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Bark has plenty of bite

Bark has plenty of bite

During this period of social distancing and online learning, there is an even more pressing need to ensure that teenage internet usage is being properly managed and monitored. Many kids are now home with unfettered access to screens and devices all day. Couple that with boredom, complex emotions resulting from the current pandemic and typical teenage behavior and you have a recipe for trouble. Enter Bark, a monitoring platform utilized by parents to strike the delicate balance of keeping their kids safe online without being overly invasive.

I first learned about Bark in the spring of 2019 while attending the Dad 2.0 Summit in San Antonio, Texas and was incredibly impressed by the team and their platform. I’ve subsequently become a Bark Ambassador. Some quick numbers about Bark’s coverage:

Bark helps protect more than 5 million kids across the U.S. and has alerted parents to tens of millions of potential issues. In 2019, we detected 7.3M+ instances of cyberbullying, 540,000+ instances of self-harm and/or suicidal ideation, and 450 child conversations with sexual predators. To date, Bark has also helped prevent 16 school shootings and offers free content monitoring for more than 1,900 schools and districts nationwide.

How does Bark monitor a child’s use of their phone and social platforms and trigger alerts for parents while preserving the child’s privacy? Instead of giving parents full access to their child’s accounts and messages, Bark leverages artificial intelligence to alert parents when concerning situations arise (ranging from troublesome language to cyberbullying and potential online predation).

During this social distancing period, we’ve recently ramped up our 11-year-old’s internet usage (more on that in an upcoming post) and I’ve turned on additional monitoring from Bark as a result. To date, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised that the only alert to be triggered resulted from the use of “LMAO” by one of his friends in a Google Hangouts chat. I’m not naive enough to think his web and social interactions will always be this innocent, but I’ll take it for now!

Bark employees have also done courageous work combatting online sexual predators, even working with law enforcement and having a 37-year-old mom pose as a teenager online. Bark produced a video documenting their undercover efforts which I encourage you to watch to educate yourself about the harsh realities of online predation (especially with respect for young girls) but caution you that it’s incredibly disturbing.

Jarring video, right? I was in attendance when it was screened at the Dad 2.o Summit in March and the room was silent. Everyone was horrified by what they had seen. My daughter is only 5 years old, but I immediately started contemplating keeping her off the internet until she’s 30. I walked away even more grateful for the work the Bark team and others like them are doing. I am glad that more tools are being made available for parents with children navigating the digital world.

Bark has just announced the launch of new screen time management and web filtering features, available this week to all users. Many parents were utilizing Bark for monitoring and alert purposes but relying on other platforms to limit screen time and web usage. Now both are available under one roof. If you sign up for Bark via this link you’ll receive a 20% discount on your subscription via my referral code. 

It’s worth noting that platforms like Bark aren’t sufficient working in isolation and shouldn’t be utilized in “set it and forget it” fashion. Absent proactive discussions with kids about the dangers of the internet and helping them to become responsible digital citizens, monitoring will likely alert parents to causes for concern either with increased frequency or severity. My kids are still relatively young, but I’ve found the published work of Devorah Heitner among others to be extremely helpful as I think about and begin navigating these issues.

Lastly, Bark for Schools is available completely free for K-12 schools. It was launched by Bark in response to the Parkland tragedy. The fact that it monitors G Suite has proven especially useful as kids have used their ingenuity to leverage Google Docs comments threats as a new chat platform (and to think we had to pass actual notes via scraps of paper, right?). I reached out to both my kids’ schools to inform them of this option.

What steps are you taking to monitor and protect your kids online? Please share with me below in the comments or on Twitter, where I’m @DadLifeStories. Thanks for reading!

Go Go Gadget Selfies

Go Go Gadget Selfies

Like many parents, I try whenever possible to take advantage of the opportunity to snap a candid family photo to commemorate a fun time. The group selfies (is “usie” officially a thing yet?) are typically impromptu photos captured at the end of a family hike or other activity. With each child we added to our family, the logistics of these shots became increasingly challenging, leaving me longing for Inspector Gadget’s Go Go Gadget Arms (any fellow 1980s TV fans reading this?). I’ve occasionally employed the use of a selfie stick, but who wants to be beholden to having one of those on-hand at all times? Initially, I extended the reach of iPhone-captured images by propping my phone up with Apple headphones plugged in and using the volume up button on the headphone cord to trigger the camera shutter. This is a useful little hack when you’re in need of a quick and dirty way to take a picture using your phone from beyond your arm’s reach. Another approach I’ve tried after propping up the phone is the native timer feature on the iPhone, which shoots a burst of photos, enabling you to choose your favorite from among the bunch. Both of these options have served me well over the years, an example of which is below.

I’ve since expanded my repertoire, leveraging technology and gadgets I’m experimenting with. When I first got the Apple Watch, I wanted to ensure that I was making use of the functional value of the watch without allowing the watch to become an unhealthy distraction. I disabled the majority of the apps and notifications and focused on utilitarian features like text message notifications, workout tracking, and calendar alerts. Another feature I’ve come to rely upon, when the opportunity strikes, is the remote shutter control. From a functional standpoint, this approach is very similar to the timer option but gives you greater control, including the option to zoom in or out (not to mention skipping the rush to get into place while the timer ticks away).

The photo below is a perfect example of a time we used the remote shutter control on the way. This picture was taken in the parking lot of a youth sports complex (with the phone sitting on my car’s back bumper) to commemorate my son’s soccer team winning the conference championship. We didn’t need anything overly posed but wanted to remember the celebratory moment, in typical silly Cutler crew fashion. As you can see, I’m tapping the shutter control on my watch to snap the pic.

As you might have guessed by now, I’m a bit of a gadget geek and enjoy experimenting with new technology. To foster that hobby, I subscribe to service called Expese, which enables you to test gadgets on a trial basis before decided whether to continue with a rent-to-own program or return the gadget and try something new. One of the first devices I received from the service when I first signed up last summer was a GoPro, which was timed perfectly as we were about to visit family for a weeklong vacation. We had a blast using the waterproof GoPro to take pictures in the pool and lake, including some underwater shots, something we obviously wouldn’t have able to do normally with a phone.

I’ve also tested a series of different drones and love the having the ability to capture a scene from a different vantage point. The resulting aerial imagery can be truly stunning, especially when I’ve brought the drone with us on road trips through scenic mountainsides in the Southeast portion of the United States. See below for a few examples of drone pictures I’ve taken over the past few months.

 What I discovered, while the kids waved at the drone in the process of taking off and landing and asked to be on video, is that the drone makes it incredibly easy to take pictures with the whole family in the frame, certainly more so than my wingspan enables via conventional selfie. We now try to grab pictures of the family whenever we’re all together while using a drone. Sometimes that means the luxury a family photo featuring a scenic backdrop without requiring a photographer.

Do you have any favorite unconventional methods for snapping candid pics of your clan? I’m always game for trying something new. Please share any recommendations you have for me in the comments below and thanks for reading!

Kid-Friendly Podcasts

Kid-Friendly Podcasts

My wife and I are avid podcast listeners. We love that we can easily listen to podcast episodes about a wide array of topics. I listen to podcasts about sports, politics, marketing, technology, crime and a variety of other subjects. Our favorite thing about podcasts, by a pretty wide margin, is the ability to passively consume episodes. As busy working parents, it can be incredibly difficult to carve out the time to catch up on our desired reading and watching. However, we can listen to podcasts while walking the dog, driving to work, or sitting on the sidelines of a child’s practice. Given the inordinate amount of time we spend in the car with the kids, we decided to explore kid-friendly podcasts that we could listen to as a family to pass the time while driving.

My wife first experimented with Wow In The World, a show that bridged the gap between parent and child favorites in our household as it’s hosted by Mindy Thomas (aka Absolutely Mindy of Kids Place Live fame – a staple of Cutler morning car rides) and Guy Raz (host of How I Built This, one of my favorite podcasts). This was a successful first foray as the kids enjoyed the episodes, but it didn’t reach the point where they requested it. Friends of ours recommended Pants on Fire, a fun podcast in which a child must determine from among two adults claiming to be subject matter experts which is the real deal and which is the liar (liar pants on fire). Pants on Fire was immediately a fan favorite with our kids, much as it had been for our friends’ kids, who are of similar ages.

When we learned that Pants on Fire is produced by Gen-Z Media, a company focused on creating awesome podcasts for kids, we decided to explore the other Gen-Z Media shows.  It turned out to be a gold mine!

We started with Young Ben Franklin, a fictional series about the adventures of an adolescent Ben Franklin in Colonial Boston before he became an inventor and statesmen. The kids quickly devoured all 10 episodes, thoroughly enjoying the engaging story and character-driven plot. We’re all hoping the show returns with additional seasons.

Next, we moved on to The Mayan Crystal, the story of a young Belizean girl who accidentally awakens an ancient evil spirit seeking to destroy the rainforest. Together with her sister, the girl embarks on a thrilling journey while they try to save the day. Our kids really liked this show as well, although our younger two kids (6 & 4) struggled to follow the plot at times.

Earth Rangers has proven to be a great filler podcast, in particular with our animal-obsessed 8-year-old. Although we don’t diligently listen to every episode in a timely fashion, it’s a fun way to learn about different animals and pass the time during rides to or from school.

As we embarked on a 15-hour drive to my in-laws for Thanksgiving a few months ago, we opted to give Six Minutes a try. The podcast chronicles the adventures of a family who discovers a girl floating in the water off the coast of Alaska and welcomes her into their home, only to discover that she has a mysterious past. Thankfully, we were late to the game in starting Six Minutes because the kids were immediately hooked. With over 75 episodes (each 6 minutes long) already released and waiting in the queue, we had over 7 hours of content to keep the kids engaged and entertained during a long drive. Six Minutes has since become appointment viewing in our house. The kids have memorized the schedule for new episodes being released (Mondays and Wednesdays) and diligently remind us to play the newest installment when we get in the car on either of those days. If one of them misses an episode for some reason, the others are perfectly content to hear it again to ensure everyone is all caught up.

We’ve explored other podcasts as a family with varying degrees of success, but nothing rose to the level of staying power attained by those that I mentioned above. One thing we learned pretty definitively is that single-narrator shows struggled to hold the kids’ attention. They have a strong preference for character-driven, full-cast productions. Kudos to the Gen-Z Media team* for having the foresight to produce what they refer to as “fun and exciting scripted podcasts with high production values and unique stories, featuring real kids playing the lead roles, and entertaining for the whole family.” It seems to be a recipe for success. 

Does your family listen to any podcasts together? I’d love to hear recommendations for new shows to try. Please share your suggestions with me in the comments below or on Twitter. Thanks!

*This is NOT a sponsored post. We’re just huge fans of Gen-Z Media’s podcasts and want to share that enjoyment with other families.