BY MELISSA RAYWORTH, Associated Press
We hear a lot about families spending too much time distracted by digital devices. But screens do have some family-friendly benefits: New apps can help family members stay connected and coordinated.
Here is a handful of Apple- and Android-friendly apps that might help keep your little group in touch and on task:
Slack functions as your own private social network. It's as simple to use as Facebook, but more customizable. And you can use the bulk of the service for free (though prices are listed at Slack.com for additional services).
Popular with small companies and work groups who need to share information and plan projects, Slack works well for families too. You begin by including several people in a group, and then you can create distinct channels within the group. Perhaps one channel is parents-only communication, while others are for parents with each kid. Maybe another includes the whole family plus grandparents, aunts and uncles.
You can post anything from private messages and daily schedules to photos or URLs. Slack also serves as a free messaging app, and you can use it to store PDFs of things like the address of a restaurant or a flight itinerary. And you can integrate it with Google Calendar and Google Drive.
One speed bump: While you can respond to a family member's post with emojis, you can't create a conversation thread by commenting on it. The app's developers say that feature is coming soon.
FINDING EACH OTHER: Family Locator by Life360
Life 360 is one of many family and friends locator apps. Once you add family members to your account, you can check their cell phones' locations via GPS at any time. Want to know if your child's bus is nearing home? Or if your spouse has left work yet? It's all there.
In testing the app, we found that it sometimes confuses locations that are very close. If two places are near each other, Life360 may tell you that a family member has arrived at one when they're actually at the other. So the app is helpful but not infallible.
The free version works well, but you're limited to logging just two locations.
FINDING YOUR STUFF: Wistiki
The idea of never again losing your keys, phone or other important items is pretty appealing.
Wistiki offers Philippe Starck-designed little cards, tags and key fobs that can be tracked with the app. You attach them to something you treasure (your wallet, your dog, your TV remote). Then if (when) you can't find the item, you can make the Wistiki sound an alarm. If it's not close enough for you to hear, you can look at the app to find its location.
Best part: If your lost item is in range of anyone else's Wistiki, theirs will anonymously (and without their knowledge) send GPS coordinates to the system. So other people are essentially helping find your stuff and you're helping find theirs, without having to do anything.
Parents can attach the tags to a child's backpack, coat or other item that tends to get misplaced by little ones.
Bonus: All that time you no longer spend searching for your phone is time you can devote to face-to-face conversation with family members.
Wistiki comes in three shapes and four colors.
BUYING... : AnyList
If you've ever remembered on the way home from the supermarket that you actually needed three more things, a shopping-list app may save you time and heartache in the future.
AnyList allows group members to contribute to a running list, which you can scan through when you're out running errands. It also offers a recipe manager, so you won't be stuck in the produce department trying to remember whether tonight's dinner requires leeks or scallions.
...AND SELLING: Totspot
And when you're ready to clear out clutter, you might be able to earn money for it at the marketplace app Totspot. Originally created as an online market for new or gently used kids' clothes, Totspot now lets you buy and sell grown-up clothes and even (shhhh!) unload gifts you don't want. It's sort of the virtual yard sale you don't have time to have.
ALSO READ: Miss APPdated: 7 Apps Guaranteed to Keep Couples Closer and Sweeter
Banner illustration by Jana Jimenez