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.

Restrict Time on Video Games?

A cartoon of a little Asian child in front of a very large monitor with a game remote control in hand
Limit Time on Video Games? Image: debate.org

Dear Ms. Smartphone:  My cousins live in Asia and the government there has decided to restrict the time that kids can play video games. Now my grandparents are suggesting that it is a good idea for me and I should limit my time on video games like them. I live in the same household as my grandparents. I only play after I do my homework and on the weekends. Usually it is when I get together with kids from my school. I am in tenth grade.  Lucas, S. San Francisco

Dear Lucas: Apropos to your question, I read that the Chinese government said “video games are like opium for the mind.” It makes me curious. Was it a political agenda, research from mental health, or sheer hubris that led to this decree? We may never know. We do know that young boys spend a lot of time on video games and Pew Research reports that  four-in-ten boys ages 13 to 17 (41%) say they spend too much time playing video games, four times the share of girls who say the same (11%).

The Chinese ban is not new: China was one of the first countries to recognize the potential for addiction to the Internet, video games, and other digital media, and was the first country to formally classify Internet addiction as a clinical disorder. In 2019 kids were allowed 1.5 hours of gaming on weekdays. The new decree limits gaming to 3 hours per week, from 8p.m. to 9p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

The interesting issue is how the government will enforce it: one way might be at the router- might it disconnect after three hours of play? Young people will need to log in with their real names and will have limited opportunity to buy microtokens. ”Farmers,” the players who mine the games for in-game currency, will need to be over the age of 18!

To me, limiting time is a thoughtful concept, but it is parents and kids who should make this decision. You did not say how much time you currently play. Note that each hour you spend on video games is an hour that you forfeit doing something else. On a particularly day, that is not huge, but over many days- it grows to be an alarming number. During the recent Tokyo Olympics it was reported that those athletes spend about 10,000 hours at their sport before making it to an Olympic team. That’s just 3.5 hours a day over ten years!

Not So Good, Not So Bad

That said, many educators in the U.S. believe that video games have positive benefits: they help develop skills like hand-to-eye coordination, speedy reaction times, strategic thinking, and puzzle solving.  It is also an activity, a walled off space, where you socialize with friends.  It’s a social thing, particularly when it’s played on larger consoles with others in the room. In China, the norm might seem less sociable if the gaming takes place in arcades or alone on a mobile phone.


While young boys thrive on these games, there is a belief, held by a majority of adults in the U.S., that the amount of gun violence in video games contributes to a “great deal or a fair amount” of gun violence.  82% of people age 65 and older hold this opinion, and your grandparents might be in that age cohort! Their causal inference could be wrong. 

Play it WITH Grandpa!

Perhaps kids who are lonely and emotionally unhinged,  seek out video games. Was that the rationale in China to limit games? We don’t know. Officially, I have read there was concern about poor eyesight (myopia), college readiness, and protecting kids’ physical and mental health.  Be able to sidestep these concerns when you talk with your grandparents! 

That said, are there multi generational video games that you can make your grandparents take an interest in, or share an online language-tool?  One option is to show them how Roblox Studio works, and create a new game personalized with their input. You may be able to convince them that your programming skill and their creativity will be your ticket to engineering school.