Is Smartphone Making Me Worried Sick?

Checking for Covid results on email brings even more angst with the avalanche of email messages…

Worried from messaging on phone? Pacific Lutheran University sends its community reminders of a daily wellness check in on their phones.
Worried sick from messaging? (graphic courtesy of PLU)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is my phone making me sick? I got very worried last week while waiting for the results from a Covid test.  My health center sends out the results by email. So, I kept opening and checking email on my phone to see if it had arrived. Then, each time I went to email, it felt like there was an avalanche of other messages I had to read or respond to. That made me feel even more worried sick! The Covid test came back negative (thankfully) but I am wondering how to tame this email habit I acquired.  Soren, Walnut Creek 

Dear Soren: Glad to hear you are well. Surely it was useful to know the results of your Covid test quickly, particularly if you were feeling under the weather or planning a visit with other people. But, suppose that the result had sat in your inbox for a few hours, instead of checking as soon as it got posted. Would finding out a few hours later have changed things, or made you less worried-sick?

Now, prepare to get scared by the numbers, as the phone tells all! There’s a quantitative way to see how much your phone use increased last week.

On an IPhone (iOS 12 or later) go to Settings and then Screen Time (for Android, look here). Then, under the chart that shows daily activity, scroll far down. There you will find a section that visualizes the number of times you picked up the phone each day, and further report time on the individual apps you used, like email! 

Not So New…

But, back to your question, which was submitted, no surprise, by phone! You make a good point that one behavior, namely checking for a specific message, “begets” another behavior, like doing more email. However, the anxiousness brought on waiting for vital information is not new:  think about time spent waiting for a test-score to arrive in the mail or the nervousness when your doctor’s office tries to reach you over the phone about surgery dates. What is new is that smartphones have no time-constraints so they feed and spiral the angst as we wait for updates or news.

Taming the EMail

With regard to email, analyze how much you need to  use it. There is a recent review that suggests trying Slack or Chat . But, it’s not clear- these platforms might just switch your time use to a different channel, one that emphasizes social, one paragraph content. One latent problem is that using Slack could keep you in an ‘always-on’ status with friends or colleagues.

A different approach is to go on an email diet.  While you continue to check it via your phone, you commit to writing and responding to messages just once or twice a day. On weekends, you try out an email Sabbath. 

Taming the Speed

I used to have a co-worker (whose name I shall not speak aloud) who said that only organ transplant candidates and surgeons needed to check their phone messages around the clock.  In that case, speed matters and lives could be spared.

As early as 2012, Pew Research found that nearly a third of phone and tablet users checked their phones throughout the day for breaking news, and not during a specific time of the day (say before 8 am. or from 5 to 9 pm). So, reflect on what the speed of knowing gets you.  Does the speed feed an ever-growing mound of angst?

Speed will not always be an advantage and time away from our phones may compensate in terms of well-being. You learned this week, gratefully, that well-being, is everything. Thanks for writing.

Should Kids Use Phone on Break?

Learning pods are supposed to replace socialization and school….is the phone adding distance?

Young children studying in a pod  like classroom during Covid virus. At each desk there is  computer and desks are 6' apart.
Daily Herald, photo by John Starks 8/25/2020

Dear Ms Smartphone: Should kids use their phones during a break? This fall my daughter is in a learning pod with seven other middle-school students. It seems to be going well, and I think that she will be prepared for high school next year. The issue I have is that the instructors allow the pod kids to take out their phones during the breaks between classes. There are multiple breaks during the shortened school day. In our normal school, the kids cannot use their phone until the end of the day. Do you think I should say anything?  Sharin, Berkeley

Dear Sharin: These are interesting times and I am glad that you were able to locate an instructional pod for your student. For pods, the equity issues have been substantial, along with access to technology and the Internet. You raise yet another important issue about these makeshift classrooms.

If the students use computers for most of their lessons, I would argue that they need a break from the screen. It is important that they refresh their eyes, refresh their minds, and seek out personal interactions, at a six foot distance, of course.  Taking a short stroll or engaging in some physical exercise would be a great alternative to spending more time with online games or search. 

WhAt is the Attraction?

Second, you need to question what students do online, the online sites they visit, between classes. Since they are in seventh or eighth grade, question whether they are spending time on social media like Tik-Tok or SnapChat. You might look at your daughter’s posts, if you have access. Looking over her “digital shoulder” and getting access is vital at this age. But, it begins with a collaborative discussion and her perspective on her podmates, free-time, and how the pod functions during breaks. 

According to Pew Research 33% of teens note that it is simply easier to connect with a friend online than to attempt connecting with them physically. There are two instructional things that parents must do: one is to show kids how to disconnect in order to connect, and second, we need to teach the tools of digital literacy. Is this pod facilitating either?

Speak Up!

So, you might take this up directly with the lead instructor- ask for some time “after class” to discuss media use. You mentioned that there was more than one instructor, so they might have inconsistent enforcement or rules. Most likely you and the other parents that hired these teachers first agreed on the curriculum.  So, also reach out to the other parents in your pod. And, hopefully you will all be back in your regular classroom soon.

Is Handwriting Dead?

A page from a kid's primer of cursive writing- with the letters a to z and the numbers 1 to 10.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is Handwriting Dead? My fifth grader is doing OK with remote school and keeps up to date with classwork. He spends most of the day on the computer and then plays video games in the evening. My worry is that there is no opportunity to turn in assignments written by hand. So, his handwriting (penmanship) is suffering. When I went to elementary school the nuns made me stay after class and corrected my hand-writing until it looked satisfactory (to them). My son thinks this is funny, but I do not think his bad hand writing is funny at all. Jemma, Los Angeles

Dear Jemma, There are some skills that are enhanced by computer learning but penmanship is not one of them. Sitting at a computer all day make us faster on the keyboard, but hand writing skills atrophy. An older story in The Washington Post, reports that until the 1970s penmanship was taught as a separate subject and up till sixth grade children spent at least two hours a week on it. Today, when schools teach hand writing it is frequently for 10 minutes or less a day, and formal instruction ends after third grade. It’s a conundrum: many kids never learn cursive writing and printing can be too slow for them to get their thoughts on paper.

There may be ways that you can intervene as a parent but it will take two of you to carry this off. What I mean is that you, as a parent, will need to pickup a pencil and paper, sometimes in lieu of your phone, and show how enjoyable and useful it is to write by hand. You son is going to model the media behavior he sees at home, from reading books and newspapers, to spending free time on the phone or computer. 

Get Fun!

First, I would read up on the pros and cons of different handwriting techniques: print,  cursive or a speed-combo called the Barchowsky method. Go with what your son feels comfortable with. Then, visit a stationery store together and pick out the pen and pencils that feel special to your son. The right pen, with a comfortable grip, makes a difference in how handwriting looks on the page.  And, kids seem to enjoy the newest pens that have erasable ink. 

The second step is to set a daily routine with a fun time to write. Mom can be  the “tooth fairy” and leave a small gift (a candy bar, a poem, a new pen).   Then, your son has to keep a hand-written journal for the “tooth fairy.” He can write about the gifting, how he feels about that day’s cache. If this seems contrived, then create an “appreciation journal”- talk through what you are both grateful for each day, and have him write a few sentences about it in a lined notebook. 

Get Literate Too!

There is a parallel activity if you want to add a lesson on media literacy. Configure his phone so that there is always paper and pencil nearby- perhaps put the smartphone, the notebook and a pen in a see-through carry case. After using the phone and putting it back in the case, he writes a few sentences in the notebook about the browsing habit: what he saw or looked at, and how it made him feel (e.g. happy, sad, indifferent).  You can customize the page to be a timesheet with entries. 

The idea is that he works on his hand-writing as he also develops a mindful, attentive awareness towards browsing the Internet. I would not stress over the particular words or sentences he writes, since your focus is on just getting him to use the pen more and the keyboard less.