Family Setup Good Idea?

@dearsmartphone
(this is not a picture of the actual watch)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I’d like to give my eight year old more independence since he stays indoors all day for home-schooling. But, I also think he is too young to get his own phone. If he goes on his bike or walks to the nearby store I want to know he gets there safely and does not get into trouble. There are not many kids his age in our neighborhood  to hang out with so I worry when he is out and about.  Kelly, Tiburon

Dear Kelly: It’s funny how we now conflate independence with phones.  There are probably less dangers out there than you imagine, but it comes back to your son and his level of maturity.  Back in 2011, a Mom/journalist in NYC started a movement called “free range kids.” The idea is that kids are allowed to play outside or go alone on short trips alone so they learn to be creative and self-sufficient and solve problems if they arise. The founders stress that this is not the same  as “Permissive Parenting.”

Optimized for Kids and…

Depending how you feel about phones and the cost of adding a new phone line, there is a tech solution. Apple just introduced a gadget  called “Family Setup.” It’s is a phone- watch Apple says that is optimized for younger children and seniors!  If you want to know your son’s whereabouts, or grandma’s, that will display on your iphone map. You can  also call or text them from your phone. That sounds like it would do the job.

 Apple’s Family Setup is not the first device to provide a geofence and parental controls (see link for Android) but it will give you more features. The promo material says you can send cash via Apple Pay, so imagine sending your son to the store to pick up a few things on your shopping list! Maybe, have him bring back a newspaper or magazine- something to read together! Or use the feature to set a weekly allowance, and track how it is allocated.

Exercising Choices!

Since children are spending so much time indoors these days, you might test out the feature called the “activity center” (and let me know if it works). It’s like a Fitbit that tracks exercise routines. It then digitally lauds the effort with emoji coaching and milestones.  Since your son is at home and missing recess he might enjoy this.  On the other hand, will he exercise for the intrinsic satisfaction of keeping fit or as a token to share with friends? If the latter, it may unwittingly progress into oversharing on social media at a very young age.

There are pros and cons to Family Setup.  Until we all got smartphones, reaching the teen years meant becoming increasingly self reliant and self-contained, the concept of the ‘free range-kids.’  I honestly don’t know if our connected devices will help parents or  undermine the core values they need to teach. And, will kids who get these watches soon pine for full phones instead?  Finally, our relationships are so fragile these days, so what will happen  if the “family” splits- is it just Mom or just Dad or Grandpa that becomes the watch-keeper? 

Covid Tracking by Phone?

Graphic of a phone in hand and a network of individuals it can reach...the intention is to depict Covid tracking by phone.
Tracking one and many…

Dear Ms Smartphone: Should I start using my phone as a Covid detective, specifically to do Covid tracking by phone? I am not in a high risk group but I attended a busy outdoor rally the other day where people got close and did not wear face masks. Now  I am sorry that I went and I  worry that I might have exposed myself.  Would using my phone might have helped? Rafael, Stinson Beach

Dear Rafael, It’s a timely question and I hope you stay safe.  There are maps online that show hotspots, but they seem to be out of date and not granular enough to reveal specific, local exposure.  Since the ability to track Covid is baked into our smartphones we all need to learn more about it.

Historially, Covid detectors are  groups of investigators, think of them like census workers, who physically track down people  who are exposed to the virus. According to a local newspaper, the trackers compile a list of infected individuals, and then the people who came within six feet of them for at least ten minutes. Google and Apple can do this tracking for us too…but we don’t yet know if it is accurate. Here’s how….

IT’s ON THE MAP!

Most of us run tracing or tracking apps throughout the day. Think of the GPS (global positioning system) that  enables turn by turn navigation or pickups for the rideshare driver. Bluetooth,  a short-range wireless radio, lets you share pictures and files or wirelessly pair music and calls to another device. The standard range is 30 feet. 

Both GPS and Bluetooth are now employed to detect Covid outbreaks, but Bluetooth is the favored method. An algorithm can ‘explore’ if your phone was in proximity to other phones (i.e. people) that concurrently, or later, developed Covid-symptoms. Without causing a public panic, the intention is that public health officials can contact you and tailor notifications.

If your phone had been Bluetooth enabled  at the event you mentioned, you might have gotten a text or email a few days later. Your risk level would depend upon both the proximity and the duration of your exposure- as well as your overall health. UCSF has announced an GPS based tracing program that has people who test positive for the Corona virus download their location histories so that they can recreate the movement data.

Is it Private and Dependable?

Bluetooth was not developed for contact tracing- and the technology gets easily confused (i.e., unreliable) by the most basic interference from windows, walls, and big open spaces. Thus, it can generate false reports for Covid, and miss the big events. The technology was pulled off the shelf because there  were no other digital tracking systems.  But now,  government agencies, from France to Singapore, have developed national tracking. However, local citizens have shunned them and there is conflict from  both Google and Apple over the  transfer of data from phones to centralized servers. 

My Bluetooth Moment

On my own phone, I  keep Bluetooth disabled, because it drains the battery, and I  don’t want to take calls when I drive. I had a classroom ephipany that made me more mindful. I was leading a class, ‘Smartphone 101’,  in the local public library, when students complained that an  older gentleman was sending personal pictures from his iphone . Both the senders and receivers had a default setting that enabled photos on Bluethooth to be “discoverable.” They didn’t know to turn it off. 

So, with a nod to mindfulness, we all  need to become more informed about the features on our phone- they are tools that can deliver good or evil. Both Google and Apple make it extremely clear that they will not use Bluetooth data to tracking Covid data unless users opt-in. However, newer iPhones  no longer require an extra step to download  a separate app. You can find more information in the links (Google) (Apple) and choose whether  to opt in or out.

Stay in Touch Not by Phone

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A cartoon (originally from Shutterstock) of two older people getting a message on their phone.
Staying in touch with parents?

Dear Ms Smartphone: How to stay in touch outside of phones? My kids are in their thirties, mostly grown up and have good careers.  At least once a day one of them sends a group text from their smartphone with a picture or a joke. The pictures are typically of a great meal, pretty scenery, or funny pets. Sometimes there are jokes.  I enjoy the texts and our group exchange. It’s a nice way of dropping into their adult, daily lives. But, since they do not live very far, I suggest on numerous occasions that we get together and set up a regular family visit. There is extreme resistance and I am continually told that they have busy schedules.  For me, this smartphone communication is not enough. Mimi, Boston

Dear Mimi: Your question is really “Why has this smartphone become our primary means of interaction?” Families that live far apart or are stationed overseas have to depend on voice and, more recently, video calls to stay in touch. But, when we live closer together, why is the phone substituting for meeting in-person with each other?

To some extent this is a generational issue.  Many younger people feel that the technology- smartphones- are a means of staying in touch with each other. If they change jobs or move to a new community they can maintain a “persistent relationship” with the people they left behind. They may perceive that the “persistent relationship” also applies to their immediate family circle. 

Locked DOwn?

Although DearSmartphone, by definition,  puts devices at the center of relationships, it is necessary to ask, in an old-fashioned way, if your kids have other issues that keep them apart. I am not a therapist, but this one (link here) asks all the right questions about hidden resentments, hurt feelings, and neediness. If you follow the therapist’s advice, you will probably be having those difficult discussions….over your phone!

Keep in mind that smartphones with cameras and text are new- most families probably didn’t have them ten years ago- so it is hard to know how they change our personal lives and interpersonal dynamics. Much has been written about the risk for human communications: the lack of emotional, face-to-face conversations; the ability to be bored; the accelerating quest for new stimulation.  In face to face conversations, we have eye contact, we react to the tones of another person’s voice, and we sense their body movements. We lose that on our devices, even with Zoom or Facetime.

Perhaps using our phones to replace human interaction has happened faster than we ever thought……

Look Forward

Do your best to make a case for visiting with each other:  explain that you miss the spontaneous interactions, the sense of touch and smell, being able to share physical things (a book, a meal, a gift) or ask for their hands-on help with software. If your children were teens or pre-teens, you, as a good parent, would be actively regulating their digital lives and how much time they spent online. As the parent of adult children, it’s more difficult, but you have the advantage of having grown up with a time BC (before cell phones) and experiencing wholesome family-time across generations. Press on, for over an extended period, excluding real-life contact and non-verbal cues will harm your relationships even further.