Safe to Bike Post Covid?

A sign that says bikes can use full lane, but the street is full of potholes and construction debris. This is a photo from Cambridge, Mass.
Safe to Bike Post Covid? Image Credit: DearSmartphone

Dear Ms. Smartphone, I was getting my bike fixed, and they showed me a copy of the op-ed you wrote during Covid about commuters and ebikes. I know there are rules about driving and bikes- what about ebikes and phones?! Do you still think it is safe to bike post Covid? I am worried about taking my bike on the road these days because the drivers are running through stop signs and red lights, etc. They also seem to be on their phones more. Brian, Corte Madera

Dear Brian: Accident data reveals that we are at greater risk even though people are driving less. There is evidence that drivers are indeed running through stop signs and red lights more. And with fewer cars on the road, vehicle speeds have increased. You might have less worry about phones- drivers in cars have already reached peak talk!

But, to answer your question, are we safe to bike post-Covid? The dangers you mention are less so about phones, and more so about a cultural shift in how we treat driving and what we do when we get behind the wheel. 

Impaired:

The National Highway Safety Institute gathers statistics on fatal and severe accidents from  trauma centers. These are where ambulance drivers deliver severely injured patients. What they observed in 2020 at the height of Covid is somewhat startling.  Nearly two thirds of drivers tested positive for at least one active drug, including alcohol, marijuana, or opioids. Prior to Covid, about half of the drivers (50%) tested positive for alcohol or drugs but during Covid all substance use increased. The percentage with THC in their bloodstream doubled.  Interestingly, pedestrians and motorcycle drivers had similar levels. There was not enough data on bike riders.

My takeaway is that these accidents on the road are not  “accidents” as much as  “impairments”.

When it comes to assessing phones and driver error, researchers continue to lack adequate data. That’s because people don’t end up in a trauma center clutching their mobile phones. The phones usually fly out the windshield or lie under the seat. Unless law enforcement officials requisition phone or text logs from the telecom company and since that is seldom done, there is no reliable way to measure distraction rates from phones.  That said, key loggers may begin to tell a different story.

Imperiled:

Sadly, we know that traveling at 55 mph, it takes about five seconds to stop the vehicle, or a football field length. Answering a text while driving takes attention off the road for roughly the same period. Yet we can’t quantify the rate of cell phone caused accidents. And, these days, distraction in the car takes new directions- like fumbling with the complex navigation system, thumbing knobs  up and down to tune the speakers, and, on some cars, glancing at the oversized digital screen in the middle for the blind spot cameras. 

Since you are on a bike and hopefully will continue to be, what can you personally do to stay safe? The obvious ones are to wear a helmet and tuck your phone out of sight. It’s not illegal to use a phone while riding but it defies common sense. It’s an irony that when you ask bikers why they bring their phones along with them they answer, “in case something happens.” Hopefully never.

ILLUSION:

With that in mind, at this time of the year when it gets dark early, the majority of  bike accidents take place in late afternoon and after dark. So, it would be a good idea to limit your ride during these hours, or travel them on a grade- divided  path.  Of course, that could limit the usefulness of an e-bike for commute trips. Meanwhile, remember that motorcycle drivers and pedestrians out there are also impaired, so tread cautiously.

In closing, a nod to humility. While smartphones seem to be at the core of so many modern issues and problems, here they are not the driver.

Is Instagram Toxic for Boys?

A Mom wonders whether the flawless images seen on Instagram make boys feel bad too.

A photo of five boys forming a human pyramid. Photo taken at the beach. They are in swimsuits.
What if boys posted like girls on Instagram? Would the desire to seem attractive and flawless be toxic too? Photo credit: BrosBeingBasic

Dear Ms. Smartphone:  I am a regular on Instagram, and am seeing all these posts about social media being toxic for teen girls.  I read your column last week and mostly agreed. But I have a different take: all those pictures of flawless physiques and unclothed bodies can’t be healthy. I have four sons, ages ten (twins) to twenty-one.  Is Instagram only toxic for girls or am I missing something?  Julie, Los Angeles

Dear Julie: As a fellow Mom with three sons, there is a special place in heaven for you!! And like you, I have wondered about the social media impact on my kids. The documents leaked by the whistle blower identified a link that Facebook had studied:  girls, viewing habits and the number of depressive incidents. That does not mean we should exclude boys. While teen girls struggle with their identity and appearance, so do our sons. 

You mentioned that you are on the Instagram platform so you know that the ratio of scantily clad men, vis a vis babes in swim suits is nil. Perhaps boys/men  have more restraint when it comes to posting sexy pictures and selfies. Unfortunately, they may not have greater restraint as viewers. We assume the girls post these pictures for appreciative onlookers, males. The gist of the Wall St. Journal investigation was that thirty-two percent of teenage girls said that when felt bad about their bodies Instagram made them feel worse.

Hashtag Hell!

Instagram opens up a door for teen boys that used to be at the rear of an adult- only bookstore. And back then you needed to show an ID to enter if you were under 18. Once your teen boy goes on Instagram, you can be fairly certain they will be exposed to sexy, half-clothed women. It’s hard to avoid them, as hashtags lead you to strange places ( eg#polishgirl #vacation). Although Instagram technically requires kids under age 16 to sign up with a private account, they can still search outside an “age appropriate experience.”

When Online…

As a Mom, I plan to sit down with my sons and have a discussion about this topical issue- I want to know if they feel unhappy or anxious when they go on Instagram and I want to hear whether they think the pictures of the girls are injurious. Most certainly I want to tell them to be cautious with their ‘likes and double taps.’ They should not be feeding the beast that commoditizes women and treats them as prized cattle in an auction.  

Boys should try to see the issue from the other side of the table: as I wrote last week, an intense focus on appearance can leave a girl grappling with feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. Possibly girls should not be posting these pictures in the first place, but Moms like us have a responsibility to teach sons to take the high road. That must include their pledge to not use social media as a mouthpiece to bully other boys or taunt their weight, appearance, or intelligence. 

Longer Discussions…

Meanwhile, if it should turn out that one of your boys, the older ones, are dating a girl who posts off- color pictures, prepare yourself for a longer discussion. Their posts are searchable and shareable, so indiscreet images might embarrass them both in the future. And, Instagram is used, occasionally, as a dating meetup site. 

I want to mention that boys and girls seem to express their emotional needs differently. In 2017, says Pew Research, about 20 percent of teen girls, ages 12-17 said they had at least one depressive episode. Among boys, the rate was just 7 percent. Yet among teen boys, the suicide rate is five times higher. The CDC reports 2,039 suicides for all teens, ages 14 to 18, in 2018.  Boys post more pictures of their abs and pecs on Instagram, but clearly express their emotions elsewhere…or perhaps not at all.


In closing, it’s ironic how little we have advanced since 2003. Back then a young man (Mark Zuckerberg) wrote a program for fellow students to rate ‘up’ or ‘down’ the pictures of girls they viewed in the class roster. Zuckerberg dropped out of college in 2005  to focus on his growing social media platform. Fifteen years later, the boys are doing the same thing, the girls post the pictures, and it’s now called Instagram.

Parental Advice for Instagram

On Instagram should your teen ‘Show Up’ or ‘Show Out’ ?

A headline (no pictures) from the Wall St. Journal that reads, "Facebook Knows Instagram is Toxic for Teen Girls."
Wall St. Journal reporting points to need for Parental Advice for Teens on Instagram

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Seeking some parental advice for Instagram. I have a 12 year old daughter and she tells me she is “of age” when she gets to her birthday in December to set up an Instagram account. But now I am worried because of all the news in the press about Instagram and teenage girls. I don’t plan to stop her from setting up the account, but are there things I should watch out for? I am concerned about comments she may get about her body image, since she has not lost her baby-fat.  Jewell, Reading

Dear Jewell: The press you are referring to is a Wall St. Journal investigation that ran in mid-September. There were a number of stories about Instagram’s parent company, Facebook. They are able to shield themselves from public scrutiny on vital issues like teens and mental health while internal data suggests that the site is “toxic” to young girls.

Teen mental health is a huge issue and I am not sure that anyone has the full data or complete picture. However, I have complained loudly, on my own Instagram site. You do not have to scroll for long or post the wrong hashtag, to end up on a page with a morass of half-naked girls. It reminds me of wandering through the ‘De Wallen’ district in Amsterdam  (NV) after dark.

Chances are a thirteen year old wants to be on Instagram for more innocent reasons. For teens, there are two distinct Instagrams.  First, there is the “local” need to be online, think of it as showing up. The second Instagram is showing out– and that is where parents need to be concerned. Unfortunately, showing up and showing out can quickly merge.

First: showing up. Thirteen year olds want to be part of a group. They share things, learn, and recreate with each other .So, now instead of endlessly talking on the phone, they use Instagram to trade stories and adventures. It’s a way to seem popular in school, to get recognized, and maybe be part of the in-crowd. It doesn’t always work this way- just as in real life, some kids get bullied and feel left out.

Since this is local, I would network with other parents, the school principal, the school board and the teachers – all of them to ensure that there are classes on digital literacy. Kids get sex-education classes in the fifth grade, right?  You mentioned that your daughter might get remarks about her weight – even more reason to arm yourself with information. Digital literacy would help to immunize her, so to speak, and make her aware that many Instagram images are photo-shopped and not real.

I am guessing that your daughter has her own smartphone. Since she is only twelve you should be monitoring her time on the phone. You can insist that she set up a public account on Instagram.  In that way, you don’t need to know her passwords, and it is all out in the open. But, some parents have a different opinion on this. My concern is that these kids are more likely to then set up hidden accounts that parents can’t access.

Hidden accounts point towards a different problem on Instagram-  what I call showing out. I doubt that artistic appreciation for the human form is driving all those images of half-naked girls.  

Not- it’s commerce of all sorts that encourage girls to post. For example, multiple advertisers on Instagram tout products for weight loss, body building, and self care. These ads speak loudly to teens, who seek identity and self- improvement. Meanwhile, many celebrities post this way too, and that encourages young people to copy them.

Many teens hope to grow up to be champions at video games (boys) or get paid to be an influencer on social media (girls and boys). So girls as young as thirteen may begin posting pictures to a large public (showing out) in the hopes they will get discovered, or they start on TikTok. It’s like old-fashioned modeling, call services, etc. But now there are so many girls with ‘skin in the game’.

As a parent, is it is important to keep tabs on whether your daughter is showing up or showing out. Are the content and hashtags she posts intended for a local, community group of viewers, or a more public view? This may change over time as you glance over her social media shoulder. You might recommend that, as a beginner, she post just two or three stories/images each week. If her posts are infrequent, she will learn to approach each one with greater thought and mindfulness.