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.

Covid Tracking by Phone?

Graphic of a phone in hand and a network of individuals it can reach...the intention is to depict Covid tracking by phone.
Tracking one and many…

Dear Ms Smartphone: Should I start using my phone as a Covid detective, specifically to do Covid tracking by phone? I am not in a high risk group but I attended a busy outdoor rally the other day where people got close and did not wear face masks. Now  I am sorry that I went and I  worry that I might have exposed myself.  Would using my phone might have helped? Rafael, Stinson Beach

Dear Rafael, It’s a timely question and I hope you stay safe.  There are maps online that show hotspots, but they seem to be out of date and not granular enough to reveal specific, local exposure.  Since the ability to track Covid is baked into our smartphones we all need to learn more about it.

Historially, Covid detectors are  groups of investigators, think of them like census workers, who physically track down people  who are exposed to the virus. According to a local newspaper, the trackers compile a list of infected individuals, and then the people who came within six feet of them for at least ten minutes. Google and Apple can do this tracking for us too…but we don’t yet know if it is accurate. Here’s how….

IT’s ON THE MAP!

Most of us run tracing or tracking apps throughout the day. Think of the GPS (global positioning system) that  enables turn by turn navigation or pickups for the rideshare driver. Bluetooth,  a short-range wireless radio, lets you share pictures and files or wirelessly pair music and calls to another device. The standard range is 30 feet. 

Both GPS and Bluetooth are now employed to detect Covid outbreaks, but Bluetooth is the favored method. An algorithm can ‘explore’ if your phone was in proximity to other phones (i.e. people) that concurrently, or later, developed Covid-symptoms. Without causing a public panic, the intention is that public health officials can contact you and tailor notifications.

If your phone had been Bluetooth enabled  at the event you mentioned, you might have gotten a text or email a few days later. Your risk level would depend upon both the proximity and the duration of your exposure- as well as your overall health. UCSF has announced an GPS based tracing program that has people who test positive for the Corona virus download their location histories so that they can recreate the movement data.

Is it Private and Dependable?

Bluetooth was not developed for contact tracing- and the technology gets easily confused (i.e., unreliable) by the most basic interference from windows, walls, and big open spaces. Thus, it can generate false reports for Covid, and miss the big events. The technology was pulled off the shelf because there  were no other digital tracking systems.  But now,  government agencies, from France to Singapore, have developed national tracking. However, local citizens have shunned them and there is conflict from  both Google and Apple over the  transfer of data from phones to centralized servers. 

My Bluetooth Moment

On my own phone, I  keep Bluetooth disabled, because it drains the battery, and I  don’t want to take calls when I drive. I had a classroom ephipany that made me more mindful. I was leading a class, ‘Smartphone 101’,  in the local public library, when students complained that an  older gentleman was sending personal pictures from his iphone . Both the senders and receivers had a default setting that enabled photos on Bluethooth to be “discoverable.” They didn’t know to turn it off. 

So, with a nod to mindfulness, we all  need to become more informed about the features on our phone- they are tools that can deliver good or evil. Both Google and Apple make it extremely clear that they will not use Bluetooth data to tracking Covid data unless users opt-in. However, newer iPhones  no longer require an extra step to download  a separate app. You can find more information in the links (Google) (Apple) and choose whether  to opt in or out.