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.

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.