Digital Grandparents Stay Connected

Digital Grandparents: “Move Grandma so she can see me at the State Fair…”

Photo of a cute little girl on a computer  screen interacting with her Grandparents. From a longer NYT article.
The Digital Grandparent. NYT, 11/26/2008 James Estrin

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Do you think we are going to have trouble getting connecting in- person after spending so much digital time? I am the digital grandparent as I watch the kids for an hour or two online while their parents work from home. The younger kids and I play board games or “clean house” together. Then I help the older ones with an (online) entry for our Marin County Fair. But, when we finally get to see each other in person, will it be different?  Eileen, Tiburon

Dear Eileen: It’s a fine question- how will we reconnect when we are able to get together again?  I checked in with a good friend, who like you, is watching grandkids online. She says they “sneaked in” an in-person visit for Mother’s Day, and it was a joyous reunion. There was no hesitation on the part of the eighteen month old to bond with Grandma and Grandpa. More recently, this story from the WSJ, says families are developing “re-entry plans.”

Far Apart?

You mentioned that you spend time almost every day online. That is the key factor.  Time is one of the enabling things we can give online, because we can re-purpose the period we would have spent on the road or in the car. For established relationships ….putting in time is a key factor, just showing up!

However, the dynamics might be different for interaction if the children/grandparents had not known each other in person before going online. A sociologist reports in the NYT that that nearly half of American grandparents live more than 200 miles from at least one of their grandchildren and two-thirds see one set of grandparents just once a year or less.

In the same article, noted author Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, worries that ever-more-real virtual encounters (think holograms) could make us forget what we are missing in the case of a grandchild: the smell of a grandmother’s cooking, the warmth of an embrace.

IRL vs Digital (State Fairs)

But, back to happy….It’s great that you are working on an actual project with a real deadline with your grandkids.  Here is one story you might want to talk this one over with the older kids, so that you both become aware of how ‘sharing virtually’ changes behaviors:

Most county fairs and live events have been cancelled this summer, as you mention. IRL, we enter tasty home-made pies, take rides that spin, and in the ‘4H’ animal ring, judge animals that are best-in-show. Kids that raise farm pets will miss transporting the beastie to the show, then the live showmanship, and, of course, the smells (!) . As the rules change, so does the digital entry: contestants might fluff up Muffie’s coat or add bulk, with Photoshop, that is.

There are lots of ways that our activities change when we go online, and we learn to look at things differently. If you are watching older kids online, it’s good to mull this over and get their perspective. Hopefully, we can use our technology to develop more intense personal relationships with the people we love. And,  when we do see them, it will be nice to reach out, smell, and touch.

Zoom Fatigue: How to Overcome

A whiteboard is shown and for each day of the week, scheduled online meetings on zoom or facetime.
Zoom Fatigue! Photo Illustration: Dave Cole/WSJ

Dear Ms. Smartphone: After a meeting or two on Zoom, and even a catch-up with girl friends, I am zonked out. Sometimes I skip meals because I feel so fatigued and crawl into bed. It’s just the opposite for my son, who is now home from college. He goes on Zoom in the evening with his friends, and stays on it for hours. Then he’s spry and awake! Is this an age thing or something else?  Rupa, Berkeley

Dear Rupa: A lot of parents are asking the same thing. For elders, it’s an age thing because we did not come of age in the time of zoom. And, the two-way technology is still evolving so there are lots of asynchronous moments and dropped connections to challenge our patience. In a previous post I noted how our physical communications depend on being able to interpret very subtle non-verbal cues like an upturned smile, the twitch of an eye, or the flick of the hair. Most of these cues are at a subliminal level. Zoom meetings, as well as informal chats with our friends, can be stressful for those of us used to processing our social cues differently. 

The Lack of Multitasking

Like you, I find video chats to be draining but for an additional reason; it’s the absence of multi-tasking. When you phone me, say on a voice call or text, I might be doing other things….but you can’t see that.  We have gotten used to being mobile and doing lots of (other) things when we have 2 way communication. That level of distraction works most of the time, but not in the car. Focusing for an extended time on the red dot of the camera feels like I am in line-up in a police station (not that I will confess to that!)

Search for Best Zoom Games

When your son goes on Zoom and feels spry afterwards, that’s because he engages with his friends and content, in an entirely different manner. There are lots of third-party sites to link to, The list of games is long…but familiar. Search for games to play on Zoom: you’ll find Monopoly, Battleship, Pictionary, Guess Who, and many many more. Then there are the ‘Drinking Game’ versions, like Battleship with shot glasses….you get the picture! And, to my point about multi-tasking, just one kid needs to be on a computer. The rest can join in on their phones.  That means that they do not have to stay stationary, with eyes glued to the red dot. They are probably moving around the room, browsing other screens, and, of course, eating and drinking.


In these times of quarantine, I would encourage anyone to try out these games with an old established  friend and picture yourself as a young teen. Experiment together. Put it this way: Imagine that it was 1915 and your family had just installed a new Bell phone. You were advised to use it only for emergencies or something urgent. Now fast-forward to 1960, and you are a teen, able to spend hours after school conversing with friends on Bell phones. My point is that technology changes over time, and what is once serious business morphs into social play.

Memes: Why So Popular?

What is it about Memes? Am I missing out?

A meme that won't bite. There is a picture of two wirefox terriers side by side. One has a horrible haircut and one is groomed. Is your dog groomer qualified?
A meme that won’t bite!

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I don’t usually browse much online but during the quarantine, I was scrolling on Instagram and came across your site. There was a picture of a sign-board, and a meme you called the ‘me me.’ It seemed like a big joke, but not to me. My 12 year old preteen and her friends talk about memes all the time. Can you explain memes please and let me in on the joke! Lea, Belvedere

Dear Lea: Without sounding like a communications PhD, the word meme comes from Greek mimema, signifying something which is imaged. Memes have a tendency, like the times we live in, to go viral. Memes are pieces of cultural information that pass along from person to person, but gradually scale into a shared social phenomenon.

When people like you and me post on social media we are neither professional journalists nor story tellers. We need to create content that is simple, entertaining, and attention grabbing. And, the words and graphics need to be bite-sized, like our smartphones. Once we post, there are few social constraints: sometimes we don’t know, and sometimes we don’t care if the content is offensive or misinterpreted.

Inside Jokes?

During an earlier time of TV and newspapers, content was transmitted from ONE (the media corporation) to MANY (the public). The Internet flips that equation. There is a price for that: content is now fast, free and uncensored. Think of it like playing an old-fashioned game of ‘telephone’; the original message morphs over time and through different oral speakers, often in funny ways.

For most teens, memes are probably a safe way to share ‘inside’ jokes. They are old enough to separate meme- talk from real-talk. This is important because a lot of content does seem to me to condone aggression, bullying, taking drugs and alcohol, or being a smart-aleck.

What if we believe them?

I have two worries: one is that younger children who are not old enough to comprehend the subtlety will come to view the adult-world with cynicism and disrespect. Take, for example, the bizarro memes about Bert and Ernie. Today’s kids don’t watch Sesame Street so they just see puppet figures talking trash. On a broader level, I worry that the content treadmill will spiral even more outlandish, off-color memes in order to grab our increasingly jaded attention.

Like a virus that spreads without vaccines, there are limits to what you can do as a parent right now, except limit your kid’s exposure (i.e. time on the Internet). Perhaps ask your preteen to help you create a meme (disclaimer: this is not a recommendation for the site, just an example). Once your meme is posted, follow it with your daughter to see how often that message is remixed and shared. It may be one of the few things to enjoy that goes viral these days.