Happiness is a Service Vacation

I recently took my boys on a service vacation. We set out to serve some of our family and friends by loading up our van with tools and going on a 10 day 2000 mile road trip. We stayed for a few days at 3 different homes to do odd jobs for free. Well I did have two hungry growing boys with me so maybe not totally free.

What kinds of stuff did we do? It would be hard to list everything. All in all, we performed around 100 small jobs at three different homes.

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Fixing and Making Do

Have you ever watched a space alien movie where you suddenly see a blinding white light shooting out from around the door or window where the alien is “hiding”?  I just had that experience with my stoves’ electric oven. No there is not an alien in there. But as I was cooking, I suddenly saw a very bright light shooting out from the oven door window.  It was very disconcerting because I was not even using the oven at the time. A quick look at the oven and I could see that the heating element was emitting the light from just one small spot.  My mind quickly surmises that this is not normal and if the oven is not on then the only way to stop it is to pull the plug on the stove. I quickly pulled the stove away from the wall and unplugged it from that big old 220 Volt socket.

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The simple phone option

Previously I mentioned that my wife and I regretted getting smart devices for our kids.  It is great to be able to get in touch with the kids when they are at some event or a friends house but does it need to be a smartphone with unlimited apps to monitor? Smartphones can be good, but they can also open a world of chat fights, cyberbullying, and drama, drama, drama! Did I mention drama!

We decided the answer for us was no smartphones. We opted for an old-style flip phone instead.  One advantage is that the battery lasts for several days, but yea, the kids aren’t going to be too excited about that.  As for phone services, there are lots of options out there, but a few years ago I discovered a company called Ting ($25 Discount Link).  

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Circle Home with Disney For Kid Safety

Circle Home is a device for managing and limiting internet access on your home network devices. You can manage your home device from anywhere by using an app on either your Android or iPhone. Even if you are away from home you can pause/shut off the internet connection to some or all of your network devices. You can assign devices to a particular child and when you pause that child’s account you shut off the internet to all of their assigned devices. Each child has their own filters and limits for the devices assigned to them.

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Chromebook and Family Link

Among the Apple and Windows computers, there are some other options and one you should consider is Chromebook.  They run far better then you might expect and Google’s Family Link app can help you keep it safe for the kids.

If you have noticed Chromebook laptops in the store you may have dismissed them because they are typically low cost at around $300.   Most Windows computers in this price range are typically very slow and if that has been your experience you probably kept right on walking past the Chromebook section.

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Another DNS filter tool from CleanBrowsing.org

Previously I posted about Domain Name Services and OpenDNS and how that tool can block unwanted internet sites.  Since then, I have discovered another DNS tool by the people at CleanBrowsing.org.   They allow for more aggressive blocking without the extra setup that OpenDNS requires for their more aggressive blocking options to work.  Basically, it works just like OpenDNS FamilyShield in that you only need to point your router to the CleanBrowsing DNS server and you are done.  

CleanBrowsing actually has more than one set of Domain Name Service servers that you can point to.  They also have paid options but the free options are specifically here to help families fight “the battle of the screens” at home.    One DNS server that they call “Family Filter” is for kid traffic.  That server also blocks Virtual Private Network services or VPN.  Sometimes sneaky kids will use Virtual Private Network (VPN) applications to encrypt and hide their internet activity from their parents and this CleanBrowsing DNS server plugs that hole.  The Family Filter also blocks social sites that carry a lot of porn and enforces safe search options for sites like YouTube and Google Search.

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Using OpenDNS to filter internet access

The first line of defense in the fight against unwanted internet content is some sort of tool that works at our network entry point and helps protect our entire home network. While there are many tools you could employ why not start  with something that is simple and free?   This post will be about using free OpenDNS tools to filter out unwanted internet sites. 

To start we need to have a brief overview of DNS.  DNS stands for Domain Name Services.  It may surprise you to know that connections across the internet happen based on numbers, not names.  Since it would be hard to remember a bunch of numbers for every website you want to visit, Domain Name Services was invented to be like a contact list for websites.  When you type a site name in your browser, such as “www.AboutEasyLife.com”, your designated DNS server finds that name in its list and connects you using the correct numbered address for that site.    When you sign up for an internet service provider, you usually get a device called a router and that router is configured to use one of the many Domain Name Service servers that exist on the internet.  Every computer or device that connects to your home network will now use the Domain Name Service that is set in your router.  At OpenDNS.com they provide free as well as paid Domain Name Services that will block connections to much of the bad stuff on the internet. 

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Stopping Cues for Screen-Time

In the first posting, we referenced a TED talk by psychologist Adam Alter. In his talk, he makes the point that one of the things that keep us endlessly on social media sites is the lack of a stopping point.  Mr. Alter points out that in the past, you had natural stopping cues when you got to the end of the newspaper or finished a chapter of a book or the current TV episode ended and you had to wait for next weeks episode to come out.  In today’s world, we have bottomless buckets of information on our electronic devices.   You should also know that this is not by accident.  Media companies are in sort of an arms race in grabbing as much of your attention as they can.  This TED talk by Tristan Harris is very eye-opening on this topic. The suggestion by Alter is to create stopping cues.  We can do this for our children as well as for ourselves.

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Screen-time control through limited access

In the first post, we examined the idea that much of our sacred personal time is being wasted in fruitless interactions with our electronic devices.   Another prevalent issue is that these devices often expose family members to inappropriate material.

First of all, here is the bad news about protecting our kids from the darker aspects of screen-time.  If you have an older kid that is bent on getting access to inappropriate material it is virtually impossible to stop.  Even if you isolate your home from the internet, you would be hard pressed to stop your child from walking in the door with downloaded material that he could view on a friends old phone or even on an mp3 player.  So what is a parent to do?

Well, first you should do everything reasonable to prevent accidental encounters with pornography and to limit screen time appropriately.  This is easier with younger children but it can be done with older children as well, just be prepared to weather the storm of complaints.

Second, we have to engage with our children and teach them about the dangers associated with risky screen-time behavior.  One especially risky behavior is of sending nude or partial nude selfies called sexting.  Sexting can very often lead to cyberbullying and harassment, not to mention embarrassment.  You might be surprised that almost 15% of youth admitted to sexting [note] Madigan S, Ly A, Rash CL, Van Ouytsel J, Temple JR. Prevalence of Multiple Forms of Sexting Behavior Among YouthA Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatr. 2018;172(4):327–335. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2017.5314[/note].  Also alarming is the relationship between depression and suicide associated with screen time by a study referenced here in this Forbes article.  There are lots of reasons you may want to limit screen time including the robbing of personal time mentioned in the previous post.   If you are convinced that you want to limit screen-times lets brainstorm some ways to go about it.

Brainstorming is the process of listing every idea you can think of (no matter if it seems good or dumb) and examining that list to find a viable solution.

Idea 1. Get rid of electronic devices  / limit access

As I said brainstorming is about looking at all the ideas even if you think they are dumb.  I imagine most people these days would consider this idea of dumping their electronic to be too extreme, or unreasonable.  I did personally know of a family that had one TV and when it broke they decided not to replace it.  For them, it seemed to be a good idea.  They felt like they had a better quality of life without a TV.  If you have a chance to see the 1990 movie called “Avalon”, pay attention to how TV affects this family.

Another idea to lump into this category is to limit access to these electronic devices.  I knew a guy that said he treated his TV like the vacuum cleaner.  He kept it in the closet and only pulled it out when they had a specific reason to watch it.  Along this line of thinking, instead of giving a child a cell phone, you could have a floater phone that the child could borrow when you needed to stay in touch during some activity or event. Laptop computers could also be put away and pulled out for school work only as needed.  Basically, the idea is to sever the always available aspect of screens.

In our family, I personally campaigned for no smart devices for our kids when they were younger.  Unfortunately, I lost the campaign.  At the time IPODs were all the rage and truly neither of us as parents fully comprehended the trouble our kids could get into with these devices.  Looking back we both admit that life would have been much easier had we held off longer.  Keep it simple if you can by reducing the number of points of screen exposure.

In the next post, I will discuss more options for parental screen control.


Keeping Tabs On Our Kids Electronic Devices and Maybe Ourselves

How do we spend the sacred time when we are not involved in the mandatory activities of life such as work and sleep?.  Adam Alter (Ph.D. in psychology) gives some interesting insights into how much time we spend on social media and the effects it has on us.  In his 2017 TED talk “Why or screens make us less happy” he points out several interesting thoughts based on his 5-year study of the subject.  He embarked on the study after noticing that many leaders of Technology companies hold off on introducing their own children to screen-based technology until their children are older.  In his study he collected data on how much of our free time is being spent on screen-based activities and that data is depicted in the chart below:

Mr. Alter’s chart indicates the amount of time we spend in sleep, work, survival activities like eating, and lastly in the 4 hours a day of what he calls “sacred personal time”.  From the chart, red represents the amount of screen-time that eats into our sacred personal time.  In 2007 the chart shows that about 50% of our personal time is being dedicated to screen related activities.  Fast forward to 2017 and that number jumps to roughly 90% of our personal time.  Personal time is the part of our lives where we develop meaningful relationships, and hobbies and where we create memories that we look fondly on at the end of lives.  This trend rings an alarm bell in my head that this practice needs to receive some attention to keep it from robbing us of the simple and joyful moments in life.

Also pointed out in Alter’s talk is the fact that there are screen apps that help us feel good and to:    relax  /  educate ourselves  /  improve our health

On the other hand, it turns out that 75% of our screen time is spent on things that ultimately do not make us happy such as:    Social Networking    /    Gaming    /    Entertainment

It comes down to this, we have very little personal time.  Do we want to fill that precious personal time with meaningless internet surfing or do we want to strengthen and foster the relationships we have with those around us?  That relationship could be with our spouse, or our children, or our friends, or our neighbor.  In the next posting, I will start to explore some of the things we can do to help our children (and maybe ourselves) to regain this precious and sacred personal time for the purpose of building meaningful life events.