The dumb things we do with smartphones

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In the previous post, we discussed ways to mitigate the potential harms of digital life. In my responses to the Pew/Elon survey questions, I took two unvarnished truths for granted.

First, unless you’re shilling for Google or Facebook, the harms stemming from digital life are no longer “potential.” Second, we’ve barely begun to think seriously about mitigating any of the harms. That’s especially the case at the personal level: behavioral addiction is up there with cyber-terrorism when it comes to a long-term fix. 

Below are some ideas mooted recently for stemming the towering tidal wave of compulsive and anti-social behaviors sweeping our society — what you might call the Smartphone Crisis. 

1 – France Moves To Ban Students From Using Cellphones In Schools

I recently interviewed an undergrad from the University of Toronto who grew up in London but was educated in the French lycée system. She says phones were nowhere to be seen in any of her classes — part of the strict French approach to education.

So it was a little surprising to read that the French Minister of Education himself decreed recently that he’s banning phones from all primary and secondary school classrooms. That’s especially surprising since France passed such a law — seven years ago. As one high-ranking teachers’ union official put it, presumably speaking of their recalcitrant students, “It is extremely difficult to get respect.

Part of the problem may be of the minister’s own making. He seems to be carving out exceptions before he even starts: “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. Among the biggest opponents to a ban are parents worried about being out of touch with their kids for a few hours.

2 – Can an app that rewards you for avoiding Facebook help beat smartphone addiction?

Yes! If you’re addicted to apps, we’ve got an app for that! It’s called Hold — developed in Norway, where 40% of students use it. The developer in question went for positive reinforcement rather than lockout or punishment: you refrain from ogling your social media, and the app provides tangible rewards from commercial partners. Which apparently range from pencils to trips round the world (pencils for keyboard-crazy millennials?).

The writer of the article, herself a millennial, reports that just trying to meet the 20-minute reward threshold proved “excruciating.” But she clearly has the right idea about what it might mean to college students in the long run:

“I suppose the real reward is not spending £50,000 on a degree, only to end up with a bad grade thanks to your need to compulsively refresh, scroll and repeat.”

3 – Make a less addictive iPhone: Letter from Jana Partners and California State Teachers’ Retirement System (pdf)

In an open letter earlier this month, two of Apple’s biggest institutional investors (shares worth $2 billion) told Apple’s board it’s time for the company to fix the awful problems it has created by making the iPhone one of the most sought-after consumer durables ever invented. One key message is phones designed for a 40-year-old shouldn’t be handed to tweens and teens; they need their own:

“…the initial setup menu could be expanded so that … parents can enter the age of the user and be given age-appropriate setup options based on the best available research including limiting screen time, restricting use to certain hours, reducing the available number of social media sites, setting up parental monitoring, and many other options.”

Their pitch struck a chord — even with Tony Fadell, co-creator of the iPhone, who said “Apple should own up to teen cell phone addiction.” It also prompted New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo to write a column recently (It’s Time for Apple to Build a Less Addictive iPhone) in which he argues that, if any company can pull this off, it’s Apple. (I learn from my teen daughter that in her university crowd, the only cool phone is an iPhone — even an ancient 5s with a cracked screen wins every time.)

4 – Talk more, message less: Keep Your Head Up – How Smartphone Addiction Kills Manners and Moods

Back at the New York Times, the Smarter Living guru had a real temper tantrum over how phone addiction has demolished basic social decency for all us grownups – his first cite is from syndicated columnist Miss Manners.

But Adam Popescu swiftly escalates the critique into territory distinctly worse than ignoring your dining companion. Yep, “text neck” is taking on medical significance, and is being blamed for loss of the curve of the cervical spine, along with mood, behavior and memory disorders, including depression (yet another way phones can make us depressed).

“Inattentional blindness” is also causing empathy levels to plummet, while narcissism is skyrocketing — as you often discover when you ask someone at, say, the gym to please stop shouting into his phone on the next treadmill.

The two main suggestions for undoing some of the damage are: Keep your head up! And find someone to have a conversation with! The latter idea has been promoted for years by psychologist Dr Sherry Turkle, who reminds us ” I am not anti-technology, I am pro-conversation.” It’s the right idea but not easy to put into action.

What could possibly be wrong with manipulating 6-year-olds for commercial gain?

5 – Call out the dope peddlers: Health Experts Ask Facebook to Shut Down Messenger Kids

OK, this isn’t really a suggestion for how to fix an existing problem. This is Zuckerberg being asked — yet again — to back away from a truly terrible idea: Facebook Messenger for 6-to-12-year-olds.

The company’s usual bullshit rationale is we’re doing it to make the world a better place — to “safeguard pre-teens who may be using unauthorized social media accounts.” They deny vehemently that this gambit bears any resemblance to passing out free samples of crack in schoolyards — or so I imagine. If you care to read what the worried health experts said, their January 30 letter is uploaded here (pdf).

D.E.