Does Phone Size Matter?

Big Phone….Little Phone…Both Phone?

A picture of four smartphones, side by side. Some are small and some are larger. Does phone size matter is the issue.
Does Phone Size Matter?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I have always liked the small slim phones I can put in my back pocket but my co-workers insist it’s time to think bigger! They say that I could do more things with it, and it will be easier to read the screen. We have a logistics company. When I read maps it could be helpful, but most of the time I am just using it to text. Does phone size matter? Randall, Tiburon

Dear Randall: Your question is reminiscent of the search process consumers go through when they acquire a new vehicle. They look at their budget and they sort through both needs and fantasies. Do you prefer a hulky Jeep or a sporty Mazda? And significantly, what will their co-workers and family think?  It’s a difficult call and in a perfect world we would have one of each.

You mentioned maps, and perhaps you track vehicle locations. One option, between big and small is to think about a folding phone, like the recent Samsung Z models. Recently, I have noticed that my ridehail drivers favor them. They tell me that the screen clarity is excellent, and they appreciate the bigger screen. But then it folds on its hinges. Still it’s  a really big phone and this fold does not come cheap.

At the opposite end of the scale, there’s the 5.4″ iPhone mini screen, which Apple reworked in 2020. Aficionados call it a testimony to the company’s hyper-focus on form and design. If you plan to stick to phone calls and a few texts, it’s a nice size for your pocket or bag. In fact, if you use their Apple Wallet you can slim down further and not need to carry a wallet. 

Super-size Trends!

It surprised me, when I Googled “does phone size matter” to find there was a robust academic literature! Not surprisingly, as screen size increases so does the perceived usefulness of the phone and positive attitudes towards using it. The bigger phones have cameras with more lenses, multi-screens, and often, faster processor chips.  But, are the people pushing these jumbo-sizing our phones  the same people that brought us 70” TV screens?  Does this mean we all be carrying around television sized phones (LOL)?

In poorer households, phones often take the place of the computer. They have much of the functionality and are more affordable. Kids will even do their homework on them. During the Covid lockdown educators got concerned, and organized to get free tablets and computers to these kids. In developing countries like India people often skip over getting computers altogether.

Smaller= Intentional:

But, back to your dilemma. There is generally an inverse relationship between screen size and battery life. And, if you want to control your screen time you may want to stay with smaller phones. They make scrolling an intentional effort. So, the smaller phone screen might keep you more engaged with the people and activities outside your phone….or those co-workers, assuming they are not on social media!

That said, one final concern. The box your new phone comes in will have a small slip of paper in the box that details the EMF (electronic magnetic field) from this device. EMF varies by your distance from a WiFi signal and whether you are using data-hungry features like the GPS. Smaller phones are likely to be carried on our body so it’s a consideration if the device will be held close to your ear or pressed deep in your thigh.

Cell Phone in the Car?

Dad and husband are hung up on my car phone. Cannot hang it up!

A cartoon showing rear window of a car with stick figures for mom, dad, kids, and mom's phone.
Cell Phone in Car? image credit:Tom Whyatt

Dear Ms. Smartphone:  We got a new car that has an Android Auto dashboard and it feels much safer than my old car. I can answer a cell phone in the car from a click on the steering wheel. But,  both my husband and Dad are insisting that I not use a cell phone in the car. They do not have my responsibilities! We have two children and a new baby. It seems like I am on the road all day picking up or dropping off. When I use the cell phone in the car the time passes faster and I do not have as much catch up at home. I am a safe driver and of the opinion that they are not experienced with these newer features. Leah, Claremont

Dear Leah: You have probably seen those yellow stickers on the back of car windows that say “Baby on Board” or “Precious Cargo.” No matter what age group we drive it’s vital to keep that in mind. 

On the subject of Android Auto & CarPlay safety, I am not an expert and technology has evolved since I first started this column. Researchers typically evaluate 3 sources of cell phone distraction in the car: visual distraction, manual distraction, and  cognitive distraction. Your hands-free dashboard helps reduce the manual distraction for incoming calls. It’s a little trickier to reduce visual distractions for outgoing calls but voice commands can dial the phone number (or text). Older people, perhaps like your Dad, have been found to be slower to understand and deploy such features. 

That said, there is more to safety than physically using a phone to call or text. Cognitive distraction occurs because  we have limited processing ability. The mental faculties we need to keep that 3,500 lb people-mover positioned between lines and avoid collisions are also used for speech, visualization, and memory- the stuff of two way conversation. For more insight into cognitive distraction, look here. Most of the time we have the cognitive bandwidth to process the road and the talk. Yet it’s those one-off moments when you do not, and there are unanticipated hazards. Drivers cannot organize or anticipate these. 

Reduce Time & Effort:

To reduce the risk, here are two recommendations: first, make these hands-free  phone calls very short. A short ‘yes’ or ‘no’ conversation, or ‘be there in ten minutes’ is going to be less cognitively taxing than an intricate discussion say with your loan agent or insurance company. Second, limit the number of these conversations. The longer you spend driving and chatting, the greater the likelihood that you will encounter some danger. 

That said, you have another option. In the spirit of what your husband and Dad recommend, you can always pull off to the side of the road or find a parking lot. Take your longer calls (or texts) from there. 

Modeling You!

But, I have a deeper concern. You mentioned that you have three children in the car. When  you spend time there on the phone you are implicitly  teaching these youngsters that is an acceptable behavior. So, when they become teens you should not be surprised if they too drive with phones and model you.  Young children constantly observe what their parents do and say. I am guessing that you do not want to teach them that phones come first, family time comes second, and road safety is third. 

So, not to shame you- mothers have too much on their plates- but it is important to engage in  real conversations with your children, even when you are firmly planted in the driver’s seat. Some of our best conversations can be side by side, looking out the window. You will learn a lot about your childrens’ days at school, friendships, and current interests if you ask questions and listen carefully. If it’s hard to get started, engage them with wayfaring  (see DearSmartphone column) and the local geography. If that doesn’t suit you, seek out a local carpool with nearby families. 

It’s hard to imagine travel in cars without phones these days- they help us navigate to places, anticipate the traffic, and update those last minute shopping lists. But phones should never  squeeze out the precious moments we have with our children, and send them a message that cell phones get answered first.  

Too Much Screentime?

Too much screentime? A montage of cartoon like kids on screens. From commonsensemedia.
Too much Screentime? Image: Commonsensemedia.org

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My daughter, age seven, watches way too much screentime since the pandemic and I want to undo this. What’s the best way to get us back to normal? Going cold turkey seems impossible? Marney, New York

Dear Marney,  It’s a timely question- there is a new phrase called “collaboration equity” to describe how offices, and perhaps schools, will emerge from the pandemic. Those who are remote must be able to participate on equal footing with those physically present. Hopefully this is not an issue for younger people, and New York schools will reopen this Fall. However, there’s a long and daunting summer ahead, and too much screentime?

In a recent column I overviewed some vital steps that parents can take but I will add to them here. There is not a single work-around, a magic wand, that will transport families back to simpler days before the pandemic.  But, I do have three fixes. 

A Lean Screen

First, if you want your daughter to reduce her screentime then it’s up to parents to be the screen mentor. This is going to be a challenge if you are still working from home full or part time. But, if your child sees you ‘working’ on a laptop or phone, they can’t differentiate whether you are in a meeting, ordering groceries, or chatting with girlfriends. Screentime is screentime and children will mimic habits of their elders. So, if you want your child to cut back on screentime, you will have to do so together.

Nix the MIX

Another way to reduce screen time is to nix using the smartphone phone as a multi-task accessory. Phones can be  substitutes for flashlights, microscopes (with attachments), cameras, alarm clocks, timers, address books, calendars, and of course, games. Instead of using these, introduce the seven year old to some replays! Replace games with a deck of cards and a cardboard puzzle,  build an A-Z index card file instead of using the online address book, and use a plug in clock instead of the digital wake-up. Photos and photo storage may be the hardest function to give up, but since you are trying this out for a few months,  get an old fashioned Polaroid type camera and see what develops!

A New Norm..Away

Finally, one of the best ways to do a reset is to change the environment and hence, the daily habits that go along with it. In some deeper, older behavioral studies, psychologists found that they could affect the behavior of young mothers (I believe it was towards diaper use), if they changed the Mom’s physical environment. In a new setting, the Moms were more open to doing things differently and trying out a different norm.

Changing up the environment has a lot of merit this coming summer for kids and  families, coming out of the  lock down. Getting outdoors and going to the park is one thing, but taking a six week visit  to summer camp or to the grandparents is an order of magnitude better. Getting away would be a great way to undo those sticky screen habits. That said, you need to find a summer camp that has strict controls on screen time, and does the equivalent of putting phones in Yondr bags when the kids check in. Likewise, time with Grandma is not going to change screen habits if she is glued to watching TV shows for several hours a day, or, if a more contemporary grandma, she swaps out TV viewing time for the Internet. You need grandparents that read books aloud, take your daughter to the library, and even encourage her to compose stories on her own (perhaps describing those Polaroid pictures!)

You are not alone trying to figure out how kids will adjust to these post-pandemic times. Cut yourself some slack as you try out new activities and behaviors. There are really two layers of change going on- change that comes from staying indoors and out of school during the pandemic, and change that occurs because a six or seven year old is growing up, getting social, and leaving behind early childhood.