Do smartphones change your brain?

via Smartphones: Can you live without yours?,

PDF: Smartphones and your brain 1Smartphones and your brain 2

Just a generation ago, few would have predicted that by 2017, the world would be full of people staring zombie-like at flickering screens they hold in their hands, mostly unaware of what’s happening around them. This is a fact of our daily lives, but concerns have risen in recent years as to what effects these devices are having on our society. We’ve already seen that more people are dying from distracted driving (even walking), and while smartphones have their good points, no one really knows how they are changing us.

Since smartphones first hit the marketplace more than 25 years ago, humans have been unwittingly part of a vast, uncontrolled experiment, and science is just now beginning to discover that our brains are being rewired in unexpected ways as we use these devices. While “addiction” is a clinical term, many people believe we are becoming addicted to smartphones to a degree few thought possible.

In a recent Pew study, nearly half of Americans said they couldn’t live without their smartphones. A Common Sense Media study last year found that more than 80 percent of teens feel the need to check their phones at least hourly, and nearly three-fourths of them felt compelled to immediately respond to text messages and social media notifications. A famous 2014 study concluded that many teens would rather lose their pinky finger than their phone. The fear of losing one’s phone even has a name: “nomophobia”.

So, why is this happening? Scientists have long suspected that it has to do with the brain’s reward centers and the natural chemicals that help us feel good when we experience pleasure. While most studies to date have relied on anecdotal evidence, or have looked at self-reported behavior, a recent South Korean study was different because researchers used advanced MRI techniques to look at the brains of teenagers as they used smartphones. Teens who described themselves as “addicted” to their phones were found to have higher levels of depression, anxiety, insomnia severity and impulsivity, noted the study’s authors.

Probing further, the researchers found high levels of a brain chemical called GABA in the addicted teens, and the ratio of GABA to another chemical called glutamate seems to point toward chemical changes in teenage brains. While it’s just preliminary research, Dr. Hyung Suk Seo, the physician who conducted the study, notes that it could help scientists figure out just how device addiction can alter the brain.

“The increased GABA levels and disrupted balance between GABA and glutamate in the anterior cingulate cortex may contribute to our understanding the pathophysiology of and treatment for addictions,” Seo noted.

While this is one of the first conclusive studies to indicate that device use is actually changing the way our brains operate, there’s a lot of research ahead. But despite this disturbing news, Seo noted there is cause for optimism; levels of the brain chemicals seemed to decrease after cognitive behavioral therapy.

It’s pretty clear smartphones are here to stay, in some form or other. But with so much at stake, perhaps it’s time we all stepped back and gave some serious thought to whether these devices (and the people behind the curtain) are serving us, or whether it’s just the opposite.


‘No-call’ reporting app blocks unwanted telemarketers

via ‘No-call’ reporting app blocks unwanted telemarketers

PDF: New PSC No Call App

We’ve all had those calls that are trying to sell us something, or that appear to be scams. In the past few years, we’ve gotten some help in the form of Caller ID and call blocking, but these remain only marginally effective at stopping unwanted telemarketing and scam calls. “Do-not-call” lists have been somewhat effective as well, but are challenged by the explosion in automated calling (“robocalls”).

Now, the Mississippi Public Service Commission has unveiled a new smartphone app that makes it easier and quicker to report an unwanted call. The free “MS No-Call App” is available from the Apple Store and Google Play, and it allows users to register numbers with the statewide list, and file complaints immediately from their smartphones.

“We want to empower people by placing a tool literally in their hands to help us get at these predatory telemarketers,” noted PSC Chairman Brandon Presley in a news release. “This free app was a long time coming, and I know it will revolutionize the way we track down the lawbreakers and shut their call operations down.”

Since the rollout of “no-call” legislation both at the national and state levels in 2003, Mississippians have been able to place their numbers on “do-not-call” lists. And last year, the PSC began allowing cellphone numbers to be added to the list.

Last December, the Federal Trade Commission reported that more than 226 million numbers had been placed on the national list since the do-not-call lists became active in 2003. And in 2015, that number increased about 3 percent. Some industry experts attribute that rise to increasing use of robocalling technology. It’s a big problem; billions of robocalls are placed every month, and CNBC reported 2.6 billion robocalls last May alone.

For companies or individuals who violate the state and/or federal do-not-call laws, there can be stiff penalties, and many companies have found themselves on the wrong end of judgments and lawsuits from regulators, costing them millions. Around 20,000 companies and organizations have applied for access to the national list, according to the FTC report. But the list has not stopped criminals from violating the law on a regular basis, a lot of them using robocall technology. Many robocalls originate from overseas, making it difficult to stop them.

When I heard about the new app, I decided to give it a try. After downloading and installing the app, I was asked to enter my name, address, and email, as well as the telephone number I wanted to add to the list. Once registered, the user can add additional numbers to the list, file a complaint about a call they received and sign up for additional information. There was a disclaimer that your number will be added to the do-not-call list, and you may be asked to file an affidavit to support your complaint, should it be needed.

Usage is simple and straightforward, and should allow you to immediately report numbers that come to your cellphone or landline. When reporting a questionable call or text, you’ll be asked for specific information about the number the caller used, the time and date of the call, what the call was about, whether you have an existing business relationship with the caller and whether you answered the call.

There are numerous apps that use the national registry, and others that block calls from known scammers, spammers and robocallers. A list of some of these is available at

For more information about Mississippi’s No Call Law, visit or call 1-800-637-7722.

Mobile companies responding to call for more scam protections


T-Mobile’s Scam ID –

via Do scammers have your number?

PDF: Carriers and Phone Scams

Scam calls have become so common many people don’t even bother to answer the phone anymore unless they recognize the number. While Caller ID is overall a great invention that has saved countless people from having to engage in unwanted conversations, spoofing technology now allows scammers to make it look as if the call comes from pretty much any location they want.

In the “old days,” pretty much everybody who had a phone could be found in the phone book. Technology to autodial thousands of numbers at once was still in its infancy, and the risk of being contacted by a scammer was pretty low. Long-distance charges made it expensive to call from outside local areas, and it was hard to make a lot of money this way.

On the other hand, since we had no way of knowing who was calling, most of us picked up the phone and answered. “Screening” consisted of the person who answered the phone asking who was calling, and then deciding whether or not to talk to the individual. (Frequently, the result was a lot of bewildered parents who had to decide how to handle the caller when their teenager was in a spat with their significant other.)

But that was then. Today, a scammer sitting in a Third World slum or well-equipped “boiler room” operation in a big city can place a call to you from the other side of the globe at little cost. Once they’ve got you on the phone, they’ll spin a yarn about how you’re about to be arrested by the IRS or claim to be your grandchild who’s been arrested in the Virgin Islands as he was helping a friend renew his wedding vows. If they’re successful in getting past your defenses, they’ll get you to wire money you’ll never see again.

It’s a big problem, since most of us use our cellphones and a lot of us have ditched our old-fashioned landlines. Crooks know this, and cellphones are now taking the brunt of the scam traffic. The Federal Communications Commission, in calling on cell providers to do something about the problem, noted that Americans received 29 billion robocalls last year. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai convened a “robocall strike force” last year, consisting of 33 telecom and tech companies.

And the industry appears to be responding. AT&T rolled out its free Call Protect app in December, which it claims has blocked a billion robocalls already, and Verizon and Sprint have announced fee-based services to provide some protection. T-Mobile announced July 24 that customers of its MetroPCS prepaid service now have access to Scam ID and Scam Block, which flag calls from numbers reported to be scams. The services were originally rolled out for T-Mobile customers in April, and in a news release, the company claimed to have flagged 243 million calls as potential scams and saved its customers from potential $130 million in scam losses. (The company says it got those numbers by figuring the average phone-scam victim loses $274, with about 0.2 percent of all calls being successful scams.)

With Scam ID, customers who get a call from a likely problem number will see a “likely scam” alert beside the number, and you can choose to accept or deny the call. With Scam Block, numbers from known scammers will be automatically blocked before they ever reach you.

T-Mobile COO Mike Sievert noted studies of the data since the April rollout have revealed scammers usually work a standard 8-to-5 workday, with far less activity at night and on weekends. You’re most likely to get a call in the late afternoon, and most scam numbers are used only once.

For consumers, these services could potentially cut down on the number of scammers who actually reach their targets, but that’s only part of the problem. Until everybody learns that scammers are really good at using the phone as a way to steal and they stop talking to unknown people on the phone, the scourge of phone scams is likely going to be harder to eradicate than kudzu on a Mississippi farm.

Proposed smartphone ban for kids reignites debate

Smartphone – A Threat or a Life Savior for Kids

via Proposed child smartphone ban reignites debate,

PDF: Smartphones and kids

[Editor’s Note: Post has been updated to reflect accurate numbers of signatures being sought in the Colorado petition.]

Back in 2013, I posed a question to readers of this column: “Should young kids have their own cellphone?”

The answers back then were all over the map. Some readers said, “absolutely.” Others said, “absolutely not.” But most of the responses indicated something in between and reflected parents’ belief that it depended on their age and ability to be responsible with the technology. “Depends on the child” went the typical answer. “When they can pay for it” and “when they start driving,” said others.

In the four years since then, a lot has changed. Smartphones have almost completely eclipsed old-style cellphones in the marketplace, becoming much faster and accompanied by an explosion in the number of apps. Look around at any group of kids (of nearly any age) and most of them will have their eyes fixed on their device’s screen, their fingers a blur. They may be in a group, but they’re not interacting with each other — at least as they once did. In many ways, they’re just doing what all the rest of us are doing — leading distracted lives tethered to the ever-present devices.

Even toddlers are handed devices, often left to navigate cyberspace on their own. And just as those brains are developing, many are worried about the long-term effects. Furthermore, since the web is a virtual Wild West, children using the web unsupervised can be lured by predators, become the victim of cyberbullying and exposed to every type of pornography, violence and influence imaginable.

Many concerned parents have in recent years become alarmed at what they see as a vast, uncontrolled experiment on developing young minds, and some are turning their concern into political action. A group called Parents Against Underage Smartphones (PAUS) has had enough. The group has set its sights on Colorado, seeking to ban smartphone sales for kids under 13 in that state.

The group ( aims to spread its message. “We are parents, grandparents, and concerned citizens standing together against the destructive force of easy nonstop internet access for children disguised as progress,” notes the group on its website. “We are willing to stand up and say what we all know in our hearts, that children do not need smartphones. There is very little benefit and so very much to be lost.”

The group’s Colorado measure has already gotten a lot of attention. The proposal aims to not only prohibit direct smartphone sales to kids 12 and under, but also requires retailers to collect information about who will use the phone. Retailers selling a phone to someone intending to hand it to an underage child will face a $500 fine for any infractions after the first one. Currently, the group is collecting signatures for a November 2018 ballot initiative, which will require just under 100,000 signatures.

Tim Farnum, a Denver-area anesthesiologist who founded the group, told the Coloradoan newspaper his goal is not to stop the use of technology, but to limit the potentially negative effects on developing brains. “Eventually kids are going to get phones and join the world, and I think we all know that, but little children, there’s just no good that comes from that,” he said, citing his own frustrations in dealing with his own kids’ phone usage.

The proposal has gotten a lot of response — both positive and negative. Some say it would constitute too much government intrusion in private life and would usurp parents’ authority in making such decisions. Others have pointed out that enforcement could be difficult, and that phones do have some positive benefits for kids.

Still, the initiative appears to have touched a nerve. A lot of parents worry about their kids’ smartphone use. Earlier this year, I wrote about how many teens are using their devices well into the night, disrupting their sleep patterns. Some in the tech world have gotten concerned, too. Back in April, Microsoft Founder Bill Gates told the London Mirror that he and his wife have a family policy prohibiting their kids from cellphone use until they turn 14, bans devices at the dinner table and limits his youngest daughter’s pre-bedtime screen usage.

Whether the group’s measure passes, they are growing. PAUS says it is expanding into 11 additional states and plans to start initiatives in those states soon.

Watch where you’re going! Pedestrian deaths reach 20-year high

the-traffic-light-2157162_960_720Source: Watch where you’re going! Pedestrian deaths reach 20-year high

PDF: The_Clarion-Ledger_State_20170403_A004_2

Recently, as my son and I were walking across the grocery store parking lot to get some groceries, we were nearly hit by a car whose driver seemed oblivious to our presence as she turned the corner. Luckily, we were paying attention and had time to get out of the way. As we continued into the store, a store employee who was collecting shopping carts and saw the incident shook his head sympathetically and said, “it happens all the time.” It’s actually the second time in a year we’ve been nearly mowed down in the grocery store parking lot.

It’s a dangerous time to be a pedestrian in the United States. The Governors Highway Safety Administration just released its annual study of pedestrian deaths, which examines the problem of people getting killed after being struck by vehicles. The grim statistic: nearly 6,000 pedestrians died in 2016, the highest in 20 years.

That’s a 25 percent increase from 2010, making pedestrians the largest portion of all traffic deaths recorded in the past 25 years. And the 2016 spike marks an 11 percent increase from 2015 (the previous record-holder). The GHSA, a nonprofit made up of state highway safety offices, notes that the numbers could be higher, owing to the under-reporting of incidents. All told, 34 states had increases, and Mississippi ranked 20th in the nation for deaths as a percentage of total population for the first six months of 2016 (that’s actually an improvement from the previous year, but the second-half 2016 statistics haven’t come in yet.)

So, what’s causing all this mayhem? The authors of the study note the rapid increase in the use of smartphones could help explain at least part of the phenomenon because these devices present a “significant source of distraction for both pedestrians and motorists.”

We’ve all seen them, and maybe you’ve been one of them: people whose attention is focused on their smartphone while walking carelessly. Videos abound of people falling headlong into fountains, disappearing into open manholes or tripping on the curb while checking their email, posting to Facebook or looking for that elusive “Pokemon Go” character. Others fail to pay attention to oncoming traffic while crossing the street, leading to their being struck and often killed.

Drivers, too, are distracted. It’s been well-established that phone use while driving can present a serious attention deficit for drivers, becoming more serious the faster they drive. Unsurprisingly, alcohol also plays a role here, as it does in auto crashes in general. Thirty-four percent of pedestrians and 15 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes were intoxicated at the time of the crash, noted the study.

And although vehicles are getting better about avoiding crashing into things through collision-avoidance technologies, and local cities and states are taking measures to make things safer, the numbers continue to rise. It could be, the study’s authors note, more people are walking for fitness and economic reasons at the same time the numbers of vehicles on the road has risen because of the improving economy.

“This latest data shows that the U.S. isn’t meeting the mark on keeping pedestrians safe on our roadways,” Jonathan Adkins, GHSA executive director, told PBS Newshour. “Every one of these lives represents a loved one not coming home tonight, which is absolutely unacceptable.”

The Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center ( has some helpful tips to make your walk or run safer. Here are a few:

  • Wear brightly colored clothing and reflective tape at night. These can help increase your visibility to motorists.
  • Always walk on the sidewalk if one is available; if not, walk facing traffic so you can see approaching vehicles.
  • Don’t assume drivers will stop. Try to make eye contact with the driver and be prepared to move if he or she doesn’t appear to notice you.
  • Cross streets only at crosswalks, if possible.
  • Don’t wear earbuds or use your phone while walking.

And finally, if you’re a driver in the grocery store parking lot, please … slow down, put down your phone and pay attention. You might save a life.

Study: Teens losing sleep to mobile devices

Source: Study: Teens losing sleep to mobile devices

You may recall we recently reported that, while parents tended to worry about their children’s use of mobile devices, they were essentially blind to their own excessive usage of the devices. We parents often just don’t seem to have a very good handle on the issue of how our kids are using their phones and other devices.

The point has recently been made once again, as a new study in a British journal has illuminated a secret many teens are keeping. It seems the day’s texting, web surfing and gameplay are continuing well into the night for many, disrupting in the process much-needed sleep. Of course, it’s not entirely a new phenomenon: bookish teens have for decades covertly sneaked a copy of their favorite book under the covers and read with a flashlight while their parents blissfully slumbered down the hall, oblivious.

What’s new, of course, is that the little devices we carry with us constantly are powerful and even addictive. And such habits, while they may seem harmless, might actually have profound negative effects because they’re occurring at the very time teens need good sleep — and a lot of it.

In her Journal of Youth Studies article, Cardiff University Researcher Sally Power studied about 900 young people between 12 and 15. Subjects were asked whether they got up during the night to check their mobile devices. As many as one in five reported getting up regularly to check their email, text or social media accounts, and kids who admitted to nighttime usage were three times more likely to report feeling sleepy or excessively tired the next day.

“Our research shows that a small but significant number of children and young people say that they often go to school feeling tired — and these are the same young people who also have the lowest levels of well-being,” Power noted.

And there were gender differences as well: Power’s study found that, among younger subjects, more than a quarter of girls reported waking up to check their devices, while only about 15 percent of boys checked in during the night.

While the problem may seem like just a sleepy kid at breakfast, it may go deeper. The National Sleep Foundation reports teens need at least eight to 10 hours of quality sleep per night. Not getting enough sleep can cause a variety of problems, such as obesity, daytime sleepiness, lessened attention span and poor grades. Some researchers have connected the light from many devices with decreased levels of melatonin, a chemical emitted by the brain that helps regulate your sleep-wake cycles. And some types of light — such as the  bluish tints coming from device screens — are believed to be especially potent at suppressing melatonin.

Although Power stopped short at declaring the problem an “epidemic” or advocating a “prescribed” sleep period, she noted the research seems to confirm other research that found “significant and serious implications of the night-time use of social media for levels of tiredness and well-being.”

For parents interested in addressing this issue, the website has some tips. Among them:

  • Consider a “Family Smartphone Contract.” Talk with your kids about your concerns over nighttime phone use and get them to sign a contract that they’ll abide by it. (This depends, of course, on trust.)
  • Control your Wi-Fi. Although it’s not a perfect solution (some phone features can work using the phone’s data plan), your home network controls might allow you to set specific time limits for general use, or even restrict sites — such as social media sites — at specified times.

It also might be a good idea to set a good example. Asking our teens to curb their phone usage has little impact if we set a double standard. Limiting our own usage at night not only can help us keep the moral high ground but also help us; we could all benefit from a better night’s sleep.

Do what we say, not what we do?



via Do what we say, not what we do? on

PDF: the_clarion-ledger_state_20161212_a003_0

Most of us parents like to think we’re setting a pretty good example for our kids. We try to make sure they make the right decisions in every facet of life. I can still remember my parents reminding me to eat right, sit back from the TV, don’t read in the dark, and giving me a thousand other pieces of advice.

Most of the time, we convince ourselves we’re doing a pretty good job of modeling good behavior for our kids, but a new study has suggested many of us are just not setting a very good example when it comes to consuming media on screened devices.

In a first-of-its-kind study released this week, parenting organization Common Sense Media found that, on average, parents spend more than nine hours a day with screen media (smartphones, TVs, computers, tablets, smartwatches and other devices). Most of that use is personal (not work-related). Interestingly, while the vast majority of parents believe we’re setting a good example for our kids when it comes to devices, we’re concerned about their use of technology. And about a third of us are concerned our kids’ use of these devices is keeping our children from getting enough sleep.

“These findings are fascinating because parents are using media for entertainment just as much as their kids, yet they express concerns about their kids’ media use while also believing that they are good role models for their kids,” said James P. Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense. “Media can add a lot of value to relationships, education, and development, and parents clearly see the benefits, but if they are concerned about too much media in their kids’ lives, it might be time to reassess their own behavior so that they can truly set the example they want for their kids.”

The study, titled the Common Sense Census: Plugged-In Parents of Tweens and Teens, pointed out that many parents are so worried about their kids’ use of media that more than two-thirds believe monitoring their media use is more important than respecting their privacy. It also had some interesting findings about how parents from different races, income levels and educational backgrounds differ in their use of screen time, and the level to which they’re worried about their kids’ device use.

The findings should be a wake-up call for all of us; there’s little doubt that all of this screen use must be having some effect on our children. And while we are justifiably concerned about the potential negative effects of all of these media interactions, it appears many of us just aren’t applying the same logic to ourselves. And — of course — actions speak much, much louder than words.

“Children are great mimics, which is why it is so important that parents introduce real boundaries and balance early on,” Steyer said. “Media will always be a part of life, and every family is different, but in general, we recommend that parents set rules and clear plans so that kids understand what is appropriate.”

One interesting finding from the study might help us rediscover a tradition with which many of us grew up — family dinner time. More than three of four parents who participated in the survey reported that electronic devices are prohibited during family meal times.

Common Sense is trying to encourage that trend with a multiyear national media campaign, #DeviceFreeDinner (#CenarSinCelular in Spanish), to encourage families to stop using their mobile devices at the dinner table. The organization reports that thousands of people have taken the challenge, which will be promoted during the holidays in advertising messages.

So, while we parents are rightfully concerned about all the screens that constantly seek to draw our children’s attention, it might be a good idea to look in the mirror and have an honest conversation with ourselves about the type of example we’re setting. The result could be actually getting to know the people sitting across from us at the dinner table.

Silencing cellphones for safety goal


via Silencing cellphones for safety goal

At some point in the not-too-distant future, using a cellphone in a vehicle could be as unacceptable as lighting up a cigarette in a no-smoking zone is today. The alarming rise of texting-related deaths and injuries has fueled a national discussion about the dangers of using phones and other devices in vehicles. Device providers and manufacturers are facing increasing pressure from safety advocates and others, who warn the problem is only getting worse.

Government agencies and private companies and organizations have spent millions on campaigns to make people aware of the dangers and change their habits. But it many such messages are going unheeded.

According to the U.S. government website, 3,179 Americans died in 2014 due to a variety of distractions, but cellphone use led the list. Young drivers appear particularly susceptible to distracted driving, constituting four in 10 (38 percent) of drivers in fatal crashes who had been using their phones.

MOAK: Get off the phone and #justdrive

Of course, distraction takes many forms; who hasn’t seen people putting on makeup, shaving, reading newspapers or fiddling with the radio while behind the wheel? But of all the things that can distract us, perhaps none is so dangerous as using a mobile device.

The attention required to take your eyes off the road and focus on your device’s screen can be costly. An often-cited example says that looking at your screen for even four to five seconds at 55 mph can mean your car travels the length of a football field without anyone watching. That’s pretty scary when you consider that a lot can happen in that short time: a neighboring vehicle can swerve into your lane; you can swerve because you’re not paying attention; a pedestrian or animal can cross into your path; the driver of the car in front of you can slam on his brakes.

Even the act of talking on a phone can distract our attention. While you might think that getting drivers to stop texting is priority No. 1, many advocates are aiming for a bigger prize; they want to ban mobile device use in vehicles altogether, whether used by drivers or passengers. Some advocates note the mere presence of a phone in the vehicle is distracting enough to pull a driver’s attention away from the task of driving. Few people can truly ignore a ringing phone or a ping letting you know you’ve gotten a text message.

A Ridgeland-based company called VRM Telematics has brought to market what some might consider a radical solution: a device called Sentinel, a small black box that connects directly to the vehicle’s electrical system. You buy the device for $199, then pay $19.99 a month for the service.

The device hides inconspicuously under the dash but constantly monitoring for the presence of cellular signals in the car. If signals are detected, the Sentinel device will send a warning to the driver to turn off the phone, or switch it to airplane mode. If others in the car use their devices, they’ll set off the Sentinel as well.

The device also tracks the vehicle’s location and speed and can send a text message or email to a parent or guardian if it detects cellphones, if the driver is speeding, if the vehicle strays from a certain predetermined geographic radius or drives past a certain time of day. Parents can check the vehicle’s location at any time. It’s a lot of control but promises to give anxious parents a little reassurance about their teen’s driving behavior.

VRM Telematics offered to let me use a Sentinel device for a couple of weeks during the summer. The device was quickly and easily installed, and as I drove out of the parking lot, it immediately warned me with a loud beep and recorded message to put my phone on airplane mode. Over the next several days, I learned to immediately switch to airplane mode and to watch my speed unless I wanted to hear the grating alarm and voice. However, I began to understand the power of such a device to regulate behavior most of us have come to accept as normal.

I noticed on the Sentinel site that my friend Pepper Carter had earlier been asked to be part of a test group. Carter, the mother of teenage boys, was interested because she wanted to help her sons learn good driving habits from the start. She was so impressed that she went on to record a promotional video about the Sentinel program, telling about her son Spencer’s experiences.

“I was very open to the idea because Spencer was an emerging driver,” she said. “The results were great! The reporting that I got allowed us to have great conversations about driving behaviors (good and bad) before they became habits. It helped Spencer to not text and drive, keep his speed down and all in all practice safe driving skills that are now habits.”

Besides marketing the Sentinel device, VRM has also become involved in efforts to get cellphone companies to change a basic feature of their phones: They want manufacturers to change “Airplane” mode to “Airplane/Drive” mode.

The company recently partnered with nonprofit consumer advocacy group We Save Lives to petition cellphone companies to make the change. We Save Lives is led by Candace Lightner, well-known for her previous founding of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Launched on Oct. 13, “Margay’s Petition” honors Margay Schee, a 13-year-old honors student who died in 2008 when a truck slammed into the back of her stopped school bus near Ocala, Florida. The driver reportedly told police he had been distracted by his cellphone.

Regardless of where we come down on the issue of using mobile devices while driving, it’s likely we’ll see more laws and regulations that will take away our right to make those choices. Until that happens, though, we still can choose. Making our cars “phone-free” zones, pulling over if we need to make a call or check messages, and training our kids to do the same can go a long way toward changing behaviors and saving lives.

For more about Sentinel, visit To sign Margay’s Petition, visit

Sell or recycle old cellphones

via Sell or recycle old cellphones

Remember how great it felt to have that new cellphone in your hand for the first time? Even jaded users experience that rush that comes with taking your phone out of the package and playing around with its new features. The case is all shiny, the screen un-cracked and pristine, the memory lightning fast and uncluttered by (way-too-many) songs, apps and photos.

But, like the object of many a wispy summer romance, our affections wane over time. It doesn’t help that our phone carriers are always enticing us with the newest models, tantalizing us with their new-and-improved features so they can start the cycle anew. With every new iPhone release, crowds curl around the block, salivating with anticipation at being one of the first to own the “latest” model. Billions are spent annually on marketing to increase demand for new releases.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the average life of a cellphone this year is about 29 months. Interestingly, that number has been trending upward in the past two years, as many phone carriers have shifted their strategy from providing us with discounted prices on the latest new phones in exchange for us signing onerous contracts. Now, the trend is for providers to make us pay full price (albeit in installments), with the incentive being that we won’t have to sign up for a contract.

Logically, there is no really good reason to ditch a current phone as long as it keeps functioning, its batteries take a decent charge, you take it out of your pants pocket before washing (a lesson I learned the hard way) and you don’t care about having the latest features. Phones are actually pretty well-designed (notwithstanding the occasional new models that suddenly burst into flames, as with the Galaxy Note 7). With proper care, most phones can last well beyond the release of their successor models.

But if and when you do get ready to break up with your current phone, there are some good (and bad) ways to go. Just  last week, after thousands of complaints, the Federal Trade Commission busted a Georgia company that allegedly baited consumers with great prices to buy back their old devices, only to dash customers’ hopes with lower-than-promised prices, making it nearly impossible to get their phones back if they rejected the lower offer, and incentivizing their employees to minimize prices paid to consumers.

So, how do you avoid getting ripped off when trying to get a little cash for your old phone? While it might be tempting to just chuck an old device into the trash, that’s bad for the environment. Most electronics contain harmful chemicals that could leach into the soil. You could recycle it. If you don’t care about whether your old phone might be worth a buck or two, there are many places (such as Best Buy stores) that have receptacles for your old electronics. You could donate it to a charity (such as Verizon’s HopeLine, Cell Phones for Soldiers or many others).

But if you’re willing to spend a few minutes to see if that old phone (or tablet, or mp3 player) is worth a few bucks, you have many options. There is a big secondary market out there for used devices. Here are a few options to consider:

  • Trade it in for a new model with your carrier. Many cell service carriers will allow you to trade in your old device for credit against your account. But if you do, be sure about what you’re agreeing to; you might be signing up for a new contract in the process.
  • Sell it online through a service. Many services have popped up in recent years, such as Gazelle, which will quote you a price for your device, then will pay you (by PayPal, direct deposit or check) when you’ve sent them the device and they’ve checked it out.  If you choose this route, tread carefully; by sending the device, you lose all hope of getting it back if the company turns out to be disreputable. In many cases, these companies will even pay for devices that have minor damage.
  • Sell it online yourself. By going through auction sites like Ebay, you can negotiate directly with the seller. You might get better prices this way, but there’s more work involved, and buyers usually want a near-perfect device if they’re paying top dollar.
  • Trade it at a kiosk. At many retailers (such as Wal-Mart) are kiosks operated by a company called EcoATM. At these kiosks, you can get a quote for your device and actually get cash on the spot. The kiosk will examine your device (after you provide some valid ID and a fingerprint to verify your identity), and make you an offer if there’s a demand. If you accept, you’ll take home some green.
  • Trade it through a retailer. Many online (as well as bricks-and-mortar) retailers, such as Amazon, Best Buy and GameStop, have buyback programs that might be worth investigating.

For some excellent advice on this topic, including contact info for many of the options above, check out Jessica Dolcourt’s great article at

Some uh-ohs with Pokemon GO


via Some uh-ohs with Pokemon GO,

PDF: The_Clarion-Ledger_State_20160718_A002_0

“Oh, wonderful,” I muttered to myself as I perused story after story about Pokemon GO. “Another way to keep people glued to their phone screens while they walk into open manholes and traffic.” And sure enough, this new game has exploded across the globe, reviving the moribund Pokemon brand and helping introduce a new generation to the devilishly cute cartoon creatures. If you see knots of people who appear to be wandering aimlessly around your neighborhood, transfixed by their phone screens and oblivious to all else around them, it could be Pokemon GO.

In case you’ve been on Pluto the past week and haven’t checked your newsfeed, Pokemon GO is an “augmented reality” game played through an app, a sort of scavenger hunt in which people visit a specific (real-world) location to find and “collect” Pokemon characters. The app will activate your phone’s camera feature when a Pokemon is “nearby”, superimposing the cartoon creatures on the image of a park bench, a monument, a landscape, or (disturbingly) inside people’s homes.

(For the uninitiated, “Pokemon” is a shortened form of “pocket monsters” and first became known a couple of decades ago as kids played Pokemon games on their Game Boy handheld consoles, watched Pokemon cartoons, and — of course — traded Pokemon cards.)

While it is laudable that the game is getting couch potatoes off their feet and involved in social interaction, the game has also created a slew of problems and concerns, ranging from players being targeted by crooks (even right here in central Mississippi), to users disrespecting somber sites, like Arlington National Cemetery, the Holocaust Museum and the 911 Memorial. It has also alarmed many people because the app is collecting personal data from cellphone users, including users’ birthdays, email addresses and physical location.

Here are a few of the concerns that have been raised, and although many users are young adults, the game is especially magnetic for kids and teens. The ever-reliable Consumer Reports published an article by Tercius Bufete, who along with many others has highlighted things parents should be concerned about:

  • It’s only free to a point. While the app is free to download, users can make in-app purchases up to $99.99. Also, the app uses constant location tracking, which can drive up your data usage, and since distracted kids can easily drop their devices as they hunt, it could result in broken devices requiring costly repairs. Before using the game, check the settings to ensure in-app purchases are controlled.
  • Stranger danger. The game encourages players to work with other people, which could be concerning because your kids might be interacting with strangers. An in-game feature called “Lure Module,” which attracts Pokemon to a “PokeStop” for 30 minutes, could be used to lure people to a place where they could be attacked or abducted. It would be a good idea to ensure your kids travel in groups of people you know, and never go alone.
  • Personal data could be compromised. The product requires you to register, and although the app does include a parental notice that they can request restrictions on personal data, it will also collect data on the user’s specific location, and keeps messages sent between players.
  • Trespassing. When the geocaching craze hit a few years ago, property owners raised concerns about people stomping across their property looking for hidden caches of “treasure” using GPS devices. Similarly, there have already been many cases of Pokemon GO users entering personal property while hunting for Pokemon characters. Users could easily wander into a dangerous construction site, for example, or be mistaken for thieves.
  • Personal injury. When your attention is glued to your phone screen while walking, you might easily stumble on a curb or obstacle, or into a busy street. Studies have shown that texting can change the way you walk, leading to potential injury and even death. Over the past several years, people have been killed as they used their mobile devices while walking.

While Pokemon GO is probably like a meteor that will burn brightly for a while, then be replaced by the next shiny object, it’s likely that it’s a harbinger of things to come, as the “digital” world merges with the “real” world. For parents, the task will be to ensure our kids are as safe and informed as we can make them as they live in the new realities to come.