Flashlight, App & Halloween

Should we carry a flashlight when the smartphone can light things up for us? Sometimes a redundant ‘Yes.’

This is a list of everyday activities, for example, a calculator, that we now perform with phone apps instead of with a separate device.
The Apps Take Over!

Dear Ms. Smartphone: We are getting ready for Trick ‘O Treat and have a small family disagreement. My kids (Sponge Bob and Princess) believe that the flashlight on our phones will be sufficient at night. I am old-school, raised in the U.K. and insist that we bring battery-operated flashlights (torches in U.K. speak). Your thoughts? Laurent, Berkeley

Dear Laurent: First and foremost, I hope that Sponge Bob and Princess have a happy and safe adventure. As you get ready for Halloween, it’s great to use this family time to talk with kids about phones.

There are several reasons why you should carry a separate flashlight this Halloween. It will illuminate a wider area, and the batteries will out-last those on a smartphone. But the important reason is ‘redundancy.”


As we come to rely more and more on apps to perform everyday functions (the image speaks loudly!) we need to stay acquainted with older, mechanical methods. Put another way, you want to have both old-fashioned flashlights and newer LED ones in your earthquake safety kit, along with a spare battery or solar charger for your phone. The need for redundancy is a vital lesson for digitally minded kids. It’s particularly important when the wifi network and/or cellular service are both down.


In researching this illuminating topic (!) I came across two more issues. First, beware if you need to download a flashlight app to an older phone. Apparently these apps, particularly on Android phones, can ask for up to 55 permissions to read the phone status, view Internet connections, and have full network access. So consider with your kids the privacy concerns, and speak up for digital security.

Second, it’s not clear that the flashlight app will work at night when you also need to take pictures. Both the flashlight and built-in camera flash need that pulse of light. Since you will want to to record the adventures of Sponge Bob and Princess, it’s best to also carry the torch.

Is Texting Wrong Here?

If you have relatives who don’t say much, is texting the wrong thing to do?

This image shows an imaginary text box with platitudes like "love you" "feel better"
Is Texting the Way to Reach Family?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: It is a holiday, Yom Kippur, and I find that some of my relatives are not involved with our family’s cherished routines. These relatives, who have moved away, seem totally disconnected from the family except for texts they send plus birthday cards. Usually I have to text them first. Should I text my disapproval? Marcela, Swampscott

Dear Marcela: You ask a contemporary question! As technology changes so do our interpersonal relationships. Based on what you wrote, your lament is not a one-off. The texts you exchange are fragile, both in number and in content.

No doubt, it is hard to pick up the phone and dial these relatives, but that would be my advice. If you continue to rely on text it will magnify your differences. When you send a text, you don’t know how it is received (is the person alone or in a group, focused, reading carefully etc.) nor where (e.g. in the bathroom, in the car, etc). That could account for some of the misinterpretation, but not all.

If you converse on the phone (presuming they answer your call), you can speak your mind, and convey more emotions and explanation. Importantly, you can listen to their viewpoint and gain some clarity. This is a very good article describing all the things that are lost by texting and gained by using a phone call instead.

If you have not seen these relatives in awhile, you could propose a Skype chat, but if you do so, be prepared to have a subliminal moment processing how they look, their surroundings, and whether they are reacting to your call as an intrusion or as a nurturing intervention. I would be concerned that the additional visual cues could hamper your reconnection. Good luck!

Older Phones Work

This is a picture off older flipphones, blackbery phones, and early smartphones. The image is from 2017 and was taken by Chris Jackson, a photographer.
“Not dead yet.” photographer: Chris Jackson. Getty Images (2017)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: In the last post, you and the reader (Zack) seemed to yearn for the newest, latest phone. I have the opposite case. My husband has had the same phone for four years. He refuses to upgrade when I get a new one, even though the store is offering me a 2 for 1 deal for new phones. Is he wrong to want to stay put? Lacy, San Francisco.

Dear Lacy: It’s in the air this Fall : those stories about three hole picture taking and origami phones that fold and practically fly! It’s hard to resist them if you like to stay on top of new technology, and fuel the engines of Silicon Valley (and Korea). The replacement phone-cycle requires less money and commitment than the new car-cycle mentioned in the last post.

However, I see two reasons why your husband might be resistant to new phones even when there is no additional out-of-pocket expense. It is often time-consuming and onerous to switch from one phone model to another. It’s not like they come with instruction manuals! The new Apple phones lack a home button, so it will take swipes up and down to figure out what apps are opened and closed. The Android 10 also does away with the navigation buttons in favor of a gesture-based system. Until a user gets comfortable with these new features, they may make them error-prone and slow down their everyday communications. If you want your husband to get on board, you may need to show him how.

And, his reluctance may be one about consumerism at large. I found an interesting statistic (from 2017) that worldwide, the average global smartphone replacement cycle is only 21 months! Moreover, the rate is highest in emerging consumer markets. Some old phones end up in sock drawers. A few get handed-down. But, it’s reported that in the the US alone, 416,000 cellphones enter landfills or incinerators every day, where they release toxins into the air, water, and soil. And, add to the mix the old cords and adapters. There are environmental reasons why consumers hold on to phones longer, and seek less for the newest-latest-shiniest.

That said, it’s still more sustainable to recycle a phone every two years, versus a car. I am in favor of moving-on, and no user should be left fully behind.