We often bemoan the fact that our kids won't lift their heads from their screens long enough to have a conversation with us, but when your kids are across town or across the country, their connection to their devices can work in your favor.
When you are sharing custody of your children with their other parent, it's hard to not be part of their day-to-day lives. This is true whether your children are apart from you for the weekend or the summer. The ability to touch base as needed and without great fanfare makes time together seem more like "real life" and less like "visitation," a word that's fallen from favor in family law because of the implication that a parent is a mere "visitor" in their child's life.
How can you use technology to maintain a feeling of connection with your kids without treading on their time with their other parent? By using their preferred methods of communication, and by setting some ground rules with your co-parent if possible.
For younger kids, being able to Skype or FaceTime with you while they're with their other parent can be a great comfort; at the same time, it can reassure you that they're doing okay while you're apart. Depending on their ages, their use of technology will be assisted by their other parent. You can and should work out ground rules with each other for when and how you'll each use tech to help the kids stay in touch.
Using tech with older kids provides much broader opportunities to connect with them on their level, in a way that ideally feels helpful to them, but not intrusive or overbearing. A study at Brigham Young University found that teens who interact with their parents on social media platforms tend to feel closer to them in real life.
Another recent study found that four top social media sites for teens are Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Of the four, parents tend to be most familiar, and comfortable, with Facebook. But if the goal is to stay connected with your kids, it's worth making the effort to meet them where they are, literally, metaphorically and digitally.
Each passing day brings the development of more apps, social media platforms, and games that can help you and your kids stay connected.
WhatsApp boasts "fast, simple, secure messaging and calling for free*, available on phones all over the world." The asterisk after the word "free" refers to the fact that data charges may apply, which is one drawback to this messaging system that offers many benefits: free voice and face-to-face calling, unlimited text messaging, the ability to transmit documents, and the ability to see if your message has been delivered and/or read. WhatsApp is available on your browser as well as your phone, for maximum convenience.
A picture—or a GIF—is worth a thousand words, and many teens choose Tumblr over Facebook for blogging and sharing visual content. Tumblr lets users create blog posts using a variety of formats, but is most popular for videos, photos, and animated GIFs. Tumblr is also available on iOS devices and Android phones as well as browsers.
Kik, an alternative to regular text messaging, has been popular for some time. Advantages include that it's free, and mimics the appearance of SMS messaging on a smartphone. You can also send GIFs, emoticons, photos, videos, even drawings. Kik users communicate with each other under user names, not phone numbers or real names, and conversations are private and not available for public viewing. While this privacy can be an advantage, it can also make it harder for parents to monitor Kik than other social media apps.
You and your teen can also sign up for WeChat from your phones. WeChat allows you to share "Moments" (the equivalent of a Facebook status update) and play games with your contacts. You can also send brief audio clips, share your location, and of course, use emojis. A unique feature: you can shake your phone to discover and chat with others who are "shaking" at the same time.
If you want to expand your emoji game beyond smiles and hearts, try an emoji translator like Decodemoji. Your creative emoji use may impress your kids—and at the least, you can avoid embarrassing yourself by sending an emoji that means something you didn't realize.
If your kids are on YouTube, find out what channels they follow. It's a good way to learn about (and keep tabs on) their interests, and possibly discover some that you have in common.
Technology can take some of the sting out of your kids having to spend time apart from you. Soon enough, they'll be in your home again—where you may have to text them in their rooms to remind them it's time for dinner!
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