How Will Teens Study From Home?

During the Corina Virus ISPs are waiving fees for data plans. This block text from Comcast describes the offering. The link goes to a site called

Dear Ms. Smartphone: For the rest of this school year my son (grade 11) will take high-school classes at home via computer. We live in an urban area, and while we don’t have the same issues as another nearby public school, we worry about the inequities. Many of my son’s friends are on teams at that other school, and these kids (used to) hang out at my house. Of course, everyone is at home now.  I worry that these kids will fall behind if they cannot get online and complete the school year like we can. Dionne, Albany

Dear Dionne: School districts everywhere are having a difficult transition. It is not just about changing the curriculum from classroom to digital instruction so that students cover the requisite material and graduate on time.  It is also about maintaining cybersecurity and student privacy, and, as you intuit, providing each student with digital access and electronic devices. 

Internet for All:

At the beginning of the Internet (The Information Super Highway) there was concern over the digital divide: would the less privileged fall behind?  Two things turned the tables (maybe more too). The ability to access the internet jumped from computers to smartphones. For nearly a decade anyone with an inexpensive smartphone and WiFi has access to the full Internet: e.g. job searches, tutorials, Wikipedia, maps, etc. A data plan is not a necessity. But, a FCC policy called Lifeline service, introduced in 1985, makes data available too. With Lifeline, eligible households get a discount for wireless service, broadband internet access and broadband voice bundles. 

Today, ninety-five percent of teens say they have access to smartphones, and they can use them to find hotspots in novel, creative ways that run circles around their elders. Phones now have the capacity to carry television broadcasts (Quibi), so why not school lessons?  I am not recommending that kids permanently follow their teachers on a smartphone, but it could be a make-shift solution, particularly if they dial-down two-way video. During the quarantine, almost all telcos and internet service providers have waived monthly data limits. Still, we can help kids identify places that offer social distancing and WiFi together, like library parking lots. 

Common Sense Media Means Education:

There is a trove of information to be found on Common Sense Education. They thought about this long before the current crisis and have a seminal 2019 report called “The Homework Gap…Teacher Perspectives on Closing the Digital Divide.” For the current times, they provide a list of free and low-cost internet offers. When I put in an Albany zip code, it returned three “free” offers for Internet service (see image). Common Sense Education also points to a site called pcsforpeople where you can donate your old computer and have it refurbished for eligible individuals and non-profits. (Full disclosure: the website had fulfillment delays on 4/9/19). 

If your son’s friends live in a more rural part of the state they might be experiencing difficulties getting full connectivity and fast-enough speeds to stream their school lessons. In more urban areas like yours, students, educators, and parents need to search out where there is existing broadband access, and they might discover it to be within their own home or apartment.

Teletopia or Infodemic?

This is an abstract image: first a word bubble about tech on the left and a picture of a teletubby doll on the right. It is titled teletopia 1 and teletopia 2/

Dear Ms. Smartphone: The weekly report for my phone shows that I spent less time this week using it- about 1 hour less. Why am I using my phone less during the quarantine, and should I worry that I am not connecting enough with what is going on outside? Hugh, Woodside

Dear Hugh: It’s actually great that you use a screen report and protect your time. There is little doubt that TELETOPIA will triumph when the pandemic ends. We will all be spending a lot more time on our devices, whether for telemedicine, teleshopping, telework or more….and 5G networks will diffuse rapidly. Perhaps you, and others, are experiencing the final days of simplicity and minimalism before a near-future upheaval. I don’t mean to imply that the future is dystopic. It will just be different.

Less is More

But, back to present and the fact that you are using your phone less in these troubled times. This can be positive because continual monitoring of the news and breaking headlines can  make you feel helpless and fearful. It’s good to know what is going on out there, but it is not good to internalize it, easy to do when we spend run-away time on media.

POTS (Plain Old Phone Service)

You might want to pick up your phone more, but in an old-fashioned way. Use it as a telephone, to make and receive voice calls. POTS was the term we used to use at the phone company. I have personally found over the past week that the best ‘comfort-food for the soul’ has been to pick up the phone and call a friend or relative, or get their incoming call. It is much better than a text. I am not sure if I would feel as excited by a video- call on Zoom or Skype; that might feel too much like work.   

Third, let’s talk about the device itself. There have a proliferation of posts about people cleaning up their homes and organizing closets and drawers. Marie Kondo is back in the news. That is a reminder that we should do a parallel  ‘wipe down- swipe down’ of the info-detritus cluttering up our electronic lives. Consider cleaning out the photos, files and the apps that no longer ‘spark joy.’ For example, if you are like most people and only used the download for the meditation app, the home gym, or free delivery service once send the app to the trash-bin (and also do a full delete under ‘Settings’). Going forward, you want to be mindful of what your device links to and organize your free time around really useful apps. 

Clean Out Deadwood…Get Ready!

So, enjoy this break, clear out the deadwood, and get ready for the upcoming TELETOPIA.  John Eger, a lawyer and prof, says that the term teletopia was coined by Japanese Ministry of Posts and Telecommunication around 1980, to describe a future broadband communications infrastructure. You are holding it in your hands!

Dual Phone Dual Life

There is a way to untangle the hot mess of home & work merging together on phones.

A company called bluetach sells little stress balls in the shape of a chair.This is a picture of three of them- one is orange, one is red, one is blue. The phone sits on the red one. Personalized stress chairs on order for stressful lives.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: When I am at work I get calls from my kids and when I am at home my boss calls me. I have different ringtones for everyone, but it is still driving me crazy. And, I don’t want to carry two phones.  How do I bring order to this? Carey, Boston.

Dear Carey: Let me begin with the picture, which depicts three chairs, one holding an Iphone. The chairs are are actually little stress balls and presumably useful when we have to answer a call! Like the three chairs, or the three bears, many of us have trouble filling all our roles. However, there is a technological fix that could help.


Last year Apple introduced a phone that allows users to have two different phone numbers on the same phone, so you can separate your work and home lines. The phone lines can be from different carriers too, say T-Mobile and Verizon. This two-line functionality  is now standard on the iPhone11, but truly, so few people talk about it that it seems like a ‘secret’ feature.

Your contacts and calendar can be configured for either account. You can set the phone that is used for work to go straight to email, say after 6pm or on vacation. No more work-calls buzzing while you are trying to help the kids with their homework.

Sim Not:

Android phones should have this feature too so check the functionality with your phone carrier. In the past this required a device that held two SIM cards, but I don’t think that is the case anymore. 

Working around the clock, whether at home or at the office, seems to be a modern epidemic. While you still have to set the boundaries, e.g., when you must respond to a text from work, the dual phone might help you establish a digital fence around your home and work life. It will be interesting to see whether your boss will agree to pay for the second phone line and I personally think that managers should do so as a modern cost of doing business.