Smartphone Olympics

The Tokyo Olympics don’t seem the same when they are streamed on the phone…

The five colored rings for the Olympics

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I went to college on an athletic scholarship (water polo) and am finding  the Tokyo Olympics on smartphones to be cringe-worthy. I can’t relate to this new generation of athletes. On top of it, my significant other is streaming the daily highlights on her phone. Am I wrong to question what is taking place, and should I be annoyed that she chooses to watch the event on her phone? Taki, San Francisco

Dear Taki: I will start with viewing, and note that millions more are watching the Olympics this summer on their phones.  I have to agree that is a visual loss on phones. The price of doing so is reduced viewing options and less coverage of the all events, including the pageantry of the opening day ceremony.  

I found an interesting poll from a group called SportsPro. While Americans still find viewing sporting events on phones to be rare that is not the case in other parts of the world, particularly Asia. There, viewership for sporting events numbers is larger. Roughly 33 percent of the viewers in Thailand, 28 percent in South Korea, and the Philippines watch sports on their mobile device. 

Since you are an athlete, you probably miss the grace and beauty of the competition, and seek more than the final score. It’s like watching a theater performance on your phone- you get the plot but not the nuance. Most people watching on their phones are probably multitasking, so that splinters their attention further. To draw eyeballs, content shifts away from the competition and towards the personal drama and backstory. That seems to be where the Olympics have ascended this year. 

Social Media rising Up

I assume you are fixing on the onscreen meltdown of athlete  Simone Biles. It is indeed a new moment in sports history. A little bit of instability gathers a lot of social media attention. Wall St. Journal columnist Daniel Henninger astutely notes that social media has allowed us to democractize neurosis.

Not so naive perhaps: it may be of economic note for the 2021 Olympics. More and more viewers, like your significant other, are watching on phones. Yet the revenue guarantees were made by broadcasters during an earlier time, when viewership was expected to be larger and more committed (not multitasking).   In 2012  the Summer Olympics attracted roughly 31M viewers on TV, and both in 2008 and 2016, roughly 27.5 watched. The 2021 numbers are not so viable for Peacock, the broadcaster. Only 14 to 15 M people stream on their phones. Good news: after Simone Biles’ press conference  the number of streamers increased. 

You mentioned that you were a competitive athlete, so you probably had moments of performance fear and insecurity. However, until the 2021 Olympics the norm was that we handled this within a small circle of friends and coaches. Social media has made “socialable empathy” fair trade.  As our attention to the big screen scales down, we can garner followers and revenue on the smaller screens of social media.  Let the games begin! 

Missing More than Crowds

That said, I want to close with an additional observation. In an earlier post I noted how the lack of face to face meetings and “zoom all the time” was leading to wacky decision making, in that case it was the local school board. There may be a parallel effect as the athletes in Tokyo are deprived of  cheering crowds and the adrenaline/ audience rush.

Might their onscreen behavior during the 2021 games be another example of cultural norms gone awry when we have a dearth of face-to-face interaction? We tend to think we are just watching a game but norms have changed and the athletes may be reacting to that difference.

Home Schooling and Provisional Phones

All parents need to home-school when it comes to smartphones and tweens!

A mock-up of a 'certificate of completion' or diploma for parents who homeschooled through the pandemic.
Home schooling for parents is never done when it comes to provisional phones and tween learning.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am thinking of home schooling my daughter this Fall and wonder if home schooled kids need phones. She is entering eighth grade. I feel constant pressure from her and other parents to get a smartphone. If we home school for a year or two I can postpone the decision and she will be older. And, it will keep me from having to deal with the other parents and tweens who have smartphones.  Libby, Oakland

Dear Libby: Not all parents will choose home schooling, but I think that all parents must home school when it comes to phones.  You are certainly hopping on a trend. Many parents, particularly in California, are deliberating whether to return to the in-person classroom this Fall. The pluses are that the home schooling curriculum can be customized to the student, the classroom can be anywhere, and parents have more control. This includes control over digital devices. 

That said, I hope you have reasons beyond the smartphone for wanting to home school this Fall. Most curriculums are now online and the materials will be digital: podcasts, videos, drills, exams, and so forth.  Homeschooling might actually increase your daughter’s screen time albeit, on a laptop computer or iPad. 

The Provisional Phone:

You sound like a thoughtful parent, so you might consider using the new school year to get your daughter up and running with a provisional phone. In previous posts, I have referred to the provisional phone as the starter-kit. You could use a device with gray scale or fewer features, but that does not obviate the need to school at home, when it comes to digital education.

There’s an analogy from the transportation field. Parents don’t hand over the keys to the family car when their child on their fifteenth birtday. Instead, the parent and child embark on a series of steps. First, there is classroom (or video) training with those scary crash pictures. Next comes driving with a parent or instructor, then a written test with road rules, and finally, a road test with the DMV.  For at least six months to a year, future drivers operate with a learner’s permit. 

Rather than shield your daughter from the responsibilities of using a phone, you could use the school year to introduce it “provisionally.” At home you will provide the instruction and training, but the in-person classroom will provide the challenges and real-world context.

Context Counts when Learning:

Here is where context counts: at the in-person school, tweens will encounter peers that use text and social media to mock and bully. The lesson: stay clear of them, and do not return like with like. Then there is instruction on encountering porn and salacious content. For daughters, there is an instructional module on female body image and understanding how these pictures are often altered. These lessons, and more, become salient when your tween navigates them with peers.

I would wish for you, and all parents with young students, that this first phone, the provisional phone, opens up family discussions. The true learning must begin at home, even when kids take the phones to the physical school.  I would also wish, perhaps demand, that my school librarian and teachers offer a class in digital literacy for phone beginners. Sometimes the postings I see on Instagram from teachers suggest a laissez-fair attitude that I do not agree with, and earlier this summer, parents wrote about conflicts when pod teachers allowed students to use their phones during breaks.

Home Schooling No Matter What!

If keeping the phone out of your daughter’s hands for a few more years is the primary reason you are pursuing the home schooling path, then I think you should be more upfront.  Realize that this constant struggle with digital media will be with you as a parent, no matter which route you choose. And, whether you choose to home school or go back to the in-person classroom, the one curriculum you need to teach from home will be about the provisional phone.

Learning Spanish by Phone


Screen shot from an app that teaches Spanish.
Learning Spanish by Phone? Photo credit: techoven

Dear Ms Smartphone: What do you think of learning Spanish on your phone? This summer my mother and I planned to take a Spanish class together, but the community college didn’t offer it. My mother says we should wait until the Fall but I suggested that we learn the language through apps on our phone. I plan to do this, but how do I bring her along? Evan, Belvedere

Dear Evan: This is a great question, because there is so much discussion post-Covid about hybrid education; splitting time between the classroom and apps. I don’t have much experience with the latter, but after 10 years of classroom instruction in French, I remain functionally illiterate. So, I did what your generation does- I searched on Google for information about the apps.

It was not a surprise that studies by academics, like this one, find merit to the language apps, but also contend the classroom is better for learning grammatical rules and conventions. It is the subtleness of  “Su” versus “Tu”.

The major criticism of the software, and again, no surprise, is that the no-complete rate is extreme, and people spend less than an hour a week (10- minutes a day) online.

That said, I discovered a counter-intuitive approach by an Atlantic writer. He completed 70 hours of online learning, and interrupted a camping trip to complete his online lessons. At first he was flummoxed to speak Italian, but he boned up with a dictionary and study guides and found himself conversant once he traveled. He seems to point out that the software drills you in the basics, and situational needs fill in the rest! 

Go Native!

Now, from a DearSmartphone perspective, your phone brings magical properties- communicate that to Mom! For years, people could sit at their PC , initially with tapes or CDs, and connect to so called “language-modules” like Rosetta Stone. But they couldn’t learn a new language on the fly. Today, say you are waiting for a train and you wonder why it’s taking a  *#* time to come. You can plug that expression into an app, and hear it spoken in Spanish- perhaps with expletives and all!

Smartphones also give us the opportunity to turn-in old habits. Let’s say that you spend a lot of time when you are bored, or waiting for the train, playing Candy Crush. It’s an easy- peasy swap to swap into a Spanish learning app. Ten minutes, or twenty, should pass quickly.

Time Swap:

Do be aware, as I have noted elsewhere, that time on your phone can appear unsocial. Mom and your friends are not going to know whether you are searching for a new car on your phone, scrolling social media sites, or immersed in Spanish 101. You’ll probably be even more remote- wearing headphones- because there are so many sites that teach through the spoken word and videos. 

Learning this way sounds powerful, but  I hunch that you will learn faster, and retain more if you create flash cards (on paper) that reinforce the new words and verb tenses. Again, this is just my intuition, based on the differences between reading online versus reading books and newspapers in print.  

But back to Mom, whom is waiting for the classrooms to reopen.  When it comes to learning Spanish, many people say that the telenovelas are the entry point. They are entertaining and amusing…and they also provide the basic vocabulary on love, separation, and betrayal!  Make sure the telenovela has subtitles. If Mom is into something racier, then tune into the recent space of Narco dramas, popular on Netflix. Again, enable the subtitles.

Media FiX:

Before smartphones, people (especially kids) settling into a new country would  turn to television dramas to fine tune language skills and get comfortable with native accents. So, telenovela might work for Mom. The key is going to be the marriage of motivation to the lesson- whether that is an app or big screen.  

Perhaps you can set your future sites on something tangible, and depending on the budget, plan a  trip to US border towns or Spain! For the  here and now, consider “traveling” virtually. You and Momc can set your phones/Instagram to find people or pets that post in Spanish. The translate feature will decipher their stories and Reels, and you might offer them an emoji or a  ‘Que Bueno.’