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.

Should Teen Remove TikTok?

A Mom is wondering where she and her teen stand on this issue….

A juxtaposition of the tik-tok corporate logo and a tick-tock kid's toy clock from Fisher Price.
TikTok: not your average learning toy !

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Should my teen remove Tiktok from her phone? During the lockdown she and her best friends have been getting together and making up choreographed dances. It’s a lot of fun and I love being their audience. The app has helped us keep active and share things. Even though we like it,  I am concerned by what I read. It doesn’t seem good and I don’t want her to have spyware on the phone. Should I ask my teen to take the app off her phone, or am I just having a knee-jerk reaction? Madeline, Novato

Dear Madeline: This one is above my pay-grade, as the expression goes, so I will just offer some general comments. I am reading and watching the same stories as you.


I would use this occasion as an opportunity to talk about social media with my teen. The political fray gives you a chance to remind them that social media is more complicated than the plot of ‘Games of Thrones.’ On the Internet, nothing is permanently private, and what teens post, in drips and drabs, (ie, their digital exhaust) could become a permanent record. That might not seem so important in ninth grade, but it could become a liability for employment later on. Moreover, postings can be manipulated and changed without direct permission. Kids seem to naturally understand the idea of song covers- most of the time a musical reinterpretation (the cover) is creative and good, but it could be juxtapositioned for bad.

You, or the Algorithm?

The second issue I would discuss with my teen is the “pop stardom” that might lure them to TikTok. Music, dance, and humor come naturally, and getting that 15 seconds of fame is like, well, getting into an Ivy League school, but better. When you commit to social media, you also feel obligated to package and promote yourself. But, sometimes, it’s not about us, but rather, about the the algorithm; how does it know just what to show you and when? Whatever your teens social investment in  TikTok, there will be new venues to be conquered: just this week Instagram announced Reels, a brand new video feature.

As we grow more accustomed to smartphone technology and become more sophisticated with it, apps like TikTok might appear very primitive. Slapstick comedy is often an entry point during the infancy of a medium. Do readers, or their grandparents, remember vaudeville performances at movie theatres or Alan Funt’s “Candid Camera” on television? One source says that TikTok is like future social media in which the least amount of effort is expended to be a content creator with a shot at viral fame or at least a few laughs.

You, or Where you Go?

So, while the content may be simple or funny, the underlying app may not be. The content is delivered within a smartphone (aka computer) that could potentially be advanced, at the data collection and surveillance level. In reading why India banned TikTok, it was ostensibly because Indian soldiers were involved in a crash with Chinese troops in the Himalayas. We civilians don’t know whether the app was tracking the soldiers’ movement through hidden code or whether this an international row motivated by political tensions, the economy, or something else.

One of the issues that goes unsaid in social media is that the content and posts of individual users is probably not that significant to providers- but information harvested from their devices could be. It’s a plus when we want to track Covid, but dangerous in other situations. A malicious app could contain code that extract the names of contacts, recent phone activities, the usage of other apps and more.

It’s hard to read the clock-face of TikTok, but it does make sense to talk though these ‘timely’ issues with your teen and listen to what she has to say. No doubt teens are one step ahead, neither turning to Microsoft or Instagram, and instead, trying out brand new platforms.

Is Video Better than a Call?

Why does graduate student resist a voice call?

This is a black and white photo of  Pittsburgh Mayor Peter Flaherty at the first public demonstration of the Picturephone on June 30, 1970. AT&T Archives & History Center
PIcturephone, 1970 (AT&T Archives)

Dear Smartphone: I teach graduate students and now do so over a virtual classroom. Over the summer, one of my students has to finish a paper and then look for a job in this country. He checks in with me once a week. I can’t figure out why he insists  on using Zoom video for these meetings instead of a voice call. We are not sharing documents or anything like that. Dieter, Berkeley


Dear Dieter: I believe you have identified a generational trend. Over the past three or four years, live video has grown in use. One data source says one-fourth of young people in the US video chat on a daily basis. During the pandemic it has became even more mainstream.

Your student probably finds a loss of ‘information’ when the visual channel is absent. You, on the other hand, may find it burdensome, or at least cognitively challenging to have both voice and video merged, particularly if the video quality is poor. Younger people seem to be more forgiving of asynchronous talk and fuzzy pictures. 

SEE The PICTUREPHONE!

A while back I posted a snapshot of the AT&T picturephone to Instagram. I was surprised how many young people did not know about this invention. They were shocked that it took more than 50 years to become mainstream because it seemed so natural! Picturephone service was costly and the technology was well ahead of its time as the video demands fast data speeds, like 5G. Here is a link to its debut.

Back then, most people never used a Picturephone but it was the butt of jokes about the need to take out the hair curlers, get a shave, etc. Today, we makeup similar stories about having an extra “zoom shirt”  on the back of the chair for that impromptu meeting online.

SEE THE CHANGES!

Our devices, and habits, are continually updating. I have an older friend who remembers when her well-to-do grandparents first allowed a phone in their home. The ring-ring was considered to be an interruption, so the butler answered for the householder. A similar protocol evolved in offices, where assistants screened incoming calls. The invention of  caller ID and the answering machine minimized their role, and then, mobile phones ushered in the era of text.

If your student wants to use both voice and image, it could be because they have grown accustomed to distance education via Zoom. Or, if they are from overseas, they may be used to calling back home with video through an Internet connection on Facetime or Skype. These platforms work over the Internet and there are no phone charges. 

If you don’t want to video with the student, hopefully you will be back in your (IRL) classroom soon.