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.  

Toy Phones for Kids? (Bluetooth enabled)

Is the newest Chatter Phone for Adults Only?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am a regular reader of this column and came about this when I was shopping for a baby gift. Both online and in the toy departments, there were lots of toy phones for sale. They were colorful, made sounds, and flashed lights. As a new Dad I don’t have experience with kid’s toys, and particularly toy phones for kids, so is this a good gift? T.C. San Mateo

From Fisher-Price toys. Their kiddie Chatter phone with the receiver in mid air.
Toy Phones for Kids? Fisher-Price Chatter Phone.

Dear T.C.: Thanks for reading and prompting me to do my own shopping! Toys serve lots of functions:  they keep children occupied and busy and help them try out new roles and experiences. They also help everyone, even adults, anticipate the future. Holiday shopping for kids used to be dolls, ponies, and trucks, yes? Today’s toys are different, e.g., pals that read aloud, musical blocks that detect patterns and number recognition, and remote control puppy dogs.

It seems like everything is speeding up when it comes to tech. Babies growing up today are more likely to be wearing smart clothing and headgear and less likely to be holding phones in their hand when they come of age.  Say your baby is just one year old now. In nine years, probably sooner, they will clamor for their own ‘real’ connected device. If this same baby gets a set of toy plastic car keys, there’s a space of fifteen years before they can get a driver’s license. Of course, we might have a few autonomous vehicles on the road by then. 

Researching your question, I discovered that one phone, the iconic Fisher Price Chatter Phone, is still on the market, along with all those make-believe, light-up flip phones for babies. Of course the Chatter Phone was, and still is, a rotary phone. The Chatter Phone has no screen, but interacts through toy ‘eyes’ and ‘mouth’ that move up and down with movement. Historically, some kids never picked up the receiver, and preferred to use the long cord to walk the phone back and forth, like leading a dog on a leash. From the 3000+ Amazon reviews, I gather that recent Chatter Phones have a shorter and safer pull string so modern day kids don’t get tangled up or worse.

The Chatter Phone got its limelight moment in the Pixar movie Toy Story 3. But wait, there’s a bigger media moment to come!

PHONE Anniversary Issue!

This year Fisher-Price, the manufacturer of the Chatter Phone, has introduced a 60 year anniversary edition . . . for adults! The anniversary version does all the usual things- it rolls on wheels, has eyes that move up and down, and a full rotary dial. But the phone is also Bluetooth enabled and has a built-in micro USB slot. No need to remember that because the owner’s manual says it has nine hours of talk time, 72 hours of standby service. 

Bluetooth is the linkage here between parent and child, or baby-minder and child. Shades of object-oriented programming, the Chatter child phone inherits its signal (aka, class) from the parent phone. So, they both need to be proximate, within 15 feet.  The adult parent phone cannot wander afar and leave unsupervised communications! Think of it as a walkie-talkie on wheels!

Phone CleveR, PHONE Dumbfound:

In some ways I find this clever, and in other ways, I am dumbfounded how this simple toy morphed into a grown-up concept. A couple of years ago, Fisher-Price got into trouble with a different connected device. They designed an attachment for their baby swings that dangled a screen-sized mirror on one side and an I-Pad holder on the reverse. So, an infant nestled into the swing could rock and roll to music or cartoons. The wrath of parents was widely felt and the swing attachment was taken off the market.

It seems doubtful to me that Fisher-Price will land in trouble again with this adult version of the Chatter Phone. With with a mark-up of up to $250. on Amazon (1/2 price elsewhere) it’s unlikely to attract the kids. But, suppose it becomes the next must-have holiday gift? As this amusing video shows, adults might enjoy taking difficult work calls on a non-judgmental smiley happy -face device. Here’s a different scenario: what if the babies who engage with parents on the  Chatter Phone get bored talking to them and prefer to reach out to friends from preschool? Will they demand their next phone, enabled with Bluetooth and WiFi sooner, say at age six or seven, instead of at nine or ten? Thinking out loud, maybe we should stick to those plastic car-keys! Happy holidays. 

Financial Apps for Kids?

Newly minted… fintech accounts for young people?

How should you save money? In an old fashioned piggy bank or online with your smartphone brokerage account?
Financial App for Kids? photo credit: Getty

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am running out of ideas for Christmas gifts and thought about giving my niece and nephews something different. On TV I saw an ad for a company called Greenlight  that helps young people save money online and choose stocks. Myself, I have a few dollars in the stock market and think this might help them learn a thing or two about it. When I mentioned this gift idea (a financial app for kids) to friends in my book group they were aghast! BTW, my niece is 8 and my nephews are ages 10 and 13.  Nancy, Marlboro

Dear Nancy: I’m not sure what book your club is reading, but could it be “Flash Crash?”  The book jacket says investor Navinder Singh Sarao was a preternaturally gifted trader who amassed $70 million from his childhood bedroom….until! No spoilers here.

Financial apps for kids, called fintech, are new to me since I gave my kids a cash allowance! So, I looked up Greenlight, the company you mentioned. Note that their web site is off-putting: it requires that you enter a mobile number and verifies it before it lets you browse around.  

Greenlight describes itself as a one-stop financial app for families with a $4.99 monthly subscription (Dec. 2021). Here’s the kicker: With parental (or aunt) approval, kid can trade stocks on the app starting at $7.98 a month. That must be profitable because CNBC reports this seven year old company is now valued at 2.3 billion!!

Financial LiteracY:

But, important to note, Greenlight is one of many sites that set up online financial accounts for kids and purport to teach financial literacy and investing.  This recent Wired article helps you sort out other players.

On the one hand, your gift sounds like a timely idea.  We are all buying more things online and storing digital cash  in places like Apple Wallet and Google Pay. In an earlier post, I share a Wall St. Journal article reporting that cashless exchanges have “costs”: Those using credit cards are less likely to remember how much they spent, take less time deciding what to buy, are more willing to pay high prices and make a greater number of purchases. So, as currency changes, setting up a digital savings account may be valuable. Children need to learn about financial literacy.

Buckets of Money?

But, I also have two objections and these might be specific to the company you mention. First, the site recommends that a child’s account be apportioned into four buckets: money that kids spend, money they save, money they give away (for charity) and money they invest. These buckets, while enviable, are adult-centric, not for tiny beginners. I am assuming your nieces and nephews are not millionaires. Why give to a national charity, when there is so much to be done locally? The real donation, the one that kids learn from and that that makes a difference, is to give their time and labor to a local cause, and do so in person. Isn’t it more meaningful to help out at the local animal shelter and care for pets in need, than say give $1.00 a month to an animal relief fund?

The second issue I have, again, it may be specific to this site, is that young kids are too young to start investing in the stock market, particularly using their smartphone. We have already seen how flash investments through RobinHood and other phone based online trading sites have had their financial ups and downs, as well as their toll on mental health. And, here, investors must be age 18 or older to begin trading.

Minding the Portfolio:

The most knowledgeable  investors, even the savant Mr. Sarao, learn their trade by studying the financial markets, perfecting their timing, and becoming experts in valuations before they jump in. Giving a ten year old a smartphone and a trading account creates an opposite dynamic- one that mimics a slot machine or lottery.  And, significantly, minding their portfolio and keeping a watch on the ups and downs of the market will also induce a child to spend more time on their phone, and less time doing something else offline. We hear thatt teens check their phone up to 150 times a day, but the sky’s the limit for a newly minted teen with a newly minted brokerage account!

So for this holiday season, yes it’s a novel idea to help your nieces and nephews learn about financial markets and introduce them to fintech apps. Perhaps  ease them into into the digital world with a simple online savings account? Following that,  ask them what companies have a product they personally like to play with and think will continue to grow. Roblox maybe? If that company make sense to you, and you do the homework, make a joint investment in their name.