Is Texting How We Stay in Touch?

"Text your Mom and ask How long it takes to Microwave a 25lb Turkey". Image of a turkey and a microwave. Viral joke, 2018
Viral Joke: Texting on Thanksgiving. Is Texting How we Stay in Touch?

Dear Ms. Smartphone:  What’s going on with the holidays and so much texting and social media? I like hearing from friends who are far away, but this Thanksgiving it really got out of hand. All day there were texts and messages, plus the social media to respond to. Was everyone on their phones all the time and is texting the new way to stay in touch? Gabrielle, Sacramento

Dear Gabrielle: Before smartphones the busiest use of the telephone on Thanksgiving Day may have been to call the Butterball hotline. Now,  you are so right, our customs are changing, including microwaving the bird (ha ha). You can barely baste the turkey without stopping to answer a few texts or send out social media posts. Perhaps texting is how we stay in touch after all!

I think there are a couple of explanations for this growth of holiday “media”, but mind you, my data here is not scientific. I am just a casual observer, who is still trying to wipe that turkey grease off my touch screen after an overwhelming number of t-day texts.  

COVID Calling:

It’s likely that people had a wake-up call (no pun intended) about maintaining friendships from a distance during the pandemic. Families and friends were not able to get together during the 2020 holiday, so they turned to their phones to stay connected. Throughout 2020 we found the phone to be an antidote to the loneliness, dislocation, and uncertainty. Hopefully these virtual connections will grow in the years to come and not just around the holidays.

Truly making a call or text is a substitution of communication for travel.  But phones reach more people than you could ever travel to, or wish to spend an entire turkey dinner with. And, the US Census tells us that family formation is slowing down so with more single-person households we are reaching out to a more dispersed network of distant friends and distant family.

NOT A HALLMARK:

We used to send paper greeting cards (esp. on  Mothers Day)  and these had to travel on planes, and these traveled too, on trains, and trucks through the post office. Have you noticed that the racks of greetings cards in retail stores have been shrinking and pushed towards the back wall?  I  personally recall that the last Thanksgiving Card I  sent was to my elderly next door neighbor, when  I was out of town and she did not understand how to answer a smartphone. 

Smartphones have a contextual advantage over the pieces of cardboard called greeting cards. They allow the party receiving our text to quickly respond, with a few words, an emoji, or more. Even if that response does not happen you need to acknowledge that for some people, it’s simply easier to communicate visually, through emojis. 

FAST AND FEAST:

Staying in touch by text is a fast, low time commitment and it makes the day go faster. It means I remember your name and have your phone number stored as a contact!  Yet it also has the potential to be a foot in the door to a future conversation and sharing. Every one-way text can potentially blossom into a two-way conversation. 

So, the next time you get one of these long-distance holiday texts, thank your friend or family member. You can also thoughtfully observe that you are both participating in a carbon-friendly mode.

In closing, it is noteworthy that while the turkey is a constant through Thanksgiving, other media habits are in flux too. Television is often a constant during the T- holiday, beginning with the morning parade, and closing with the football games. These events, especially football, had high viewership this year. Are people stuck at home craving a shared experience? Just as we seasoned with the phone to renew distant friendships, we added TV to complete the feast.

Safe to Bike Post Covid?

A sign that says bikes can use full lane, but the street is full of potholes and construction debris. This is a photo from Cambridge, Mass.
Safe to Bike Post Covid? Image Credit: DearSmartphone

Dear Ms. Smartphone, I was getting my bike fixed, and they showed me a copy of the op-ed you wrote during Covid about commuters and ebikes. I know there are rules about driving and bikes- what about ebikes and phones?! Do you still think it is safe to bike post Covid? I am worried about taking my bike on the road these days because the drivers are running through stop signs and red lights, etc. They also seem to be on their phones more. Brian, Corte Madera

Dear Brian: Accident data reveals that we are at greater risk even though people are driving less. There is evidence that drivers are indeed running through stop signs and red lights more. And with fewer cars on the road, vehicle speeds have increased. You might have less worry about phones- drivers in cars have already reached peak talk!

But, to answer your question, are we safe to bike post-Covid? The dangers you mention are less so about phones, and more so about a cultural shift in how we treat driving and what we do when we get behind the wheel. 

Impaired:

The National Highway Safety Institute gathers statistics on fatal and severe accidents from  trauma centers. These are where ambulance drivers deliver severely injured patients. What they observed in 2020 at the height of Covid is somewhat startling.  Nearly two thirds of drivers tested positive for at least one active drug, including alcohol, marijuana, or opioids. Prior to Covid, about half of the drivers (50%) tested positive for alcohol or drugs but during Covid all substance use increased. The percentage with THC in their bloodstream doubled.  Interestingly, pedestrians and motorcycle drivers had similar levels. There was not enough data on bike riders.

My takeaway is that these accidents on the road are not  “accidents” as much as  “impairments”.

When it comes to assessing phones and driver error, researchers continue to lack adequate data. That’s because people don’t end up in a trauma center clutching their mobile phones. The phones usually fly out the windshield or lie under the seat. Unless law enforcement officials requisition phone or text logs from the telecom company and since that is seldom done, there is no reliable way to measure distraction rates from phones.  That said, key loggers may begin to tell a different story.

Imperiled:

Sadly, we know that traveling at 55 mph, it takes about five seconds to stop the vehicle, or a football field length. Answering a text while driving takes attention off the road for roughly the same period. Yet we can’t quantify the rate of cell phone caused accidents. And, these days, distraction in the car takes new directions- like fumbling with the complex navigation system, thumbing knobs  up and down to tune the speakers, and, on some cars, glancing at the oversized digital screen in the middle for the blind spot cameras. 

Since you are on a bike and hopefully will continue to be, what can you personally do to stay safe? The obvious ones are to wear a helmet and tuck your phone out of sight. It’s not illegal to use a phone while riding but it defies common sense. It’s an irony that when you ask bikers why they bring their phones along with them they answer, “in case something happens.” Hopefully never.

ILLUSION:

With that in mind, at this time of the year when it gets dark early, the majority of  bike accidents take place in late afternoon and after dark. So, it would be a good idea to limit your ride during these hours, or travel them on a grade- divided  path.  Of course, that could limit the usefulness of an e-bike for commute trips. Meanwhile, remember that motorcycle drivers and pedestrians out there are also impaired, so tread cautiously.

In closing, a nod to humility. While smartphones seem to be at the core of so many modern issues and problems, here they are not the driver.

Electronic Babysitter?

No child should be left behind, when behind means a closed door in a closed room.

A picture of  an infant seat, called the Apptivity, with a built in Ipad holder. Fisher Price withdrew the product in 2013 after parents were incensed.
Fisher Price had to recall the ultimate Electronic Babysitter, called the Apptivity Seat, in 2013.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Perhaps this is a generational issue. We live in a multigen household and my seven-year old spends hours each day online. My Mom thinks this is OK because when I was her age, I watched TV all the time. That helped me learn English as a second language. Mom says kids should be kids so my daughter should have her online time. But I think she is saying this because it has become an electronic babysitter for her. Is screen time equal? Does it matter if it is spent in front of a TV or using a laptop or phone? Priya, Berkeley

Dear Priya:  Indeed, this is a generational issue and also a lifestyle one. It’s hard to imagine what parents did before TV to find a moment of respite. Hail to the electronic babysitter! But screen time is not equal. It does matter whether the electronic babysitter is a TV or a different device.  There are a couple of things that distinguish TV time back then and going online today. Talk them over with Mom and consider that you are lucky she is not a virtual grandparent!

When you grew up, you probably watched television in a set room in a set spot. In bigger homes it was called the TV room, typically on the first floor off the kitchen where Mom could keep an eye on things.  But, the key is not the room, but the dynamic of watching. An adult could drop in on the programming and listen with their third ear. On weekends, during dinner, or evenings, the entire family used this space to come together and view communally. 

Interpretive Viewing:

Using media with grown-ups around is important. Parents help children interpret the content and learn the conventions, for example, what is an ad and how does persuasion work. Or say watching a football game together and explaining the actions of the referees.  Young kids process ‘how to watch’ from observing their parents. It’s a lot like driving. Even though you don’t get your license until you are sixteen, you absorb a lot of information about managing a vehicle before you come of age. 

Think of it this way: you would not allow a salesman to knock on your front door, boldly walk in and start proselytizing to you seven-year old. More likely, your foot would be in the door jam, blocking full entry. But that is what is happening. Your seven-year old might be upstairs with their tablet or other device, connecting more intimately to people beyond the household than to those in it. 

Spending time alone with electronic devices is a far cry from the time when family members connected in a shared space to watch TV. Your Mom may not have considered this difference. 

How and When too:

But, there’s more. The other lifestyle issue is how and when media are available. Your Mom (or her Mom) might recall a time when television broadcasts signed off at midnight, or programming was limited to certain times in the evening. Significantly, cartoons and programming for children were chunked into special time slots. That made parent’s more comfortable with using the electronic babysitter. 

Today, there’s a rating system and it takes vigilance on the part of parents to manage age-appropriate material, so many parents play movies and videos instead.  Screening for the Internet is a trickier process. Content can go almost anywhere with a few clicks and when there are no temporal boundaries, scrolling has no bounds. 

House Rules:

So, yes, it does come down to generational differences, lifestyle differences, and also, a new technology. Since you live in a multigen household, encourage your Mom to watch TV with your daughter and choose suitable programs. But, if you think there is too much screen time period, suggest that they set some common goals, get outdoors, or take up a shared hobby. 

Meanwhile, a good starting place might be to convert the TV room, if you have one, into a more communal spot where you all come together to browse on your electronic devices. Or, set up this space on the kitchen table, if that is what is available. Insist for now, that you participate together and have a glance over the collective shoulder. No child should be left behind, when behind means a closed door in a closed room.