Corona Virus, Smartphone Transmit ?

Will touching an infected user’s smartphone help spread the Corona Virus?

Photo serves as metaphor: a doll with say eyes has a a facemask partially covering her visage. This raises a question about the hygiene and safety of using the touchscreen on our phones.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: With the Covic-19 virus spreading, should I be worried if someone shares a smartphone with me? I was looking at some pictures my friends had on their phones,  and I had to touch their screens to scroll. Meanwhile, it seems like my kids are always passing their phones back and forth to look at YouTube.  And, how about those TV screens on airplanes?  Lance, San Francisco.

Dear Lance:  I am a doctor of social science, not a medical doctor, so I cannot fully give you the advice you seek. But, on the social science side of things, some years ago Stephen King wrote a thriller called ‘Cell.’ Phones were at the heart of the pandemic. It was the signal, not germs, that spread the illness.

But, what is spreading COVIC-19? The Center for Disease Control (CDC) site says it might spread by touching the surface of an object that has the virus on it and then touching your own mouth, nose, or eyes….but they don’t think that’s the main way. Still, it’s good practice to be careful if you have a shared phone that passes among people you do not know well. This is not uncommon among groups of itinerants, the homeless, and poor. They are more likely to share a common phone and might be at a higher health risk to begin with.

Assuming you have a personal phone, you will likely touch it up to 2000 times a day. Good hygiene, in any season, says keep your phone out of the bathroom. Also, make it a regular habit to wipe down the screen with a soft cloth (not soap and water). A Web-MD story says ultra-violet light might be a way to eliminate airborne flu viruses, but other experts, like a clinical professor of pathology, says these effects are superficial.

Time-tested sage advice from the CDC is to routinely wash your hands with a 60% + alcohol based cleaner, or with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

That said, transmission is not only about germs.  This gets us closer to social science and to the pandemonium Stephen King predicted. Speed of information and fragmented, half-truths can also broadcast fear and panic.

Should Family Time Stream?

Should families live-stream their holiday celebrations to those off-site?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My Mom asked if I would stream video from our Thanksgiving dinner. Sh wants to see the kids in real-time and say hello, find out what I am making for dessert, and view the place-settings. I put out her Mom’s (my grandmother’s) special china plates and serving pieces just on Thanksgiving. These are all good reasons. Yet I am still reluctant to turn on the video during our holiday meal. Irma, Boston

A multi-generational family gathered around an oval shaped dining table that is set with formal place settings, candles, and wine glasses.
Photo Credit: Lillian Penner, author, “Grandparenting with a Purpose”

Dear Irma: First of all, what would the turkey say! There is no question that the holidays strain our digital etiquette, and that seems to begin here in November.

The good news is that when you run video, say on the phone or Ipad, you might have less contentious dialogue and more “instagram” perfect moments. We act differently when we know we are on camera. Here I am citing a review paper by Harvard Professor Ethan Bernstein. In work settings, when employees know that they are on videotape, there is less petty theft and more emphasis on customer sales and service. This is called technology based monitoring.

Do families behave differently when they are being filmed? Well, maybe on reality TV and when it comes to talking politics and sharing those skeleton-in-the-closet family secrets!

But seriously, I share your concerns about running the camera during your holiday. You didn’t say why your Mom can not come to Thanksgiving…is she very ill, serving overseas, or does she want to avoid holiday travel? The reason might matter (to some….)

That said, I worry for the future that ‘video holidays’ may become a new norm. Why spend money on three-day travel trips, burn excess fuel, and experience the inconveniences of holiday crowds if we can participate vicariously? Something will be gained, and a lot will be lost.

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!