bought them their device and are paying the phone bill. Parents at this point should have already established that using a phone is a privilege, not a right, and that there are ground rules, as well as what those rules are.

Parents should have had the conversation about how usage and location is tracked, and discussed what sort of content should or should not be viewed and shared on the teens’ phone. Allowing the kid to just “opt out” should not be how that conversation starts.

Plus, you can’t really argue that teens could somehow be surreptitiously monitored by parents, given that parents are approving their app downloads and setting screen time limits, among other things, if on Family Link. They must have some awareness there’s a control mechanism in place.

The software’s support for teens rolls out this week worldwide, Google says, as part of Family Link’s global expansion. The applicable age for a teen varies by country, but in the U.S. it’s 13. The app will also be available for Chromebook devices. And soon, parents will be able to manage Family Link devices through Google Assistant voice commands, too.

Streaming service VRV adds NickSplat, a channel featuring classic 90’s Nickelodeon TV

VRV, a fandom-focused digital streaming service, has signed a deal with Viacom and Nickelodeon to launch a new streaming channel dedicated to Nick’s classic 90’s shows and more. The new channel, called NickSplat (yes really), will stream via VRV as an over-the-top service, and will offer fans access to nearly 30 classic series, the companies say.

Its lineup includes series like “AAAHH!!! Real Monsters,” “CatDog,” “Doug,” “Rocko’s Modern Life,” “All That,” “Are You Afraid of the Dark?,” “Clarissa Explains It All,” “Kenan & Kel,” “Legends of the Hidden Temple,” “The Angry Beavers” “The Wild Thornberrys,” and many others.

VRV says additional shows will be added at a later date.

The channel will also be available both as a $5.99 per month a la carte subscription and it will be included in the VRV premium bundle, which is $9.99 per month. In a sense, the a la carte option is the equivalent of it being its own streaming service, but one without its own standalone platform, as with Viacom’s Noggin, aimed at the preschool set.

VRV’s premium bundle offers a variety of channels beyond NickSplat, including also Ellation’s anime streaming service Crunchyroll, Funimation, Rooster Teeth, Shudder and others, as well as exclusive series like “HarmonQuest,” “Killjoys,” “Thundercats,” and “Gary and His Demons.”

“VRV, with a sophisticated user base that loves the best in animation, is the perfect platform to launch our NickSplat channel,” said Sam Cooper, Viacom Executive Vice President of Distribution and Business Development Partnerships, in a statement about the launch.

“Viacom’s content – including our deep library of genre-defining television – is highly in demand, and our audiences are always looking for new and innovative ways to enjoy our programming. We’re committed to finding the best partners to bring our individual brands direct to the consumer, and this relationship with VRV is an exciting step forward in our strategy,” Cooper added.

VRV arrived in 2016 as something of a competitor to Amazon’s Prime Video Channels, which also provides access to niche digital streaming content in a single destination. However, VRV offers members over 20,000 hours of free content, with the option to upgrade to the Premium tier for more, as well as its exclusives. Amazon’s Channels, on the other hand, is only an a la carte service where members pick and choose which channels they want. There aren’t any channel bundles available at this time.

In addition, unlike Amazon Channels, VRV isn’t targeting a mainstream user base, but has been more focused on serving various fandoms – anime fans, gamers, comics fans, sci-fi and fantasy fans, and others.

With NickSplat, it’s now going after a slightly different demographic – kids who grew up watching Nickelodeon on linear TV and are nostalgic for those old shows. Maybe they even want to stream them for their own kids these days.

For Viacom, a partnership with VRV gives it a chance to monetize its older library content in a different way than throwing it out on a bigger platform, like Netflix (where, frankly, it would be seen by more viewers). However, VRV is not the only place some of these old shows can be found – there are also Nick classic series on other services, like Hulu and Amazon – the latter where they can be purchased by episode or season. In other words, if you’re sorta obsessed with one or two old Nick shows, you may want to just go find them elsewhere. NickSplat only makes sense if you want a big back catalog of classic Nickelodeon.

VRV is available online and as an app on Xbox One, PS4, Apple TV, Roku, Fire TV, Android TV, Chromecast, Android and iOS.

A majority of U.S. teens are taking steps to limit smartphone and social media use

It’s not just parents who are worrying about their children’s device usage. According to a new study released by Pew Research Center this week, U.S. teens are now taking steps to limit themselves from overuse of their phone and its addictive apps, like social media. A majority, 54% of teens, said they spend too much time on their phone, and nearly that many – 52% – said they are trying to limit their phone use in various ways.

In addition, 57% say they’re trying to limit social media usage and 58% are trying to limit video games.

The fact that older children haven’t gotten a good handle on balanced smartphone usage points to a failure on both parents’ parts and the responsibilities of technology companies to address the addictive nature of our devices.

For years, instead of encouraging more moderate use of smartphones, as the tools they’re meant to be, app makers took full advantage of smartphones’ always-on nature to continually send streams of interruptive notifications that pushed users to constantly check in. Tech companies even leveraged psychological tricks to reward us each time we launched their app, with dopamine hits that keep users engaged.

Device makers loved this addiction because they financially benefited from app sales and in-app purchases, in addition to device sales. So they built ever more tools to give apps access to users’ attention, instead of lessening it.

For addicted teens, parents were of little help as they themselves were often victims of this system, too.

Today, tech companies are finally waking up to the problem. Google and Apple have now both built in screen time monitoring and control tools into their mobile operating systems, and even dopamine drug dealers like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have begun to add screen time reminders and other “time well spent” features.

But these tools have come too late to prevent U.S. children from developing bad habits with potentially harmful side effects.

Pew says that 72% of teens are reaching for their phones as soon as they wake up; four-in-ten feel anxious without their phone; 56% report that not have their phone with them can make them feel lonely, upset or anxious; 51% feel their parents are distracted by phones during conversations (72% of parents say this is true, too, when trying to talk to teens); and 31% say phones distract them in class.

The problems are compounded by the fact that smartphones aren’t a luxury any longer – they’re in the hands of nearly all U.S. teens, 45% of whom are almost constantly online.

The only good news is that today’s teens seem to be more aware of the problem, even if their parents failed to teach balanced use of devices in their own home.

Nine-in-ten teens believe that spending too much time online is a problem, and 60% say it’s a major problem. 41% say they spend too much time on social media.

In addition, some parents are starting to take aim at the problem, as well, with 57% reporting they’ve set some screen time restrictions for their teens.

Today’s internet can be a toxic place, and not one where people should spend large amounts of time.

Social networking one the top activities taking place on smartphones, reports show.

But many of these networks were built by young men who couldn’t conceive of all the ways things could go wrong. They failed to build in robust controls from day one to prevent things like bullying, harassment, threats, misinformation, and other issues.

Instead, these protections have been added on after the fact – after the problems became severe. And, some could argue, that was too late. Social media is something that’s now associated with online abuse and disinformation, with comment thread fights and trolling, and with consequences that range from teen suicides to genocide.

If we are unable to give up our smartphones and social media for the benefits they do offer, at the very least we should be monitoring and moderating our use of them at this point.

Thankfully, as this study shows, there’s growing awareness of this among younger users, and maybe, some of them will even do something about it in the future – when they’re the bosses, the parents, and the engineers, they can craft new work/life policies, make new house rules, and write better code.

Amazon’s Echo Dot Kids Edition gains new skills from Disney and others

Amazon is today rolling out a set of new features to its Echo Dot Kids Edition devices – the now $70 version of the Echo Dot smart speaker that ships with a protective case and a year’s subscription to Amazon FreeTime, normally a $2.99 per month subscription for Prime members. Now joining the Kids Edition’s parental controls and other exclusive content are new skills from Disney, Hotel Transylvania, and Pac-Man as well as a calming “Sleep Sounds” skill for bedtime.

There are now four new skills that play sounds of thunderstorms, rain, the ocean, or a babbling brook, as well as an all-encompassing “sleep sounds” skill that offers 42 different soothing options to choose from. New parents may be glad to know that this includes baby soothing sounds like cars, trains and the vacuum (don’t knock it until you try it, folks. It works.)

Amazon clarified to us that while there is a version of sleep sounds in the Skill Store today, this version launching on the Kids Edition is a different, child-directed version.

Also new to the Kids Edition is “Disney Plot Twist,” which is like a Disney version of Mad Libs where players change out words and phrases in short adventure stories. The skill features popular Disney characters like Anna, Olaf and Christoff as the narrators and is exclusive to Kids Edition devices.

The new movie “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation” is featured in another new skill, Drac’s Pack, which includes monster stories, songs and jokes.

Meanwhile, Pac-Man Stories is a skill that includes interactive stories for the whole family, that work similar to choose-your-own-adventures – that is, the decisions you make will affect the ending.

Both of these are broadly available on Alexa, meaning they don’t require a Kids Edition device to access.

Stories, however, does appear to be one of the areas Amazon is investing in to make its Alexa-powered speakers more appealing to families with young children. The company recently decided to stop working on its chat stories app Amazon Rapids, saying it will instead continue to adapt those Amazon Rapids stories for the Alexa platform.

Amazon also tries to market the Echo Dot Kids Edition to families by making some kid-friendly content, like Disney Plot Twist, available exclusively to device owners.

For example, it already offers exclusive kid skills like Disney Stories, Loud House Challenge, No Way That’s True, Funny Fill In, Spongebob Challenge, Weird but True, Name that Animal, This or That, Word world, Ben ten, Classroom thirteen, Batman Adventures, and Climb the Beanstalk, with this device.

But the Kids Edition can also be confusing to use, because the exclusive skills come whitelisted and ready to go, while other kid-safe skills have to be manually whitelisted through a parents dashboard. And there isn’t enough instruction either from Alexa or in the Alexa app on this process, at present, we found when testing the device earlier.

Unless there’s a specific exclusive skill that parents really want their kids to have, the savings are also minimal when buying the Kids Edition Dot/FreeTime bundle, versus buying a regular Dot and adding on FreeTime separately.