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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Digital classrooms are the problem, not the solution

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Naomi Buck wrote a thoughtful piece in the Globe recently entitled “A hard lesson: The digital classroom can really fail.” It’s a rare acknowledgement that “digital” and “classroom” may not go together the way everyone assumes — or would like. 

Getting digital tech into the classroom has reached motherhood status. The latest well-intentioned effort to keep kids plugged in comes from US Senators Udall and Gardner, who’ve written a bill to ensure school buses get equipped with Wi-Fi — so the kids will ignore Instagram and dive into their homework.

Good luck with that, Buck might say, pointing to the “misuse” of tech as a good reason not to give schoolkids ubiquitous access. Misuse is what everyone wants to stamp out in class — as in content that’s “inappropriate” for our tender offspring. Misuse, sadly, is baked into the system. Kids can’t be expected to resist the addictive temptations of digital life — especially, I would add, given the poor example set by their parents.  Continue reading

Security fatigue: problems in password paradise

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[5 min read]

A new survey from the Pew Research Center paints a bleak picture of how Internet users feel about their online security. The report starts with bad news about passwords, the high profile tool in the toolkit: “69% of online adults say they do not worry about how secure their online passwords are.”

How does not worrying look in real life?

Consider the findings from Keeper, a vendor of password management software. It recently tallied its annual list of the world’s favorite passwords. The top 10 list opposite, taken from an analysis of 10 million sample passwords, illustrates pretty well what end-users mean by not worrying. These passwords are so terrible that the estimated crack time for the “safest” choice on the list (#6) is about 9/1000 of a second – for the others, the effective crack time is zero seconds. This preference for easy – and insecure – passwords goes hand in hand with a set of attitudes to online security that’s not easy to fathom.

To begin with, Pew notes a tension between lack of trust in institutions and reluctance to take personal action on security:

“[While] they express skepticism about whether the businesses and institutions they interact with can adequately protect their personal information, a substantial share of the public admits that they do not always incorporate cybersecurity best practices into their own digital lives.”

Internet users are right to feel skeptical. Site operators as varied as Target, Ashley Madison and Yahoo! have shown they’re not only lousy at network security, but irresponsible in disclosure and damage control. In December, Yahoo! admitted that hackers had breached its systems and stole information from one billion accounts – and had done so three years before management got around to discussing the attack publicly.

A second and more counter-intuitive finding concerns what people do in response to suffering from an actual online attack:

“Americans who have personally experienced a major data breach are generally no more likely than average to take additional means to secure their passwords (such as using password management software).”

What explains such quick dismissal of self-interest?

Despite being a part of daily life, I think most people find passwords not just difficult but, well, weird. The better they are, the worse they are, since what makes them hard to crack also makes them hard to handle. Unlike, say, car locks and safe deposit boxes, passwords work invisibly on assets that are also invisible. Even as we type them, they dissolve into rows of inscrutable little dots. Plus they’re often stored on remote servers, i.e. in the “cloud” – the perfect metaphor for a tool you can’t see or understand.

Perhaps this abstract quality is what prompts people to manage their passwords in another kind of remote cloud: their brains. Two-thirds of onliners (65%) say memorizing their passwords is their most used strategy, while 86% use memorizing as at least one approach. The way distant second? Writing passwords on a piece of paper, the most used method for only 18% of respondents.

Software developers look at this behavior and think they can put us out of our misery by selling us password management software – 1Password, Dashlane, Keeper, etc – the tools security experts recommend most highly.

The bad news, however, is that almost nobody uses them. A mere 12% of onliners say they use these applications at least sometimes, while those who say they use a password manager most often amount to a tiny minority of 3%. Pew cautions this is not niche behavior, as password software “is used relatively rarely across a wide range of demographic groups.”

There’s a useful lesson here.

People at the selling end of the consumer tech business see code as the solution to everything. If you have trouble remembering your passwords and that makes you unsafe and you’re generally miserable about it all, then you’re gonna love our software. What’s wrong with this logic is not how good the software is or how cheap or how user-friendly. The problem is that it’s software.

This mental fatigue extends far past security. It’s only part of the fallout from how mainstream consumers are taught to behave in the digital world – to expect everything we touch to be effortless, easy and user-friendly, even when it clearly isn’t. Vendors know their customers won’t take lessons, respond to scares or read the manual so they just pretend there’s nothing to learn in the first place.

Same deal with hardware. As a tech at the Apple Genius Bar once explained to me, customers come in with broken, manhandled $1500 machines they’ve never maintained or even cleaned, and leave with their repair ready for more abuse. Imagine treating a $1500 Weber gas barbecue that way.

The only way mainstream consumers are ever going to make peace with their devices – and their passwords – is by getting to know them better. Mystification is a terrible motivator, as I can attest after a decade teaching 20-somethings how their digital world works.

Getting this particular demographic to put down their phones, their ingrained habits and their fear of exploring technology (yep, you heard that right), is hard work for all. Like most people, students have been persuaded there must be an app for that – one that will allow them to learn how a data packet crosses the Internet without any effort on their part. Or while texting. Well, there isn’t and there won’t be.

I see a wholesale change in our approach to understanding digital technology as one of the most important educational missions of the next decade. I’ll be writing more about this educational challenge in the coming weeks and months.

(The Pew survey on cybersecurity is available here.)

D.E.

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An uncertain future for higher ed (Pew/Elon 2016)

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Last month I wrote about the Pew/Elon experts survey on the future of the Internet. I included comments on the ubiquitous use of algorithms and the costs that entails. That was one of five questions on the 2016 survey. I answered two others: one on the future of education (#2) and the other on the effects of ever-increasing connectedness (#5).

My views on the future of higher education – especially in the liberal arts – have grown more pessimistic over the last year and a half. They’ve been shaped by the research and interviews I’ve done while working on a book proposal aimed at the uses and misuses of technology in the classroom. The working title, Turned off Tech, reflects the long-ago inciting incident: confiscating student phones and all other digital devices, the better to make the classroom a place to learn again.

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Students adjust nicely to the idea that paying attention is a good way to find out how digital technologies work – as opposed to staring into a screen and expecting some miracle of osmosis. These days they’re much more concerned about what happens after they leave class and graduate. Many tell me that their 4-year degree was a painful necessity that will bring nothing by itself. Continue reading

Moronic multitaskers vs digital natives: the smartphone crisis

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First impressions are important

“The single biggest problem facing education today is that our Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.” –Marc Prensky, 2001 (creator of the “digital natives” concept)

“Multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.” –Clifford Nass, 2009

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Almost four years ago, I launched a radical new approach to teaching my courses. I began confiscating student phones for the duration of every class.

blank-face-2Let’s pretend her name was Kathy. I kept issuing the usual pleas to her – and everyone – to stay off their phones, as it’s hard to participate in a seminar discussion when you’re typing Facebook likes. Kathy was worse than most, so I moved her to a seat directly in front of the lab podium. But even when I was hovering, she kept typing furiously, like I was invisible. She was the last straw. Neither my ego nor my pedagogy could take it any more.

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Where phones go to facilitate the learning process (COMN 4520)

Around the time I started my full frontal phone attack, I posted the first of three items on dumb things you can do with smartphones, in September 2011. I took it for granted that thousands of other instructors faced the same problem every time they walked into a classroom. But I figured I had a particularly good reason for my phone strategy. I was teaching liberal arts undergrads how the Internet works. Continue reading