Family life is hard. Many of us get so wrapped up in our day-to-day lives that we unintentionally ignore the people who matter most. Maybe you haven't spoken to your sister in a while, or perhaps you never got back in touch with your uncle after you promised you would. Don't worry -- it happens to everyone, and you shouldn't start thinking of excuses to avoid your next family reunion. Instead, reconnect and strengthen your family bonds using modern technology.
To help you get some high-tech, high-quality family time, try using one of the tried-and-true technologies on this list. A little tech-shy? We'll show you how to use your online social network to reach out to relatives and how your music library can help your family stay in tune.
First up: family movie night!
Online Movie Rentals
With retail video stores going the way of the dodo, what will happen to family movie night? As long as you have an Internet connection and a device capable of streaming movies on your TV, you can still gather everyone together for movie night. Best of all, you won't even have to worry about remembering to send the flick back in the mail the next day or dropping it off at the video store before 7 p.m.
You've got several options for entertaining the clan. Netflix has thousands of selections (including new releases) available for instant viewing, and as long as you have at least a two-DVD-at-a-time subscription, you can start browsing and watching immediately. You can also digitally rent movies and TV shows from outfits like Amazon and iTunes, and although their selection of new releases is better, you have to pay per rental. You can also stream free movies from sites like Hulu to your TVs, but you'll have to endure a few commercials for the privilege.
Notes on the refrigerator? Phone calls to check in? What is this, 2001? Today, many teens find it easier to update their Facebook profile than to call Mom and Dad. Critics have said that the Internet imposes isolation, but if you use social networking the right way, it can actually bring your family closer together.
Establishing a family Facebook profile can help your child learn to use social media responsibly, and a family-centered Twitter account can be used to quickly and easily update your loved ones wherever they are, no matter what they're doing. You may not like the idea of being able to get in touch with your teenage son (and his friends) all the time, but it's nice to know you can.
iTunes Home Sharing
iTunes' Home Sharing service offers a great way for families to stay in tune with one another's music choices. Home Sharing allows you to browse and import anything you want from the iTunes libraries of up to five different computers in the same house. The songs, videos or movies are yours to keep permanently, and you can even automatically download any new purchases made by connected family members free of charge -- which is great if your kids have good taste in music.
But the Internet isn't all funny cats and red-faced moments; these sites can also allow long-distance family members to see everything from your baby's first steps to their granddaughter's distant "I do." Many video-sharing sites allow you to protect videos with passwords, so you don't have to worry about weirdos trolling your private family collection. Of course, posting your son's high school graduation online won't make anybody forget about that cringe-worthy old video of you, but it'll get your family and friends talking about (and watching) something else.
Digital Photo Frames
What home doesn't have at least a few framed photos? Lining hallways or adorning bedside tables, pictures give us a window into our family's past.
But silver-plated frames are so passé -- digital photo frames are like old-fashioned pictures-plus. They offer a constantly changing view of whatever photos you'd like to see and, better still, can be instantly updated with new pics. Imagine you're on the beach with your husband and kids, and you manage to capture a one-of-a-kind shot of your son surfing for the first time. If his grandmother has a WiFi-enabled digital photo frame, she could be enjoying that same image by the time he makes his first wipeout. It'll be like she was there, but she didn't have to get her feet sandy.
Instant messaging has been around for the better part of the last 20 years, but it's still an excellent way to keep in touch with your family. Since most of us are constantly connected to the Internet, be it through a cell phone or a computer, it's easy to have a quick chat with a family member. That person could be in another country -- or across the street. Instant messaging is the simplest form of Internet-based communication, but that's no reason to disregard it. Sometimes just taking a few seconds to say hello is enough to bring family closer together.
While fragging your father in an online deathmatch might not sound like a good bonding experience, you might want to consider giving it a (head) shot. Kids love video games, and as long as the titles you play together are fun and age-appropriate -- no deathmatches for the little ones! -- they can provide a safe environment that's much more interactive than say, watching TV. And you don't have to virtually kill each other. There are many nonviolent games that encourage collaborative play, from platformers to sports titles. There are even cooperative campaigns in many violent first-person shooters, such as the Halo and Call of Duty franchises, so it's easy for parents to find something to play with their kids, no matter how old they are.
If the Internet has fostered anything, it's self-expression. Bloggers of all ages, types and interests regularly convene on the Web to share their thoughts and feelings with the rest of the world.
Family-focused blogs have a different approach. They're designed to create a narrative around your family's life and to share those experiences with friends and relatives. You can post anything you want (even video and pictures) to keep a digital record you and your loved ones can enjoy. If it's strictly for friends and family, you can protect your blog from the rest of the Web with a password, but you might not want to keep your kin all to yourself. It's not unusual for engaging family blogs to become extremely popular, and while you're probably not going to be the next Kate Gosselin, a little e-fame feels pretty good!
As science fiction books and movies have foretold for years (we're looking at you, "Back to the Future Part II"), video conversations are the future. And with Skype, the future is now.
Luckily, the future is also cheap and family-friendly, as Skype allows you to video chat with any loved one (or anyone else in the world) for free. All each of you need is a computer, an Internet connection and a webcam. Setup is simple; you'll be talking within moments of opening an account. You can chat with your slow-adapting grandparents who are still on dial-up, though, unlike you, they won't be able to surf the Net during the conversation. Skype also offers a video group chat option, which is great for impromptu family reunions, and works with as many as five people at a time.
The Printing Press
Sure, the printing press may have been around for more than half a millennium, but no high-tech gadget can bring a family closer than a beloved goodnight story or a dog-eared classic that everyone can enjoy. Reading helps children build a broader vocabulary, increases language acquisition, builds listening and memory skills, sparks the imagination and teaches kids about the world around them. You can watch movies, listen to music and play video games with your kids, but if you want to help them expand their minds, you need to teach them how to read. Reading brings your family closer and helps your children acquire the tools they need to succeed in life. So pick up a book start bonding. You (and your kids) will be glad you did!
Is your house full of unwanted CDs? Learn seven ways to get rid of your unwanted CDs at HowStuffWorks.
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