Banned! France vows to make school kids pay attention

The cool French kids: ditching their phones at school?

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In January, I mentioned a bold move promised by French education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer: a ban on phones in the lower grades. I took exception to two planned exceptions noted by the minister:

“You may need a mobile phone, for example, for educational purposes, for emergency situations…” Oops. As soon as you allow that phones have any legitimate purpose in the classroom then students, vendors and campus admins will all find ingenious wedges to beat the system.

I also pointed out France had had a similar law on the books since 2011. Fast forward to last month, with the new rules in place (an official announcement is posted on the ministry website).

The new law is aimed at school kids in “écoles” (grades 1-5) and “collèges” (grades 6-9). It’s remarkable the authorities have passed legislation to confront this crisis of inattention, which covers all networked devices. Even more so that they’ve gone way back to 1st grade, recognizing that bad habits begin early. Continue reading

Let’s not confuse online privacy with tech business practices

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In yesterday’s post I made a few snarky comments about this week’s upcoming hearing before the US Senate Commerce Committee, featuring a half-dozen of the IT firms we love to hate: Amazon, Apple, Google, Twitter, AT&T and Charter Communications. Wednesday’s theatrics are billed as “Examining Safeguards for Consumer Data Privacy.”

In the leadup discussing Tom Wheeler, I noted one of his main policy goals is to find ways to give consumers “control of how their information is collected and how it is used.” I neglected to mention what Wheeler does not recommend:

“Losing control of personal information means losing control of the economic equilibrium that originally established the exchange of “free” services for targeted information. The solution is not to eliminate the exchange of information for value…” (emphasis added)

This position is in keeping with Wheeler’s view that killing the core tech business models is less likely to produce happiness than fixing them to benefit of all parties. Easier said than done.

So I was struck by what NY Times technology reporter Natasha Singer has to say this weekend about the Senate hearing and the way forward for consumers: summed up in the title, Just Don’t Call It Privacy. Continue reading

Remedies large and small for our Internet ills (2)

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If we’re short on remedies for our Internet ills, we’re sure not short on the red flags and warning signs.

Last week, for example, celebrity cryptographer Bruce Schneier published his 14th book –– Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-connected World. It seems to be selling well — hardly surprising given the importance of the topic and Schneier’s knack for describing arcane technical ideas in a punchy, readable style.

Schneier shares an abiding interest in tech policy, much like former FCC chair Tom Wheeler, whose own policy prescriptions we looked at in the previous post. His recent paper — “Time to Fix It: Developing Rules for Internet Capitalism” — argues it’s time for the IT industry to “deal responsibly with the world they created.”

Wheeler reminds us that in Washington, tech companies have been “taking fire from both sides of the aisle.” The appearance before Congress two weeks ago of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey showed how daunting it will be to “regulate” the big platforms. And the Internet’s biggest monopolist — Google/Alphabet — didn’t even show up for this convo. What’s a good Republican supposed to do with that kind of snub? Continue reading

Remedies large and small for our Internet ills (1)

“Breaking things is easy, dealing with the effects is hard.” –Tom Wheeler, August 2018

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I had a conversation this morning with a neighbor who, like some of my best friends, is a practising lawyer. The talk turned to privacy, which is of considerable interest to people who trade in privileged information.  

I had some unkind words for Google, and suggested he try using DuckDuckGo instead of the obvious choice. I had to spell the name several times. But what about all those other ways Google gets you, he asked — including Gmail, which I’d urged him to start using a few years ago, he reminded me.

Recent figures illustrate the uphill battle even this small step entails. As of July, Google’s search engine owned over 86% of the search market in the US. DuckDuckGo sits at 0.64%, comfortably ahead of MSN and Yandex RU. Continue reading

Facebook may be the least of our worries

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It’s no fun being a pessimist. But the leading indicators keep suggesting life online will get a lot worse before getting better. Let’s see what we can foretell from these four recent items…

  • Facebook’s market cap plunges 19%
  • Your smart-TV is spying on you
  • Teens are online constantly
  • Phones in class impair performance

1. Facebook: schadenfreude. Last Thursday Zuckerberg dropped a theoretical $19 billion from his net worth, as investors blew off $119 billion of the company’s stock-market value — the biggest one-day drop in stock-market history. Investors were annoyed about Facebook forecasting a drop in revenue and continuing rise in expenses, not about the company’s tacky treatment of its users — although the increased expenses probably have something to do with remediating said tacky treatment. Continue reading

Love it or leave it: why you can’t negotiate with a smartphone

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Screen addiction is a fixture of modern life. So too is the belief system that goes with it.

We assume phones have made our kids depressed, isolated and suicidal. We assume that if phones are the problem, we can make them the solution — design them to be less addictive and users will break free. Or, as we saw in the previous post, start using time-management apps and stop wasting time on all those other apps.

Something wrong with this picture? Definitely, say two opinion pieces this week.

Said the spider to the fly. In the first piece, Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman has a provocative question:  “Can you trust Big Tech to cure you of your smartphone habit?” He has his sights on the “digital wellness” movement, whose aim is to cure our tech addiction with more tech — a subset of the larger credo that sees tech as the fix for everything. Burkeman has spotted my new favorite self-improvement app: Forest, which displays a tree on your phone when you put it down. It gradually begins to grow — oops, and dies when you pick it back up. What will they think of next?

This incrementalism doesn’t solve anything. And really, do grown adults need to see a tree dying to remind them not to waste their lives? Worse, it perpetuates the original problem, leaving you stuck right where they want you, inside the walled garden with its lush, toxic flowering devices:

“… digital wellness aims to diminish your dependency on your devices – but at the cost of increasing your dependency on the corporations behind those devices. … More generally, it seems likely to weaken your self-discipline muscle, by outsourcing the job of managing your time and attention to a third party.”

Crisis without a cause. In the second piece, we find a bigger affront to conventional wisdom. As psychology prof Tracy Dennis-Tiwary writes in the NYT, “Taking Away the Phones Won’t Solve Our Teenagers’ Problems.” Not simply because that ploy, like the anti-app apps, won’t get a parent very far — but because there’s simply no evidence that the compulsive use of smartphones actually causes mental health problems like depression (some specialists see it differently, e.g. Jean Twenge, this lit review, this current study). 

Phones may look like the problem. For kids, however, phones are a symptom, and a very effective coping mechanism for the anxiety that fills their lives:

“… if smartphone addiction is a reflection of adolescent anxiety, cutting screen time may not solve the broader problems that drive teenagers to their screens. Just blaming the machines is a cop-out, a way to avoid the much more difficult task of improving young people’s lives so they won’t need to escape.”

Hard to dispute: ignoring the underlying problems is not a strategy, any more than blaming the devices and their makers.

But here’s the dilemma. You can’t change anyone’s compulsive attachment to their phone without taking it away first. Any more than you can run group therapy while the participants are still high. 

As I’ve explained ad nauseam, I’ve concocted a classroom experience that turns a very unpopular move — taking away student phones — into an unlikely success story. I retold that story as part of a recent report issued by Pew Research in conjunction with its experts survey on the future impact of digital technologies. Unlike the report discussed in the previous post, this one is more anecdotes than analysis: Stories From Experts About the Impact of Digital Life (pdf here).

Here, in slightly under 500 words, is why I’m a big fan of taking phones away — in the right circumstances (Stories, pp. 48-49):

“Several years ago I walked into my fourth-year class and, in a fit of pique, announced I was confiscating everyone’s phone for the entire three hours. I later upped the ante by banning all digital devices in favor of pen and paper. Some unusual revelations have emerged since then – including some happy outcomes from going digital cold turkey. The students in my courses are there to learn about telecom and internet technologies. On the surface, it looks like a perfect match: hyperconnected digital natives acquiring more knowledge about digital. If only. The sad truth is they suffer from a serious behavioral addiction that makes it pretty much impossible for them to pay attention to their instructors or classmates. 

“It also turns out these self-styled digital natives don’t know anything more about digital than their elders. At the start of classes, students react with predictable shock and annoyance when I confiscate their phones. Some even drop out rather than suffer the indignity of being offline for an entire class. Yet to pretty much everyone’s surprise, redemption comes to almost everyone. Within a month, I get enthused reactions about how good it feels to be phone-deprived. Grades go up, along with the quality of class discussion. Some students report this is the first time they’ve been able to concentrate on the course material. Or it’s the only course in which they’ve learned something. That would be flattering if it weren’t such a sad indictment of the state of higher education today, where classrooms have become a wasteland of digital distraction. 

“It’s tempting to assume our hyperconnected 20-somethings are the authors of their own fate, and have only themselves to blame for not getting the best from their education. Except it’s not that simple. First, students are behaving exactly like the grownups in our tech-addled culture, ditching their moment-to-moment social responsibilities for another jab at the screen. Second, the unseemly classroom behavior is a coping strategy for many students, who have to put up with indifferent professors and a pervasive campus culture that casts them in the role of customers rather than learners. And third, they have many enablers – the instructors who see not paying attention as the new normal; the parents who can’t bear to be out of touch with their kids for even an hour; and the campus administrators who turn a blind eye because of their own obsession with new technologies as a panacea for every institutional problem. For all their initial resistance, however, depriving students of their devices for three-hour stretches has turned out to be a remarkably simple and effective solution. There’s also good research that students are less effective at learning their course material when they’re online and ignoring the instructor. Not to mention studies showing that students learn more and better using pen and paper instead of keyboards and screens.” 

D.E.

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Internet good or bad? Yes (2)

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The Internet keeps getting busier — more people going online and spending more time once they get there. It’s also becoming a worse place to be, on almost any objective measure: mental health, privacy, safety, social cohesion, cyberwarfare, etc.

Can we love the Internet and still hate what it’s doing to us?

In two reports released in April, the Pew Research Center provides some surprising answers. The first report doesn’t bury the lead. It’s entitled “A Declining Majority of Online Adults Say the Internet Has Been Good for Society” But there’s a sharp counterpoint accompanying that finding. These respondents see good for themselves as individuals — but for society, not so much (gen-pop survey here). Continue reading

More time online or less? Yes (1)


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Barely six months ago, some unusual critics told Apple it was making a big mistake in its iPhone design. It was doing too good a job — and making us too fond of the world’s greatest fetish object. Unusual because the critics included two of Apple’s biggest institutional investors (Jana Partners and CALSTRS: as noted in my January 31 post).

Making phones less attractive is one of the stop-gap remedies for the millions with a case of screen addiction. Along comes Apple’s recent Worldwide Developers Conference, WWDC, and babam! — we have software adjustments in the next iteration of iOS intended to appease the critics and save us from ourselves (WWDC keynote here).

iOS 12 will have two expanded controls plus a newish feature. Do Not Disturb (DND) gets auto-timing and a Do Not Disturb During Bedtime add-on. Notifications get less annnoying with Grouping and Instant Tuning. And add the new Screen Time feature, which tells you precisely how much of your life you’re wasting on your phone and where. Continue reading