Digital Content and Newspapers

A cartoon from newspapers.org suggesting that newspapers are key during a pandemic, along with soap and sanitizer.
Digital Content and Newspaper Subscriptions. Source: newspapers.org

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I see your point about civics and reading a newspaper or magazine with kids at home (I have one in college and three at home).  But, it’s really impossible to get it delivered where we live. The paper ends up not coming most days, and when it does, it lands in a boggy part of our lawn. Sometimes it just disappears. So, what’s wrong with digital content and newspapers?  Ollie, Oakland

Dear Ollie, Here’s the irony. Publishers believe that people are turning to digital content for newspapers because they prefer it.  Actually, the exodus from tree pulp from starts with the little things like a dialogue with the overseas call center or a wonky web site. It’s hard to reach a human and stop or start a delivery. Often, as you note, the paper doesn’t come at all. 

Shared experience

The major reason I advocate that you and your children still read a physical newspaper is that it can be a shared experience. If you read the news on a phone or a tablet your children don’t know whether you are looking at a story, browsing for a new car, scrolling Facebook, or playing a video game. And, reciprocally, as a parent, you don’t know what they are doing either. With that in mind, you might if the budget allows, reserve a laptop for their schoolwork and a separate device, say an Xbox, for social and games. That way you can keep better tabs.

You also want to read the physical newspaper because context matters as well as content. Say you are reading topical news stories about the subway collapse in Mexico City. Your children might be afraid to ride BART and take public transportation after they see the pictures. You have the opportunity to provide background, and impart them with knowledge that this is a very rare event.

Reading light and deep

But, another reason for reading the newspaper, think academic again, is that it inculcates better reading skills. With a digital paper, readers are more likely to skim and not go in depth- despite the opportunity to use outside links and sources. I have previously written about the differences between reading in print versus reading digitally. But, if your kids are doing research, the digital paper might be valuable, particularly for highly visual articles and timelines. 

On the Internet- when Facebook or Twitter delivers the news, we experience a “filter bubble,” so named by A. Parnisi back in 2010. Based on your expressed interests and past viewings, an algorithm predicts stories that will engage you. It winnows the news stories into into a handful of items that you will click on. That click, in turn, initiates ads, targeted just for you. When you read a print paper, the “filter bubble” is bigger- an editorial staff picks and prints say 30 stories a day and there’s no linking between ads, clicks, and customers.  And, there is the serendipity of discovering something you and your family would not normally see or read. 

Breaking the Breaking Cycle

That said, Facebook and Twitter are the hands-down winner when it comes to hearing late-breaking, real-time news stories. The print newspaper cannot compete. However, and it’s a serious question, are we the wiser for this, or is it another type of distraction? Almost all breaking news stories are of a distant environments that we cannot act upon or control. Should there be  a news event of local significance, say an out-of-control fire or a traffic jam-up, you are likely to get notifications on your phone.  Watching a distant breaking new story, in this case, news of the Boston Marathon bombing, was associated with impacts on mental well being.

So, summing up, what do you do when the newspaper doesn’t quite make it to your doorstep. Perhaps you can subscribe to media that comes in the post, like a weekly magazine. Or you can make a fun trip on foot or in the car to get a latte and a newspaper. Both cost about the same, and you can share the latter.  Most public libraries have both print and digital editions of papers, but that is not going to help you with the family time.

Too Much Screentime?

Too much screentime? A montage of cartoon like kids on screens. From commonsensemedia.
Too much Screentime? Image: Commonsensemedia.org

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My daughter, age seven, watches way too much screentime since the pandemic and I want to undo this. What’s the best way to get us back to normal? Going cold turkey seems impossible? Marney, New York

Dear Marney,  It’s a timely question- there is a new phrase called “collaboration equity” to describe how offices, and perhaps schools, will emerge from the pandemic. Those who are remote must be able to participate on equal footing with those physically present. Hopefully this is not an issue for younger people, and New York schools will reopen this Fall. However, there’s a long and daunting summer ahead, and too much screentime?

In a recent column I overviewed some vital steps that parents can take but I will add to them here. There is not a single work-around, a magic wand, that will transport families back to simpler days before the pandemic.  But, I do have three fixes. 

A Lean Screen

First, if you want your daughter to reduce her screentime then it’s up to parents to be the screen mentor. This is going to be a challenge if you are still working from home full or part time. But, if your child sees you ‘working’ on a laptop or phone, they can’t differentiate whether you are in a meeting, ordering groceries, or chatting with girlfriends. Screentime is screentime and children will mimic habits of their elders. So, if you want your child to cut back on screentime, you will have to do so together.

Nix the MIX

Another way to reduce screen time is to nix using the smartphone phone as a multi-task accessory. Phones can be  substitutes for flashlights, microscopes (with attachments), cameras, alarm clocks, timers, address books, calendars, and of course, games. Instead of using these, introduce the seven year old to some replays! Replace games with a deck of cards and a cardboard puzzle,  build an A-Z index card file instead of using the online address book, and use a plug in clock instead of the digital wake-up. Photos and photo storage may be the hardest function to give up, but since you are trying this out for a few months,  get an old fashioned Polaroid type camera and see what develops!

A New Norm..Away

Finally, one of the best ways to do a reset is to change the environment and hence, the daily habits that go along with it. In some deeper, older behavioral studies, psychologists found that they could affect the behavior of young mothers (I believe it was towards diaper use), if they changed the Mom’s physical environment. In a new setting, the Moms were more open to doing things differently and trying out a different norm.

Changing up the environment has a lot of merit this coming summer for kids and  families, coming out of the  lock down. Getting outdoors and going to the park is one thing, but taking a six week visit  to summer camp or to the grandparents is an order of magnitude better. Getting away would be a great way to undo those sticky screen habits. That said, you need to find a summer camp that has strict controls on screen time, and does the equivalent of putting phones in Yondr bags when the kids check in. Likewise, time with Grandma is not going to change screen habits if she is glued to watching TV shows for several hours a day, or, if a more contemporary grandma, she swaps out TV viewing time for the Internet. You need grandparents that read books aloud, take your daughter to the library, and even encourage her to compose stories on her own (perhaps describing those Polaroid pictures!)

You are not alone trying to figure out how kids will adjust to these post-pandemic times. Cut yourself some slack as you try out new activities and behaviors. There are really two layers of change going on- change that comes from staying indoors and out of school during the pandemic, and change that occurs because a six or seven year old is growing up, getting social, and leaving behind early childhood.

Teen Ready for Smartphone?

 Is  Teen ready for Smartphone? A sketch with a violet colored background of a cell phone case and a provisional driver's license. Used  to promote idea of a provisional phone for teens.
Teen: Ready for Smartphone? Hello provisional phone!

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My Dad reads this column aloud to my brother and me so I hope he will see this. I am ten years old and my birthday is next month. I am responsible and accountable. How do I tell my Dad I am ready to have my own smartphone? Emma, Novato

Dear Emma: This is one clever girl! It sounds like you are a preteen on your way to a smartphone. But, quickly do a financial check in.  If you think it will strain your family’s finances, offer to help.

Since you read the column with Dad you might know that I am a proponent of the provisional phone. Newly minted drivers, and you will be one in five or six years, do not get on the road without adult supervision and training. Provisional drivers engage in classroom instruction, then they spend requisite hours practicing on the road with an adult, and finally they must pass both a written exam and road test. 

Even after they earn their license, there are restrictions about driving after dark, transporting other kids in the car, and, of course, a zero tolerance policy for alcohol and drugs.

Hello Provisional Phones!

In my years in transportation, I always thought we should have similar strictures for kids. While some countries ban phones in schools, parents have to come up with their own rules for home and after school.  How do they know if their teen is ready for a smartphone? You can search more of my articles on provisional phones here, but here’s a glimpse.

Cars are dangerous if we go too fast and ignore the speed limits. On the Internet  there is a similar issue: we need to slow down the velocity of our emotional responses and reactions.  What you post is searchable. So a provisional phone might flash a message before we hit send: “Do you need to post this now? Would you want your parents or teachers to read or see this five years from now…” It sounds like common sense, but in the heat of the Internet it’s easy to forget.

Deep Speeds

In cars we go too fast, but on the Internet we go too deep. If you are not mindful, chatrooms, Tik-Tok and other media lead you down rabbit holes. They subtract time that you would otherwise spend reading a book, getting outdoors, or just being footloose. Even though we have digital connections, we need to nurture spaces so that we remain productive and creative offline.

Finally, your parents and teachers are concerned about the content you will be exposed to. There is, in practicality, no way to shield a clever teen with a curious mind. You will encounter a lot of “trash on the road” and bad actors who run shady sites. In addition, and this is vital, mental health professionals worry about online teens and peer pressure. Social media makes it easy-peasy to bully someone, post an inauthentic self, or make you envious of  someone else’s (doctored) images. 

The Internet would be a better experience if the other drivers, i.e. people on it had real identities, and we could know when we were being bought and sold.  Classes on digital literacy are a first step and maybe your school or library offers instruction on coding and software too. If you spend time in the sausage factory, seeing how apps are written, then you can inspect them for things like SDKs . You will be wiser and less vulnerable.

Minimalist Phones

Finally, and this is where it all begins- you and Dad should have a discussion about hardware. If it was a car, you might pine for something cool, like a Rav4 or a Jeep.. in phone talk that’s an Apple 11 or later and  a Samsung S21 with 5G. It turns out that there  are stripped down phones, called minimalist phones, akin to the old Fords and Chevys of the car world.

 These minimalist phones  have limited features – often phone, text, and GPS or they grey-scale the display (note the affiliate links if you click through). The Boring phone, is a minimalist phone that began as a New Zealand kickstarter campaign with kids specifically in mind. The Boring phone doesn’t appear to be in stock right now. I am not advocating for any particular hardware- for that matter you could get a flip phone and have scaled down features. It sounds like you are asking for more. I hope it works out, and you will write back about the choices after your birthday.