tech challenges

Houston experts share tips for families in the digital age

From startups making pick-up easy to tips on navigating cyberbullying, these Houstonians are weighing in on tips for parents with tech-enabled kids. Photo by Getty Images

We're at the start of a new school year, the time when parents, teachers, and children are still transitioning from the lull of the summer to the stride of a new routine.

This year, like the last, may still involve the unpredictability and constant administrative changes that come with a global pandemic.

In fact, as parents know, more issues seem to have arisen after classes started than before. With that in mind, we've created a handy guide to help kickstart the academic new year.

Issues covered here include how to plan healthy lunches, cutting screen time, smart ideas for transportation, and an epidemic currently plaguing young generations: cyberbullying.

A new digital menace

Unlike traditional bullying, the threat of cyberbullying is constant if kids have access to electronic devices — it doesn't stop at the end of the school day. And these bullies can remain anonymous, giving them the confidence to attack seemingly without repercussions. For victims, this creates a terrorizing environment from which they're not safe even at home.

Victims of cyberbullying are twice as likely to self-harm and exhibit suicidal behavior, and suicide was the second-leading cause of death for those between the age of 10 up to 24, according to the CDC.

Thankfully, parents can identify cyberbullying early on or even prevent it from reaching their families.

With cyberbullying, "there are no physical signs like a black eye or a tattered piece of clothing, which makes it harder to notice," Houston attorney and CrimeStoppers spokesperson Jammy Kiggundu tells CultureMap.

He advises parents and teachers to look out for "changes in behavior, if the child seems more withdrawn, under- or oversleeping, loss of appetite, bed-wetting at an age that shouldn't be happening. Signs of anxiety."

Parents should also guide their children's use of mobile apps and social media. Giving kids access to the internet without direction is "no different than giving a child a vehicle and the keys and say 'good luck,'" Kiggundu says.

This requires you to educate yourself on social media and apps, too. Find community workshops in your area or watch free training videos online to arm yourself with the knowledge necessary to protect your child. Even if you're social-media literate, there's always something new to learn. (Eerily, there are now a teen and children dating apps — see more here.)

Lastly, be vigilant. "If your child leaves with 40 apps and comes home with 42, you now need to know what those other two apps are," Kiggundu adds.

Social ground rules

Parents should establish some ground rules with social media. Some tips include: ensuring kids have private social media accounts, monitoring their messenger conversations, and limiting their number of online friends and followers.

Those efforts might also yield another beneficial outcome: cutting down on your child's screen time.

The CDC reports that children ages eight to 10 spend an average of six hours per day in front of a screen. That number rises to nine hours for those between 11 and 14. And that doesn't include the time spent in front of a computer for school work.

If you suspect your child is being cyberbullied, Kiggundu says the first thing to do is start a conversation and develop a healthy dialogue so he or she feels comfortable opening up. If your suspicions are confirmed, you'll want to collect as much information and evidence as possible — screenshots, computer print-outs, etc. — because schools will need your assistance in investigating the matter.

Kiggundu warns to never attempt to resolve the matter yourself by approaching the alleged aggressor's parents. Always work through the school and law-enforcement officials to address the issue.

Conversely, if you suspect your child is cyberbullying someone: acknowledge the issue and consider seeking professional help. Remain calm and try to explain to your child how the victim might be feeling, in an effort to elicit empathy and ensure it doesn't continue. Try to delve deep into the issues your son or daughter is facing that may be prompting this behavior, Kiggundu advises.

Remember that if your child is attacking another, you may be held accountable, since you have an obligation to "supervise your child in a non-negligent manner."

Getting a brake at the pick-up line

Changing gears: the dreaded, long pick-up and drop-off line hasn't changed, even if you now work from home. Add to the fact that the Delta Variant is still making its way through schools, creating a health hazard for children packed together as they await their parents.

One hack is to invest in a bicycle with a rear or front carrier to pick up your kids and bypass the lines. There are also bikes with trailers to easily haul your kids to-and-from school.

Another option is to hire a safe car service. Consider the "part Uber, part carpool" HopSkipDrive. The company allows parents to request rides for children at least six years of age via its app or website. Parents then receive a profile photo of the "CareDriver," as well as tracking updates throughout the ride. HopSkipDrive assures parents that their employees are screened, have childcare experience and are thoroughly vetted before they join the service.

Inner-Loop may have also seen ride-share service Alto making its way around town. The Texas-based company hires background-checked employees, as opposed to independent contractors, to chauffeur people in comfortable, well-kept vehicles. They can seat up to six passengers, so parents can arrange for a carpool with multiple stops to make it more economical. Drivers are incentivized to drive responsibly since their pay is dependent on the "safety score" they earn.

While after-school activities typically buy parents time to pick up their children and avoid long lines, several schools are temporarily suspending their programs due to COVID. But places like the YMCA are still taking in kids and implementing COVID-compliant safety measures. Or create a safe after-school network of vaccinated kids and parents who can join at the school playground and take turns transporting the students.

A major mid-day boost: lunch

While you may feel helpless when it comes to protecting your young ones from the threat of COVID, you can offer them a nutritious diet to aid in their good health.

School-provided lunches are generally improving, but parents should remain watchful of what their kids are being served.

One of the biggest health factors is added sugars, which creep into juice pouches, breakfast cereals and snacks. The American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children ages 2 to 18 not consume more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar daily.

If you're packing their lunches, make sure to thoroughly read nutrition labels and to incorporate as many fruits and vegetables as possible.

Physician and mom of two, Chelsea Casey, MD, suggests "including a fat (like olives) and protein" when meal prepping. Avoid leaving the produce section when food shopping because "the less processed the better."

She also suggests investing in a thermos for pasta and other warm meals. "Alternate sandwiches and get creative," Casey said. "We make skewers of tomatoes, mozzarella and olives."

Also: give yourself a break. Casey says not to fall into the mom-guilt trap, "We definitely do cheat days."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Building Houston

 
 

From a low-cost vaccine to an app that can help reduce exposure, here are the latest COVID-focused and Houston-based research projects. Photo via Getty Images

While it might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down for the time being, there's plenty of innovative research ongoing to create solutions for affordable vaccines and tech-enabled protection against the spread of the virus.

Some of that research is happening right here in Houston. Here are two innovative projects in the works at local institutions.

UH researcher designs app to monitor best times to shop

A UH professor is putting safe shopping at your fingertips. Photo via UH.edu

When is the best time to run an errand in the pandemic era we currently reside? There might be an app for that. Albert Cheng, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is working on a real-time COVID-19 infection risk assessment and mitigation system. He presented his plans at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference HPC for Urgent Decision Making and will publish the work in IEEE Xplore.

Cheng's work analyzes up-to-date data from multiple open sources to see when is the best time to avoid crowds and accomplish activities outside the home.

"Preliminary work has been performed to determine the usability of a number of COVID-19 data websites and other websites such as grocery stores and restaurants' popular times and traffic," Cheng says in a UH release. "Other data, such as vaccination rates and cultural factors (for example, the percentage of people willing to wear facial coverings or masks in an area), are also used to determine the best grocery store to shop in within a time frame."

To use the app, a user would input their intended destinations and the farthest distance willing to go, as well as the time frame of the trip. The risk assessment and mitigation system, or RT-CIRAM, then "provides as output the target location and the time interval to reach there that would reduce the chance of infections," said Cheng.

There's a lot to it, says Cheng, and the process is highly reliant on technology.

"We are leveraging urgent high-performance cloud computing, coupled with time-critical scheduling and routing techniques, along with our expertise in real-time embedded systems and cyber-physical systems, machine learning, medical devices, real-time knowledge/rule-based decision systems, formal verification, functional reactive systems, virtualization and intrusion detection," says Cheng.

2 Houston hospitals team up with immunotherapy company for new vaccine for Africa

The new vaccine will hopefully help mitigate spread of the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo via bcm.edu

Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have teamed up with ImmunityBio Inc. — a clinical-stage immunotherapy company — under a licensing agreement to develop a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.

BCM has licensed out a recombinant protein COVID-19 vaccine candidate that was developed at the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development to ImmunityBio. According to the release, the company engaged in license negotiations with the BCM Ventures team, about the vaccine that could address the current pandemic needs in South Africa.

"We hope that our COVID-19 vaccine for global health might become an important step towards advancing vaccine development capacity in South Africa, and ultimately for all of Sub-Saharan Africa," says Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

ImmunityBio, which was founded in 2014 by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is working on innovative immunotherapies that address serious unmet needs in infectious diseases, according to a news release from BCM.

"There is a great need for second-generation vaccines, which are accessible, durable and offer broad protection against the emerging variants," says Soon-Shiong. "ImmunityBio has executed on a heterologous ("mix-and-match") strategy to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine. To accomplish this, we have embarked upon large-scale good manufacturing practices and development of DNA (adenovirus), RNA (self-amplifying mRNA) and subunit protein (yeast) vaccine platforms. This comprehensive approach will leverage our expertise in these platforms for both infectious disease and cancer therapies."

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