As a tech writer and a mother of a 12- and a 14-year-old boy, my cool factor has skyrocketed within the tween community in the last few years. What tends to skew dorky to my adult friends has turned me into a folk hero with the sixth- to eighth-graders who (before the pandemic) would regularly parade through my home, gawking at the latest gear on display.
Sadly, this skill doesn’t do much for me among chic Brooklyn moms, but it does make me a useful fount of suggestions to my less tech-savvy peers. Whenever a parent asks about the best technology for their family, whether it has to do with safety or health or entertainment, I’m happy to put on my geek hat and help. Here are the six products and services that have earned a prime spot in our home — and in my most frequent recommendations to other tween parents.
Since the pandemic began, the meaning of school has changed profoundly with remote learning. Fortunately, with middle schoolers, we aren’t subjected to the grueling and hands-on day-to-day homeschooling happening for younger children. We just need to make sure our tweens can easily access the proper technology to actively participate in this new, virtual classroom — without having to ask us for help. Like many households, all four of us are working on computers. But not everyone needs an expensive, full-fledged laptop. Our solution for the boys is the Microsoft Surface Go 2, an ultraportable hybrid tablet-laptop with a 10.5-inch screen that weighs only 1.2 pounds. It offers easy access to classroom tools like Zoom, Google Chrome, and the full suite of Microsoft Office, including OneDrive cloud storage. When you want to use the Go 2 as a laptop, prop it up with the kickstand on the back and flip the magnetic cover over to reveal a full-mechanical keyset and backlit keys. Or remove those things and convert it into a tablet for streaming TV, movies, and YouTube. It also comes with a camera app that works directly with the 5MP rear-facing camera for simple homework scanning. And there are hearty parental controls to help keep your peace of mind.
Handing a tween a smartphone with no parental controls is like giving them an unsupervised romp in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. You never know what kind of bubble gum they’ll steal or chocolate tubes they might get sucked into. Which is why, to my children’s great consternation, Google Family Link has become like the fifth member of our family, acting as our conscience and strict digital nanny. Through a clean and super-simple interface, this free app lets you do all of the basic things, like set browser filters and locate them on the go. But it also lets you manage screen time, bedtime, and daily limits for each kid, as well as decide which apps they can download and how long they can use them. During school and homework times, we can block their entertainment, browsers, and games to make sure they stay focused, even when their teacher can’t be watching.
I always assumed getting kids to brush their teeth would get easier as they got older, but in our family at least, this still hasn’t proven true. What has helped, however, is bribing our tweens with this Bluetooth-connected toothbrush that provides prompts, a musical timer, and most important, an interactive, competitive cleaning game on the free companion app. A smaller, lighter version of the popular adult version, the Sonicare for Kids encourages (tricks?) them into thoroughly brushing all parts of their mouth, twice a day. And the parent dashboard lets us check in to make sure they aren’t skimping.
Whatever you do, don’t call it a night-light. The Echo Glow is an Amazon Alexa-connected LED smart light that gives our boys ambient light without making them feel like little kids. About the size of a softball, it can be set to a specific color, cycle through a rainbow timer, or light up with fun patterns called things like campfire, disco, and underwater. And if waking up for school is as big a problem in your home as it is in ours, you can sync it with Amazon routines, so that it gradually brightens until it’s time for the alarm to go off.
Music has always been essential in our home, even before we had kids. What’s even more essential now that we do is that those kids have the freedom to play their own tunes in their own space. That’s why we adore this waterproof and dustproof Bluetooth speaker. It weighs only 1.3 pounds and works as far as 150 feet from its source. The boys can perch it in the shower or throw it in a beach bag, and we never have to worry about it breaking. And, thankfully, it keeps their favorite artists like Lil Uzi Vert and DaBaby off our family Sonos system.
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