For millions of American children, bonding with grandparents can be awkward. Maybe Grandpa lives far away. His house is boring, and no one is allowed to touch anything. Grandpa doesn’t do much, except pinch cheeks and tell corny jokes.
This gets worse around the holidays, when families are forced to spend time with each other in cramped living rooms. What 10-year-old wants to sit around and listen to grown-ups talk? Sure, it would be fun to run around the yard with Nana, but what about her bad hip?
That’s why more and more families are turning to the internet. Online, it doesn’t matter where you are or how mobile your body is. You don’t have to struggle to find things to do, because many apps and games are designed to bring people together. Kids and grandparents can create avatars for themselves, and they can use simulated tasks to let loose their imaginations, collaborating in ways that the real world would never allow.
Plus, grandparents can learn about the virtual worlds that millennials now inhabit, since most kids are eager to show off their digital lives. Social media tools help far-flung families chronicle their daily activities. On the internet, kids get to be the experts, teaching an older generation how to behave in a strange new environment.
Where can kids and grandparents meet up? Here is some favorite common ground.
1. Social Media
Facebook boasts more than a billion users, and many of those people are grandparents. The social media pioneer has been connecting families for more than a decade. It’s not news that sharing digital photos of last weekend’s Little League game is much easier than dusting off an old family photo album from 20 years ago.
But youngsters can also share photos with grandparents on Instagram. You can compare hobbies and pastimes on Pinterest. You can easily post videos to YouTube, or even shoot a live feed of a dance recital using Facebook Live. No matter where children are in the world, grandparents can keep up with their goings-on, and vice versa.
2. Online Games
When it comes to online games, the media tend to focus on extremes: shoot-‘em-ups like "Halo," or ultra-complicated RPGs (role playing games) like "World of Warcraft." But many online games are user-friendly and benign, appealing to players of any age.
One favorite is "Minecraft," an easygoing "sandbox" game, where players can build communities out of little blocks, or even solve puzzles and go on adventures together. Large-scale scenarios like "The Sims" and "Second Life" enable users to create alternate personalities, just like playing house in the backyard.
These games can be absorbing, but there are simpler amusements as well: "Words with Friends" is a wholesome diversion for family and friends, as well as "Farmville" and the computer game version of "Ticket to Ride." Children and grandparents can compete with other, send messages, and even form teams against other online players.
The best part: computer games and phone apps don’t require any special consuls, relying on technology most tech-savvy households have anyway.
3. Video chats
"You should call your Grandma," is a suggestion that is too often followed with, "Do we have to?" The one-on-one call can feel stiff and procedural, a humdrum Q&A with a disembodied voice.
But Skype and FaceTime take the conversation to a whole new level. Kids can see a grandparent’s face, show off cartwheels and favorite toys, and even blow out birthday candles in real-time. What’s more, these services can actually be cheaper than a phone call, when your phone or tablet is connected to a Wi-Fi signal.
Now there’s even the "Knock Knock" feature on Google Duo, which is definitely worth some, well, face time.
4. "Pokémon Go"
"Augmented reality" may be the entertainment of the future, turning human beings into their own avatars in actual, three-dimensional settings. For spry grandparents with a sense of adventure, this can be a great way to get outside, hunting for Pokémon in the same way that families have long scavenged for Easter eggs.
Given the success of "Pokémon Go," we’re assuming there will be a lot more of these games popping up in the next few years.
5. Quirky apps
When you’ve run out of things to talk about at the family reunion, there are thousands of apps designed to mess around with voices, images, and videos. You can give your face the funhouse treatment with "Photo Warp," see what your skeleton might look like with "Xray Scanner Prank," or make yourself sound like Darth Vader with "Voice Changer Plus."
Many of these can be viewed remotely or sent through social media, so you don’t necessarily have to be in the same room together, although it’s probably more fun if you can yuk it up as a group.
Two-bit jokes aside, families can also bond over instructive apps, like Skyview Free, which helps you identify constellations at night, or play educational games with ABC Mouse. Most kids won’t even realize how much they’re learning about the world and about their families.