Year-End Dear Smartphone

On a pink background rests an alarm clock, so it forms the number zero. Then 2020 is spelled out. The quote says :"year's end is neither an and nor beginning but a going on."
Year-end Dear Smartphone ( image: EdSys)

The year-end Dear Smartphone column in 2019 was about shopping online and holiday pandemonium. It was a prophetic post: “Maybe a future Christmas will put less emphasis on running between stores and accumulating presents and place more weight on taking holiday images, sharing symbols of the season, or just staying home.”

Covid did for Dear Smartphone what Keywords could never accomplish. During 2020 there was a cultural reckoning with smartphones and digital devices. We all became more aware of how we are connected at the hip by them.

 In 2020 staying safe, sane, and sage required us to manage our devices with more insight. 

March 3rd, began a new era of questions and postings, on topics ranging from the transmission of germs to the transmission of social information.

Equity and Access

At the beginning of the Covid virus, it became apparent that people were turning to the Internet, but not everyone had access.  As schools shut down, students from less affluent households lacked the ability to attend online classes. So, voices were raised about digital equity and access. Older people had similar concerns. Many lacked high speed access as well as the knowledge of how to find friends and classes online or trust the grocery order. 

Further into March and April, those blessed with Internet access complained that being online all day made them grouchy and tired. Readers began to query about helping kids moderate digital time and develop other interests. There were equal queries about supporting older people, and getting them up to speed with apps, online payments and Apple watches. 

Not surprisingly, the dual topics of digital etiquette and digital mental health rose to the top this year as readers spent more and more time on their devices.  Someone asked “Is my smartphone making me sick?

Zoom, Ablaze, More….

Dear Smartphone offered commentary on using Zoom, Snapchat, Robinhood, TikTok, and the now defunct Quibi.  Questions about Zoom, not surprisingly, led the pack. One column, which led to a graphic Instagram post, asked whether it is safe to ‘Zoom Zoom’ in the car (the answer is No No unless parked).

In August and September, there was a telecomm pivot as California forest fires blazed close to home. Dear Smartphone advised readers of the emergency links published in local papers. There was a reminder that there are no telecom safety nets. Landline phones can fail at the central office, cordless phones depend on electricity or batteries, and mobile phones need the relay towers to be intact.

The Cancelled…

It is noteworthy to consider what did not take place in 2020, the blazes that did not happen. 2020 did not turn out to be the year of privacy. Before the year began, safety protocols were supposed to be set in place for data and sharing, but they flew out the window with the pandemic. In order to get tested for the virus or help monitor the spread, smartphone users opted to provide location and social data. Even more worrisome, some phones had operating systems that defaulted to Bluetooth and GPS for the sake of Covid tracing.

2020 also cancelled the idea that you could protect kids from phones until a certain age. It became clear that digital devices were integrated into their daily lives, like seeds inside a fruit. Although we are not there yet, children need to be schooled in digital literacy- think of it like a driver’s license, you guide young people with instruction and supervision until they know the rules of the road, engage safely, and are responsible out and about. 

Looking OldeR, Looking Forward…

At the other end of the age spectrum, 2020 also made it clear that older people need to have digital tools to interact and stay connected. Voice activated devices could be their key for transformational changes in keeping social, ordering goods, online classes, and banking. Today, Siri and Alexa provide some assistance, but being nimbler with phones could be an unrealized asset to help older generations stay cognitively active and alert. 


2021 opens the next chapter for Dear Smartphone and its readers. The pandemic will wind down and we will settle into healthier and gainful relationships with each other as well as with our devices. If 2020 was the year in which everything, including Covid went viral, 2021 will be the year in which we learn to harbor digital immunities.

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.