Electronic Babysitter?

No child should be left behind, when behind means a closed door in a closed room.

A picture of  an infant seat, called the Apptivity, with a built in Ipad holder. Fisher Price withdrew the product in 2013 after parents were incensed.
Fisher Price had to recall the ultimate Electronic Babysitter, called the Apptivity Seat, in 2013.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Perhaps this is a generational issue. We live in a multigen household and my seven-year old spends hours each day online. My Mom thinks this is OK because when I was her age, I watched TV all the time. That helped me learn English as a second language. Mom says kids should be kids so my daughter should have her online time. But I think she is saying this because it has become an electronic babysitter for her. Is screen time equal? Does it matter if it is spent in front of a TV or using a laptop or phone? Priya, Berkeley

Dear Priya:  Indeed, this is a generational issue and also a lifestyle one. It’s hard to imagine what parents did before TV to find a moment of respite. Hail to the electronic babysitter! But screen time is not equal. It does matter whether the electronic babysitter is a TV or a different device.  There are a couple of things that distinguish TV time back then and going online today. Talk them over with Mom and consider that you are lucky she is not a virtual grandparent!

When you grew up, you probably watched television in a set room in a set spot. In bigger homes it was called the TV room, typically on the first floor off the kitchen where Mom could keep an eye on things.  But, the key is not the room, but the dynamic of watching. An adult could drop in on the programming and listen with their third ear. On weekends, during dinner, or evenings, the entire family used this space to come together and view communally. 

Interpretive Viewing:

Using media with grown-ups around is important. Parents help children interpret the content and learn the conventions, for example, what is an ad and how does persuasion work. Or say watching a football game together and explaining the actions of the referees.  Young kids process ‘how to watch’ from observing their parents. It’s a lot like driving. Even though you don’t get your license until you are sixteen, you absorb a lot of information about managing a vehicle before you come of age. 

Think of it this way: you would not allow a salesman to knock on your front door, boldly walk in and start proselytizing to you seven-year old. More likely, your foot would be in the door jam, blocking full entry. But that is what is happening. Your seven-year old might be upstairs with their tablet or other device, connecting more intimately to people beyond the household than to those in it. 

Spending time alone with electronic devices is a far cry from the time when family members connected in a shared space to watch TV. Your Mom may not have considered this difference. 

How and When too:

But, there’s more. The other lifestyle issue is how and when media are available. Your Mom (or her Mom) might recall a time when television broadcasts signed off at midnight, or programming was limited to certain times in the evening. Significantly, cartoons and programming for children were chunked into special time slots. That made parent’s more comfortable with using the electronic babysitter. 

Today, there’s a rating system and it takes vigilance on the part of parents to manage age-appropriate material, so many parents play movies and videos instead.  Screening for the Internet is a trickier process. Content can go almost anywhere with a few clicks and when there are no temporal boundaries, scrolling has no bounds. 

House Rules:

So, yes, it does come down to generational differences, lifestyle differences, and also, a new technology. Since you live in a multigen household, encourage your Mom to watch TV with your daughter and choose suitable programs. But, if you think there is too much screen time period, suggest that they set some common goals, get outdoors, or take up a shared hobby. 

Meanwhile, a good starting place might be to convert the TV room, if you have one, into a more communal spot where you all come together to browse on your electronic devices. Or, set up this space on the kitchen table, if that is what is available. Insist for now, that you participate together and have a glance over the collective shoulder. No child should be left behind, when behind means a closed door in a closed room.

Checking Phones for Work?

Watching the baby at home. Watching my phone too?

A cartoon of three Hasidic men , ech carrying an infant in a baby carrier that they wear around their shoulder. One carrier is pink, one green, one yellow
Men Pushing Baby Carriages or checking phones for work!? Source: The Forward.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I manage a sales team and seldom take more than a day or two off from work. Since Covid began our office is all remote and I am checking the phones for work. This Fall I am taking a few weeks off to stay home with our new baby. In principle, I should not have to check my phone at all. But is that realistic? The people at work say they will respect my time out of the office, but I don’t want them to let them down either. Teo, Boulder

Dear Teo: Phones make it difficult to find that work-home balance and it has to be doubly difficult when babies or children demand our attention. Checking in with co-workers while you are off-duty seems innocuous, but it subtracts time and attention from your kids. During Covid, as you noted, phones became an office-on-demand. Now you have to retrain your sales team, and yourself, to use it more selectively, i.e. when to be checking phones for work.

It seems like the programmers of Silicon Valley have felt your pain! Or became new Moms and Dads. The newest iPhone operating system (i0S 15) has a feature called Focus. It lets you set time blocks when you are available, and for whom. Say you are driving in the car. The Focus setting disables all incoming calls and texts. It sends would-be callers or texters a stock message:  you are unavailable but will circle back.  When you are indoors and quietly reading a book, your phone can continue to screen callers, or allow rings from that sales team.

Focus is a suitable name for this new function. That said, it’s been available on phones with less bells and whistles as “Do Not Disturb.” Back then, you didn’t need to have i0S 15, or any software at all to enable the feature. Just a watch and alarm.

How to Focus:

Writers, scientists and graduate students use features like Focus all the time. They require activity blocks, without phones, for a period of deep concentration. They might be working on a laptop or desktop, and probably just one or two programs, like the terminal, a spreadsheet, or word processor. 

Meanwhile, the co-workers  trying to reach you are not going to know whether you are deep in concentration or changing a diaper, so Focus’ messaging helps. It lets them know when you are  checking in and will circle back. And, with practice, Focus will keep you from secretly picking up the phone to see if you missed something. You can always allow one phone, say from your boss, to override the settings.

Not ALways So Focused!:

Alas, at the other end of the spectrum, at home, it’s not so tidy.  Parents can’t easily set boundaries that young kids will adhere too. Infants demand attention on their own schedule and have an uncanny ability to sense when they getting any less than 100% of their parents’ attention. You might be tempted to put the kiddos in front of their own screen. Yet, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for kids until they’re 18 to 24 months old, except for video chatting. For children ages 2 to 5 their recommendation is an hour or less of screen time per day. Real parents know that it is hard to resist introducing screens when you need some downtime. So, if you turn to the screen, do it together and make it a shared activity.

Be aware that  it seems innocuous to sneak a call to the office when you are taking a stroll together, watching over the playground, or cleaning up the toy box. We don’t know how micro- moments add up, but there are hints that eye to eye contact and baby-talk time provide developmental boosts.

As you set your phone’s boundaries, with or without the help of I0S, remember that time and attention are your most precious resource. They are the only things  you give away, and cannot get back. Enjoy!

QR Codes and Kids’ Safety

An example of a QR code generator. Input your address and it will provide the digital barcodes. Parents need to think about kids' safety when these see these.
Very Easy to Make a QR Code- What about Kids’ Safety Using Them?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is it wrong to wonder why there is a QR code on the back of a kid’s cereal box? My four year old and six year old insist on using my phone when they eat breakfast now because they want to follow the code, play a game, and reveal some treasure. I am worried about these QR Codes and kids’ safety. Why can’t they just print directions on the box instead of making them go to a website with my phone?! Noelle, Strawberry

Dear Noelle:  It doesn’t sound like a nutritious way to begin the day. QR codes, aka Quick Response codes, help machines efficiently connect to humans. They don’t belong at anyone’s breakfast table. I personally use them when there is simply not an alternative, like on a printed airline ticket or a “contactless” menu.

Put simply, QR codes are a two-dimensional version of bar codes. Information is encoded in an image using vertical lines of different thicknesses. The Wall St. Journal recently had a “go to” article, extolling their two-dimensional properties.   A scanner is used to send up to 4000 binary digits (0/1) of information embedded in the QR code and a computer at the other end recovers the message, and can make error corrections as needed.  Mathematically, it’s a genius invention. The QR code has been in use for nearly thirty years, beginning with the Japanese inventory of factory parts.

Outside the Box

Today, QR codes have been in the news as they have been proposed to encode information about when you take your Covid vaccine, which dosages, and where administered. The problem I have is that I cannot see what is encoded in the protocol. While it is probably no different than the little scribbles made by health practitioners on the vaccination card I carry, I have no way of knowing if say, they mixed up the dates,  my name, or something else.  And, I will never know the metadata it might carry about me, my phone, the GPS settings, or more. 

There’s not much risk when your kids scan the code on your breakfast cereal, but I would hate to have kids clamoring early in the morning to play with my phone. Since 2017, a QR scanner has been built into the iOS phone camera. The QR code will not go away: your kids might need to use it on field trips to museums and when they view outdoor exhibits.

Question and Review (Q/R)

QR codes present greater risk if you are not on a school field trip, or out and about, and you scan a random QR code printed on a rogue menu, or an ad, say promoting a work-from-home scheme. Or, more vulnerable, a sticker with a QR code promises an interesting social event. You can never be sure what site those linkages are going to send you ro and if they can open up your phone’s settings.

We are all getting more informed and aware of the ways that our phones can spy on us, and how we need to lock them down. So, while a QR code saves us from having to first remember, and then say carry a vaccine card, or type in a long web address, efficiency is not always the best response. Certainly, not when it comes to boxes of breakfast cereal although it does lend a “high tech” crunch to that brand. Perhaps the cereal company might enjoy hearing from you!

Lots of  new symbols- the QR codes, emojis, hashtags, and the @ sign are all becoming a new vernacular, and they aid person- to -machine communications. The QR code is the most advanced of these, and at the same time, the most opaque.