Tagged Smartphones

Pokémon Has Children on the Move

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The author’s son and daughter, both 10, sneak up on a virtual Pokémon.

The author’s son and daughter, both 10, sneak up on a virtual Pokémon.Credit

Parents looking for a way to get children moving and off the couch this summer have found a surprising new ally: Pokémon.

Unlike most video and smartphone games, the phenomenally popular Pokémon Go, which has been downloaded by millions in the past week, requires the player to be active. The game uses map technology and local landmarks to make it seem as if mythical cartoon creatures are lurking in the real world all around you.

As my two 10-year-olds and I quickly found, playing Pokémon Go is not sedentary. Pokémon “trainers” must search for the virtual creatures; finding more of them requires getting up and heading outside.

Other parents are reporting a similar effect.

“My 18-year-old and his friends walked and biked 25 plus miles in two days, outside, in the heat and rain,” said Lisa Romeo, a mother of two who lives in Cedar Grove, N.J.

Phil LeClare of Salem, Mass., said that after three days of Pokémon Go while on vacation in Maine, his 11-year-old son proudly said that he’d walked 30 miles.

Along with the stories of calories burned come the benefits of unexpected family time. The real-world component of walking and hunting for the creatures seems to make playing Pokémon Go alone unappealing. Instead, even teenagers are inviting siblings and parents along. Add in the likelihood of meeting other players at Poké-stops, and the game begins to feel like a social event.

“Event” is a good characterization, said Jeffrey Rohrs, a father of two and the chief marketing officer of Yext, a location data management platform. The app, he said, appears to have struck a perfect chord in our culture, making fresh use of smartphone technology while offering a way around our collective fears that smartphones make us more sedentary and connect us better to the cloud than to one another. “There’s just this euphoria around it,” he said. “It’s unique.”

But for families that have been pleasantly surprised by the action and interaction of Pokémon Go, the game has created a quandary: Do our usual screen time limits apply? Do miles logged and family togetherness really make Pokémon Go different from other screen-based distractions?

The average American child already spends more time consuming media via a screen than at school. Adults aren’t doing much better. Many of us say we spend too much time on our smartphones and the internet, and our kids think so too: In one study, about 70 percent of children under 18 said their parents spent too much time glued to the phone.

“I’m wary of promises that more technology is the answer to problems caused by the overuse of technology,” said Richard Freed, a psychologist and author of “Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age.” We’ve been hopeful in the past that certain games, like the Wii system, would promote family time or get kids moving, he said, but those games ultimately failed to live up to the hype.

When it comes to Pokémon Go, Dr. Freed says he is in “wait and see” mode, but dubious. His family loves to walk together outdoors. “Now you add this new wrinkle,” in the form of a game that may be more compelling than the conversation that forges bonds among them. “You have to ask,” said Dr. Freed, “will this facilitate that connection?”

As a replacement for other forms of gaming, Pokémon Go offers plenty of advantages. My two 10-year-olds and I did enjoy connecting while roaming the streets in search of creatures — but part of the pleasure, for me, was that I’d lured them away from their usual Sunday afternoon game-fest with the Wii.

For some families, the hunt has already begun to take over their travels — encouraging kids to walk and hike further, yes, but will they remember seeing the White House, or the Pokémon at its gates? On a positive note, Mr. Rohrs sees a future where the technology could be used to enhance our destinations “It’s easy to imagine a hunt for the great authors of London,” he said, rather than Pokémon.

But for now, it’s even easier to imagine getting just a little tired of children who’d rather hunt Zubats than enjoy a zoo.

Which can only mean one thing. “Part of parenting is establishing boundaries,” said Mr. Rohrs, who spent his weekend exploring New York City with his wife, two children and Pokémon Go. Although he was mostly enthusiastic about the unexpected places the game led them, “We quickly realized we needed to declare some ‘phone in pocket’ time.”

For now, many parents seem to be relishing the good in Pokémon Go, while recognizing that they will need to create limits. For some of us, Pokémon Go brings up unexpected summer memories of twilight freeze-tag and hide-and-seek. Laurel Snyder had to set a curfew for her kids, ages 9 and 10, who spent the day wandering their neighborhood in Atlanta.

“I told them they had to be home by 8, and they dashed in sweaty-faced at 7:53. It really felt more like my own childhood experience than I’d have imagined,“ she said. That early hour might even relax a little, with so much community to be found in the initial excitement surrounding the game. It’s likely that for many children, and adults too, the summer of 2016 just became the summer of Pokémon.

Is Selfie Culture Making Our Kids Selfish?

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Credit

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Michele Borba

Michele BorbaCredit

The psychologist and parenting expert Michele Borba says society’s fixation with the selfie is having some unintended consequences. She sees children mimicking not-so-nice behavior in adults and fewer grown-ups calling them out.

In “UnSelfie: Why Empathic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World,” her 23rd book, Dr. Borba combines scientific research with tales from real-world families and offers concrete tips on how to cultivate kindness.

We talked recently about “selfie syndrome,” ways to flip the focus away from the self and specific activities to build empathy in our children. Here is an edited excerpt of our conversation.

Q.

You suggest in the book that technology disrupts kids’ emotional lives. How?

A.

You have to have face-to-face connection in order to read emotional cues and experience where the other person is coming from. If the average kid is plugged in – let’s just say what Common Sense Media says is 7.5 hours a day – you’re not having the opportunities to look face-to-face. You can do that in FaceTime. You can do that in Skype. It’s not like you’re throwing the entire thing out. It’s finding ways to make sure there are opportunities where your child won’t lose the critical core skills of not only empathy but connection and social skills. We’ve failed to realize that all of those social skills are learned and they need practice. What we’re not doing is helping our kids practice.

Q.

Your book talks about kids and their often-inflated egos. Is this a repercussion of the 1980s self-esteem movement?

A.

Yes. Unfortunately, we misinterpreted self-esteem. I wrote five books on self-esteem, but my whole concept of self-esteem was it was layered. Real self-esteem is a balance between two things. One part is feeling worthy and likable. The other part is being capable to handle life – having the skills and competence.

What we did on the self-esteem bandwagon is we did the whole thing of helping the child feel worthy but without the competence; it backfires. Our praise, if we keep focusing on you, after a while, the kid begins to forget there’s others in the world. And the other thing is they become more and more dependent upon us. We kind of bubble-wrapped the child. We helicoptered them and we didn’t teach them the skills to be able to cope. We’re going to have to re-tilt the balance.

Q.

Let’s talk discipline. You cite a lot of problems with approaches like spanking and yelling, which are known as detrimental. But what’s wrong with time outs?

A.

Time out works if you do it the right way. It’s impossible to discipline wisely or well if you’re in distress or your kid is in distress. It’s better to say, “Let’s separate from each other and let’s calm ourselves down.”

But just sitting alone doesn’t help the kid think through the impact of his actions on others. When your kid comes back out, you need to say, “I’m disappointed in you. I expected better of you because I see you as a caring person. How would you feel if that were you? What are you going to do differently next time?” That’s the piece that research says we may be missing.

Q.

Just what is “selfie syndrome?”

A.

Self-absorption kills empathy. Narcissism is “it’s all me.” Empathy is feeling with someone. Empathy is always “we, it’s not me.” The problem is kids are tuning into themselves, and what we need to do is flip the lens and start looking at others. We started to emphasize one side of the report card and we forgot the other side, which is “You’re also a caring human being.” Let’s redefine success so it’s not just a GPA, but it’s also a kid who has heart.

Q.

You suggest that some activities, such as chess, reading, watching movies and recess, boost not only academic achievement but increase empathy. Why?

A.

Chess is about perspective taking. Kid are not thinking of themselves. They start thinking of others. New research on reading shows that emotionally charged literary fiction like “Charlotte’s Web” or “To Kill a Mockingbird,” where the kid can catch the feelings of the character, makes the child not only smart but nice. Chapter books (such as the “Frog and Toad” series) are short and easy, and more parents are skipping literary fiction in favor of a chapter book because they think it will boost their kid’s vocabulary and reading comprehension. What they’re missing is the rich moral dilemma. Movies and literature are the same. Think of the kind of movie that stirs your heart, like “Dumbo.”

Following are some of Dr. Borba’s tips for how to flip the focus and cultivate kindness.

  1. When your children walk out the door, remind them to do one or two kind things each day.
  2. Show that you value kindness. Do not just ask, “What you get on your test today?” but, “What kind thing did you do?”
  3. Praise your kids for being kind in the moment – when they have earned it: “That was being kind because you offered your toy to your friend.”
  4. Make kindness a regular happening. Put a box by your front door for gently used items and when it fills up, drop it off together for a needy family.

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Living with a Teenage Data Hog

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Credit iStock

After children reach a certain age, most parents give in to their desire for a mobile phone. We like being able to find them at any moment, and they risk being left out if their friends can’t ping them. A Pew Research Center report from last year found that 88 percent of American teenagers now have phones.

But today’s smartphones have earned that name because of their ability to suck in and spit out data at ever-faster rates. That gets expensive, quickly, and figuring out who should pay for the data, how much, and according to what rules, can be a giant headache.

So first, an opening proposition: The ability to access the internet via a cellular signal, in those passing moments when Wi-Fi is not available, is a want and not a need for most teenagers. And if they want it, they should pay for it themselves.

But when I share that assertion with many parents I know, they often respond by patting me on the head and telling me to get back to them when my 10-year-old has a phone and all her friends do, too. To those parents, a data plan is no indulgence. Their kids are busy — constantly on the way to an athletic event or rehearsal. They don’t want to deprive their kids of the ability to stream music or stay connected with their friends on data-draining apps like Snapchat. So a data plan is a given, and the parents are willing to pay.

But just how high a bill is reasonable? I suggest the budgeting approach: Parents pay for a certain amount of data each month, the children track how much they’ve used, and then they pay for anything beyond that allotted amount.

It’s simple enough in theory. Carriers lets customers check to see how much data each person in a family plan has used so far during the month, and the privilege of having a phone should come with the responsibility of keeping track.

That approach does, however, require you to sit down with your teenager and identify the sources of data drain and perhaps set rules for when those apps ought to go off. The Times’s Wired Well columnist, Jennifer Jolly, lives with a data-draining teenager. She suggests turning off any features on a teen’s phone that drain data automatically in the background. Also, track the apps that use the most data and limit data hogs like Spotify or Snapchat to times when the teenager has Wi-Fi access. One additional hint: The more video an app records, transmits and receives, the higher the data bill is likely to be. Call your carrier or consult online forums if you need more help.

In an ideal world, this approach teaches patience, self-control and restraint. Your kids can always watch a video a little later over Wi-Fi, after all. And many messages – most, even – can wait a bit.

But in a less than ideal world, teenagers tend to go over their caps, especially if their friends send lots of videos back and forth via Snapchat. Some parents have enough money to simply pay for the overages. But discussions about those bills are useful. If we don’t set limits, after all, who will? And isn’t our job to get our kids ready for the moment when they really will be paying their own bills?

A few years ago, I wrote about the Russell Plan, named after Mary Kay Russell, a mother of four sons in Naperville, Ill. She added her sons to the family’s cellphone plan when they were ready for their first phones, and the cheap devices they received came with unlimited calls and texting. The boys were welcome to burn data to their hearts’ content on an upgraded phone, but if they wanted to do that, they would have to pay for the device and prepay $360 for a year’s worth of data. The oldest waited until age 21 to get his first fancy phone.

Perhaps his response to the family’s strategy was not such a big surprise. The cost of a smartphone plus data is a big pile of cash to a middle school student who may not have many ways to earn money. Parents who can afford it might consider raising a child’s allowance some to put the decision just within their reach – and make the possibility of waiting on an upgraded phone more enticing.

How much more allowance might they get? It depends on whether you’re asking them to use allowance to cover lunch, snacks, transportation and clothing, too. But you could increase the allowance enough to pay for 50 or 75 percent of a basic data plan, so that the choice to purchase it would involve some sacrifices elsewhere.

Yes, you’re technically “paying” for the data plan in this instance, but that’s true with allowance in general. Once your children have it, the money will feel like it’s their own, and the trade-off will feel real, too.

The Russell children could have asked for upgraded mobile devices and money toward data for birthdays or Christmas, but they often had other priorities. Which is great: We want our children making financial trade-offs, since that is what they’ll have to do as grownups just about every day of their adult lives.

Ron Lieber is the Your Money columnist for The New York Times and the author of “The Opposite of Spoiled,” about parenting, money and values.

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Ready, Set, Hold That Pose! Have Smartphones Ruined Racing?

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A racer poses for a selfie at the 13-mile marker of the Big Sur International Marathon.

A racer poses for a selfie at the 13-mile marker of the Big Sur International Marathon.Credit Courtesy of the Big Sur International Marathon

At a recent 5K in Boston, I got off to an aggravatingly sluggish start. I couldn’t get going, not really, because runners around me took pictures and videos of themselves beginning the race. Then I nearly barreled into a runner who came to a dead stop to take a picture of the pros who had started the race waves ahead of us as they came across the finish. When I reached the point in the race that crosses over the finish line to the Boston Marathon, where an announcer repeated loudly over and over that runners should not stop to take selfies, two runners just ahead of me did anyway, mucking up the path of the runners behind them. I snapped and yelled, loudly, “Just run!”

I’ve been running for 10 years, and there have always been inconsiderate racers who do whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want. But with the advent of smartphones, such incidents have blossomed.

Smartphones can be powerful running tools: They track your progress and location, play your music and podcasts, and can serve as a safety device in case you get lost or need assistance. Race officials have also created apps to keep runners up to date with what’s going on during race weekend or, in the case of an emergency, during the race itself.

But smartphones have also become social media spouts for runners to take selfies, FaceTime a family member on a crowded course, or chat on the phone in the middle of a race, oblivious to the people behind and around them.

According to Running USA, a nonprofit group that tracks data and trends on running, 61 percent of runners regularly run with a cellphone, most commonly to play music, track mileage and workouts, map routes and use GPS features. The group found that millennials and Gen Xers are most likely to run with their cellphones, and also most likely to use social media channels to share running-related activities.

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Racers pose for a photo as they run the Big Sur International Marathon.

Racers pose for a photo as they run the Big Sur International Marathon.Credit Courtesy of the Big Sur International Marathon

“Tech is just such an important part of sport in general, whether it’s nutrition, training information, event information, fitness tracking — there’s so many uses or applications for technology now,” said Rich Harshbarger, the chief executive of Running USA.

While he knows that this can cause some friction in races, he sees social media as having helped the sport. “It has made the sport more accessible, less intimidating, and I think it encourages participation,” he said. That finish line photo, or sharing a training run on Twitter, can help runners find others who are doing similar events, and encourage them to train or run a race together. Seeing people just like you doing this thing they love can also inspire you to try it too.

While race directors are embracing the technology to enhance their events, they are also coming up with creative ways to deal with the downside of smartphones.

Many runners elect to take on the grueling hills of the Big Sur International Marathon because of its breathtaking views along the coast of California. The marathon’s race director, Doug Thurston, knows that most will be taking pictures during the race.

“I don’t think you could ever” ban runners from taking photos, he said. “And I don’t think you want to do that.” He just wants runners to do so safely, and to be considerate of others on the course.

The Big Sur marathon’s safety rules specifically ask runners to move “to the far left side of the road or the dirt shoulder before taking pictures.” The course also has designed mile markers with ample space around them where people can stop to take pictures.

“We have iconic images on our course, and that’s what we’re known for,” Mr. Thurston said. “We encourage people to document and catalog their experiences. But we encourage them to do it safely, with minimal effects to other participants.”

In 2014, after a series of much publicized incidents, including one woman who ran the New York City Half Marathon snapping selfies at every mile with a different man in the background of each picture, the New York Road Runners added a section to their code of conduct under the label “Mobile Devices” that says using smartphones for pictures and social media updates during any of their races is “strongly discouraged, as it decreases your awareness of other participants around you.” They have also banned selfie sticks entirely from races.

“It’s part of the changing landscape of what’s going on here and in the world. It’s an evolution,” said Peter Ciaccia, president of events for the New York Road Runners and race director of the New York City Marathon. “We don’t want to be the run police. We want everybody to come out and have a good time, and the message we keep driving home is that everyone should be respectful of each other and be aware of what’s going on around them.”

Mr. Harshbarger of Running USA, who spends a lot of time in airports while traveling for his job, points out that the problem isn’t limited to races. If “someone is walking in the middle of the airport terminal texting and weaving all over, I want to ask, ‘Can you just get out of the way, because I have a connection?’”

Or, as I might yell, “Just move!”

Jen A. Miller is the author of “Running: A Love Story.”

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In ‘Screenagers,’ What to Do About Too Much Screen Time

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In a scene from the film “Screenagers,” Dr. Delaney Ruston buys her daughter, Tessa, her first smartphone.

In a scene from the film “Screenagers,” Dr. Delaney Ruston buys her daughter, Tessa, her first smartphone.Credit

In the new documentary “Screenagers,” children can’t resist the pull of electronic devices, and parents don’t know what to do about it.

Sound familiar?

The average child in America spends more time consuming electronic media than going to school, with many teenagers going online “almost constantly.” And parents aren’t necessarily being good role models. A British study showed that while six in 10 parents worried that their children spend too much time in front of a screen, seven in 10 children worry that their parents are the ones who are plugged in and tuned out.

Dr. Delaney Ruston, the director of “Screenagers” and a physician serving as filmmaker in residence at Stony Brook Medicine in New York, says that screen time remains a topic that’s often contentious and downright confusing. I spoke with Dr. Ruston about her own family’s messy struggles with digital distractions, and about the surprising insights she learned making this film. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.

Q.

Where did the idea for this documentary come from?

A.

When I started the film, I was a mom having a hard time with my own teenage kids. My 14-year-old son wanted to play more video games, and my 12-year-old daughter was always on social media. I was at a loss. I would suddenly get mad and then feel guilty. I realized speaking with other parents that we all felt paralyzed about our kids and screen overload and that it’s only getting worse.

At the same time, I was seeing more of this issue with my patients. As a primary care doctor, I saw more and more kids of all ages and backgrounds glued to a screen. I felt a real need to understand the science around screen time and kids. And as a filmmaker who has worked on other movies for social change, I wanted to share my journey in order to help others who are struggling with these issues as well.

Q.

What’s the impact of modern technology on our children’s brains?

A.

Excessive use of screens could harm the physical development of young people’s brains. Studies show a correlation between too much screen time and worse attention spans, as well as negative effects on learning. We talk about two really important studies in the the film, one with mice and another with preschoolers.

In the first study, scientists found that when young mice are repeatedly exposed to flashing sounds and lights that mimic screen time, they develop fewer nerve cells in the parts of the brain that control learning and memory. The same stimulus doesn’t affect brains of adult mice. There’s something unique about the way screen time impacts the developing brain.

In the other study with preschoolers, researchers divided 60 kids into two groups. Half watched fast-paced images on screens for about 10 minutes, while the other half drew with crayons in another room. Then all the kids took the same test of cognitive skills. The kids who were exposed to the screens did significantly worse on the exams.

Our current fast-paced digital media, from flash games and online videos, to social media feeds and constant texting, seems to tire the brain. This has major implications for kids and how they reach their full academic potential.

Q.

The movie starts with your almost 13-year-old daughter trying to convince you she needs a smartphone. What’s the big lesson for other parents here?

A.

I want every parent to know two main scientific facts: The first is that the part of the brain responsible for things such as planning, decision-making and impulse control (the frontal cortex) grows slowly over the teen years and is not fully developed until our 20s. The second is that screen time releases the chemical dopamine in the reward centers of the brain, and there is no other time in life when you’re as susceptible to that pleasure-producing chemical than in adolescence.

The worst thing a parent can do is hand over a smartphone and hope for the best. But parents often feel like trying to set limits is pointless, that the cat is out of the bag, tech is everywhere. I hear all kinds of excuses. But kids’ brains aren’t wired to self-regulate. They can’t do it without you, and they shouldn’t have to.

Q.

What should parents do then?

A.

Given the right guidelines, kids can increase self-control over time. And that’s a more important indicator of success than even I.Q. I was really surprised, and you’ll see in the film, kids consistently told me that they want rules around their screen time.

So you have set guidelines. Two of our rules are: No phones in bedrooms at night, and no phone use in the car. We use alarm clocks and talk with each other instead. Those are the easy ones. For the rest of the “rules,” and what you’ll see after a few painful mistakes on my part in the film, is that it’s best to create a contract with your kids’ input.

Q.

It also helps if mom and dad aren’t checking their phone every five minutes.

A.

That’s right. Kids don’t want to be held to a higher standard than their parents, and that’s a big issue. You can’t punish your kids for breaking the rules when you can’t put your own devices down. Also, don’t make rules that don’t make sense, and remember that humans respond better to reward than punishment.

Q.

Speaking of punishment, there’s a part in the movie where a parent is scared of taking away video games because of the huge fights it causes.

A.

Whenever we try to enforce a screen limit there can be a tremendous backlash. Knowing the science behind this behavior helps to understand why kids respond so fiercely in the heat of the moment.

The dopamine we get from screen time is the same chemical released with activities such as drinking alcohol. The many hours of dopamine released with screen-based activities can affect the brain in serious ways. For example, research shows that those who play a lot of video games — about three hours a day — have M.R.I. brain scans that reveal similar patterns as people addicted to drugs.

Q.

You don’t sugarcoat the potential for disaster here.

A.

On any given day, 70 percent of boys are playing video games, and they play close to 2.5 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

People like to rebut any negative talk about video games with the evidence that some games can improve visual acuity and problem solving. But are we, as parents, as a society, comfortable with kids giving up 15 plus hours of their lives every week for these video games they’re playing? Do you even know what games they’re playing?

Eighty percent of video games have violent content. With these games, the data shows an increased risk in aggressive thoughts and actions. It is not surprising that these games are not increasing thoughts of empathy and generosity — the traits that I would hope as a society we would want to promote.

The good news is that data also reveals that prosocial video games increase the chance that kids will be more helpful to others. Those are the games where you work to help someone, build a community or collaborate with others in a positive way. I just wish the industry would develop more “cool” prosocial games.

Q.

What do you hope happens now that the film is out and people are talking about it?

A.

I want to spark a movement to get everyone, from parents to policymakers, to watch the movie, then have a “town hall” style conversation afterward about how we can best help kids lead more balanced lives. I see this as the first step.