Digital Etiquette Phone Calls

An old style phone handset dangling by its cord, and a scissor about to cut that cord. The handset is red.
Digital etiquette for phone calls has changed as we cut the cord.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I used to just pick up the phone and call my closest girlfriends and family members. Now it’s changed and I have to plan it in advance! First I send a text to find a time in common, then a calendar invite, and finally the phone call. I am finding this digital etiquette for phone calls to be exhausting. Sandy, Tiburon

Dear  Sandy: You are right, the etiquette around phone calls has changed. Not everyone uses the protocol you described, but it is becoming common. During Covid, I encouraged people to reach out and touch someone but I did not consider all the steps it would take!

There are a couple of reasons for the change in digital etiquette, and I am not sure you can fight them. First, there are everyday occasions when people shouldn’t be interrupted by a ringing phone. Mobile phones, by definition, are mobile. So, they might ring when we are at a PTA meeting, sitting in a church service, or taking a conference call on Zoom. The ringing phone will distract both us and the people nearby. You could turn off the ring-through settings on your phone, but that sort of defeats the purpose of getting a spontaneous call from a friend. 

Settle In:

If you send a text first, it is less obtrusive. And it allows both parties to be at a place and time where they can settle in and be ready to pay more attention to each other. 

The second reason things have gone silent is related to ‘volume control.’ It’s volume as in the number of messages and communications. Digital media makes increasing demands on our attention. “Alone Together….” by Sherry Turkle notes that we need to control how much time something is going to take and fit it into our schedule.  Sadly, controlling our relationships becomes a factor in this advanced (or backward) communications era. 

There are some calls that defy this digital etiquette. Emergency phone calls from a trusted source break through the scheduling. Likewise, phone calls on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day do too; we don’t typically arrange a time to talk with our parents unless we are on different time zones or continents. Most importantly, shut-ins and isolated older people need no text or calendar. They are happy for the daily check-in.

There isn’t a good way that I can think of to reset our phone habits although the Covid lockdown did bring change, many for the good. In the UK, the number of calls in early 2020 increased by about 50% and the call length increased significantly. The same source says that in the US, call lengths on Verizon increased by 33 percent. For sure, many of these calls used video options, like Facetime.

Car Talk:

Some final words: suppose you follow the protocol, first send a text to your friend, then a calendar invite, and when you finally connect they are driving in the car- hang up. Some people like to schedule calls during their travel trips. You don’t want to be responsible for their distracted driving.

There are three types of distractions: visual distraction, manual distraction, and cognitive distraction. Newer phone-in-car systems like Android Auto and  Apple CarPlay greatly minimize the first two. But, the third type, cognitive distraction, is vastly underrated. 

Here’s an example: how many times have you arrived someplace and been surprised you got there? The detail of the travel trip escapes you because you were  concentrating on a conversation, deep in your own thoughts, or just plain tired?  Some call this highway hypnosis, while others think of it as  zoning out.  Most of the time in the car we can do two things at once- talk and drive- but there are those split-second moments when the conversation diverts our attention from the road. You can’t wish that time back. So, if you are a true friend and you reach someone who is driving, just say ‘No’. Friends trust friends to call each other, and to keep them safe. 

Best of luck as you to sort out the new digital etiquette for phone calls, and hopefully it leads to good conversations after all.

Is Instagram Toxic for Boys?

A Mom wonders whether the flawless images seen on Instagram make boys feel bad too.

A photo of five boys forming a human pyramid. Photo taken at the beach. They are in swimsuits.
What if boys posted like girls on Instagram? Would the desire to seem attractive and flawless be toxic too? Photo credit: BrosBeingBasic

Dear Ms. Smartphone:  I am a regular on Instagram, and am seeing all these posts about social media being toxic for teen girls.  I read your column last week and mostly agreed. But I have a different take: all those pictures of flawless physiques and unclothed bodies can’t be healthy. I have four sons, ages ten (twins) to twenty-one.  Is Instagram only toxic for girls or am I missing something?  Julie, Los Angeles

Dear Julie: As a fellow Mom with three sons, there is a special place in heaven for you!! And like you, I have wondered about the social media impact on my kids. The documents leaked by the whistle blower identified a link that Facebook had studied:  girls, viewing habits and the number of depressive incidents. That does not mean we should exclude boys. While teen girls struggle with their identity and appearance, so do our sons. 

You mentioned that you are on the Instagram platform so you know that the ratio of scantily clad men, vis a vis babes in swim suits is nil. Perhaps boys/men  have more restraint when it comes to posting sexy pictures and selfies. Unfortunately, they may not have greater restraint as viewers. We assume the girls post these pictures for appreciative onlookers, males. The gist of the Wall St. Journal investigation was that thirty-two percent of teenage girls said that when felt bad about their bodies Instagram made them feel worse.

Hashtag Hell!

Instagram opens up a door for teen boys that used to be at the rear of an adult- only bookstore. And back then you needed to show an ID to enter if you were under 18. Once your teen boy goes on Instagram, you can be fairly certain they will be exposed to sexy, half-clothed women. It’s hard to avoid them, as hashtags lead you to strange places ( eg#polishgirl #vacation). Although Instagram technically requires kids under age 16 to sign up with a private account, they can still search outside an “age appropriate experience.”

When Online…

As a Mom, I plan to sit down with my sons and have a discussion about this topical issue- I want to know if they feel unhappy or anxious when they go on Instagram and I want to hear whether they think the pictures of the girls are injurious. Most certainly I want to tell them to be cautious with their ‘likes and double taps.’ They should not be feeding the beast that commoditizes women and treats them as prized cattle in an auction.  

Boys should try to see the issue from the other side of the table: as I wrote last week, an intense focus on appearance can leave a girl grappling with feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. Possibly girls should not be posting these pictures in the first place, but Moms like us have a responsibility to teach sons to take the high road. That must include their pledge to not use social media as a mouthpiece to bully other boys or taunt their weight, appearance, or intelligence. 

Longer Discussions…

Meanwhile, if it should turn out that one of your boys, the older ones, are dating a girl who posts off- color pictures, prepare yourself for a longer discussion. Their posts are searchable and shareable, so indiscreet images might embarrass them both in the future. And, Instagram is used, occasionally, as a dating meetup site. 

I want to mention that boys and girls seem to express their emotional needs differently. In 2017, says Pew Research, about 20 percent of teen girls, ages 12-17 said they had at least one depressive episode. Among boys, the rate was just 7 percent. Yet among teen boys, the suicide rate is five times higher. The CDC reports 2,039 suicides for all teens, ages 14 to 18, in 2018.  Boys post more pictures of their abs and pecs on Instagram, but clearly express their emotions elsewhere…or perhaps not at all.


In closing, it’s ironic how little we have advanced since 2003. Back then a young man (Mark Zuckerberg) wrote a program for fellow students to rate ‘up’ or ‘down’ the pictures of girls they viewed in the class roster. Zuckerberg dropped out of college in 2005  to focus on his growing social media platform. Fifteen years later, the boys are doing the same thing, the girls post the pictures, and it’s now called Instagram.

Parental Advice for Instagram

On Instagram should your teen ‘Show Up’ or ‘Show Out’ ?

A headline (no pictures) from the Wall St. Journal that reads, "Facebook Knows Instagram is Toxic for Teen Girls."
Wall St. Journal reporting points to need for Parental Advice for Teens on Instagram

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Seeking some parental advice for Instagram. I have a 12 year old daughter and she tells me she is “of age” when she gets to her birthday in December to set up an Instagram account. But now I am worried because of all the news in the press about Instagram and teenage girls. I don’t plan to stop her from setting up the account, but are there things I should watch out for? I am concerned about comments she may get about her body image, since she has not lost her baby-fat.  Jewell, Reading

Dear Jewell: The press you are referring to is a Wall St. Journal investigation that ran in mid-September. There were a number of stories about Instagram’s parent company, Facebook. They are able to shield themselves from public scrutiny on vital issues like teens and mental health while internal data suggests that the site is “toxic” to young girls.

Teen mental health is a huge issue and I am not sure that anyone has the full data or complete picture. However, I have complained loudly, on my own Instagram site. You do not have to scroll for long or post the wrong hashtag, to end up on a page with a morass of half-naked girls. It reminds me of wandering through the ‘De Wallen’ district in Amsterdam  (NV) after dark.

Chances are a thirteen year old wants to be on Instagram for more innocent reasons. For teens, there are two distinct Instagrams.  First, there is the “local” need to be online, think of it as showing up. The second Instagram is showing out– and that is where parents need to be concerned. Unfortunately, showing up and showing out can quickly merge.

First: showing up. Thirteen year olds want to be part of a group. They share things, learn, and recreate with each other .So, now instead of endlessly talking on the phone, they use Instagram to trade stories and adventures. It’s a way to seem popular in school, to get recognized, and maybe be part of the in-crowd. It doesn’t always work this way- just as in real life, some kids get bullied and feel left out.

Since this is local, I would network with other parents, the school principal, the school board and the teachers – all of them to ensure that there are classes on digital literacy. Kids get sex-education classes in the fifth grade, right?  You mentioned that your daughter might get remarks about her weight – even more reason to arm yourself with information. Digital literacy would help to immunize her, so to speak, and make her aware that many Instagram images are photo-shopped and not real.

I am guessing that your daughter has her own smartphone. Since she is only twelve you should be monitoring her time on the phone. You can insist that she set up a public account on Instagram.  In that way, you don’t need to know her passwords, and it is all out in the open. But, some parents have a different opinion on this. My concern is that these kids are more likely to then set up hidden accounts that parents can’t access.

Hidden accounts point towards a different problem on Instagram-  what I call showing out. I doubt that artistic appreciation for the human form is driving all those images of half-naked girls.  

Not- it’s commerce of all sorts that encourage girls to post. For example, multiple advertisers on Instagram tout products for weight loss, body building, and self care. These ads speak loudly to teens, who seek identity and self- improvement. Meanwhile, many celebrities post this way too, and that encourages young people to copy them.

Many teens hope to grow up to be champions at video games (boys) or get paid to be an influencer on social media (girls and boys). So girls as young as thirteen may begin posting pictures to a large public (showing out) in the hopes they will get discovered, or they start on TikTok. It’s like old-fashioned modeling, call services, etc. But now there are so many girls with ‘skin in the game’.

As a parent, is it is important to keep tabs on whether your daughter is showing up or showing out. Are the content and hashtags she posts intended for a local, community group of viewers, or a more public view? This may change over time as you glance over her social media shoulder. You might recommend that, as a beginner, she post just two or three stories/images each week. If her posts are infrequent, she will learn to approach each one with greater thought and mindfulness.