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.

Should Teen Remove TikTok?

A Mom is wondering where she and her teen stand on this issue….

A juxtaposition of the tik-tok corporate logo and a tick-tock kid's toy clock from Fisher Price.
TikTok: not your average learning toy !

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Should my teen remove Tiktok from her phone? During the lockdown she and her best friends have been getting together and making up choreographed dances. It’s a lot of fun and I love being their audience. The app has helped us keep active and share things. Even though we like it,  I am concerned by what I read. It doesn’t seem good and I don’t want her to have spyware on the phone. Should I ask my teen to take the app off her phone, or am I just having a knee-jerk reaction? Madeline, Novato

Dear Madeline: This one is above my pay-grade, as the expression goes, so I will just offer some general comments. I am reading and watching the same stories as you.


I would use this occasion as an opportunity to talk about social media with my teen. The political fray gives you a chance to remind them that social media is more complicated than the plot of ‘Games of Thrones.’ On the Internet, nothing is permanently private, and what teens post, in drips and drabs, (ie, their digital exhaust) could become a permanent record. That might not seem so important in ninth grade, but it could become a liability for employment later on. Moreover, postings can be manipulated and changed without direct permission. Kids seem to naturally understand the idea of song covers- most of the time a musical reinterpretation (the cover) is creative and good, but it could be juxtapositioned for bad.

You, or the Algorithm?

The second issue I would discuss with my teen is the “pop stardom” that might lure them to TikTok. Music, dance, and humor come naturally, and getting that 15 seconds of fame is like, well, getting into an Ivy League school, but better. When you commit to social media, you also feel obligated to package and promote yourself. But, sometimes, it’s not about us, but rather, about the the algorithm; how does it know just what to show you and when? Whatever your teens social investment in  TikTok, there will be new venues to be conquered: just this week Instagram announced Reels, a brand new video feature.

As we grow more accustomed to smartphone technology and become more sophisticated with it, apps like TikTok might appear very primitive. Slapstick comedy is often an entry point during the infancy of a medium. Do readers, or their grandparents, remember vaudeville performances at movie theatres or Alan Funt’s “Candid Camera” on television? One source says that TikTok is like future social media in which the least amount of effort is expended to be a content creator with a shot at viral fame or at least a few laughs.

You, or Where you Go?

So, while the content may be simple or funny, the underlying app may not be. The content is delivered within a smartphone (aka computer) that could potentially be advanced, at the data collection and surveillance level. In reading why India banned TikTok, it was ostensibly because Indian soldiers were involved in a crash with Chinese troops in the Himalayas. We civilians don’t know whether the app was tracking the soldiers’ movement through hidden code or whether this an international row motivated by political tensions, the economy, or something else.

One of the issues that goes unsaid in social media is that the content and posts of individual users is probably not that significant to providers- but information harvested from their devices could be. It’s a plus when we want to track Covid, but dangerous in other situations. A malicious app could contain code that extract the names of contacts, recent phone activities, the usage of other apps and more.

It’s hard to read the clock-face of TikTok, but it does make sense to talk though these ‘timely’ issues with your teen and listen to what she has to say. No doubt teens are one step ahead, neither turning to Microsoft or Instagram, and instead, trying out brand new platforms.

Should Couple Share Screen?

A good looking couple sitting on a couch, announcing a zoom meeting they will hold for the RockChurch. This  was posted  on twitter.
Couples sharing screen from Rockchurch- San Bernadino, Ca.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I co-founded and run a small charity (HouseOfGoodDeeds.org) building community and helping others through altruism. We’ve been growing lately, partnering with other organizations and expanding our offerings. We have occasional small videoconferences with our organizers and volunteers, 3-5 attendees, but we anticipate bigger turnouts soon. My girlfriend is one of our main organizers, and we often are in the same place when these meetings are scheduled. She thinks it’s appropriate for the two of us to share the screen together, while I think it’s more professional for us to each be on our own devices for group calls. Who’s right? Leon, NY

Dear Leon: I  checked out your site and kudos for helping out so many people in need. You must be even busier here in the time of Covid.  You raise a fine question about digital etiquette and why your girlfriend wants to be on the videoconference, with  a single device. 

It’s worth exploring why she sees this is a value added proposition. Try to tease out her reasons and see if they make sense. Perhaps she is striving to make it look like TV news or the late night shows, where commentators and experts sit around the table and  chat. Maybe as the charity grows, that will happen. 

But, for today, here are few things to think about: first passwords and the security you have on the device. Sometimes couples go through turbulent times, and you don’t want your charity to be in jeopardy. This can never be easy for couples are joined at the  digital hip.

View it as a Visitor?

If unity is your main goal, then maybe the shared screen is the right decision. But, look at your meeting as if you were a visitor. Some platforms ‘zoom’ into the voice so when the two of your are online together that could be confusing. What is the partner who is not speaking doing? And, are the two of you in full view or cut-off, particularly with picture- in -picture? In that case, you might need to sit further from the camera. It’s essential that you make the quality and professional appearance of the video conference your primary concern.

View ExpaNSIONS

During Covid, churches and charities have found novel ways to be tech-savvy and engage new audiences (or lapsing ones). Here’s a headline: When God closes a church, he opens up a browser window!  Can you take a lesson from them and explore new roles that  will be complementary for your business such as  private chat rooms, or additional screens with pictures and text? The two of you could work together to plan better online meetings amplified by more screens (just make sure she does not zoom bomb you!)

On a personal note, I can honestly say that during the lockdown, my husband and I share a screen, but only for virtual  happy hour. If I had to do that more often, I am sure I would want bigger technology and a larger drink.