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Blame The Technology. It’s Easier.

Although its roots go back into the previous century, the smartphone has only been a part of society for less than two decades. Tablets for about half that time.

For an only slightly shorter period of time, we’ve also had researchers and others warning us that the devices are harmful. The signals cause cancer. The screens are ruining our eyesight. They’re distracting.

Over the past few years, we’ve also had many studies, books, and articles related to the effects of screen use on kids. Like the high profile 2017 piece in The Atlantic (adapted from the author’s book) that asks if smartphones have “destroyed a generation”. Or a seemingly endless stream around the theme that screens are making kids stupid.

Screen Time Isn’t The Right Issue

Getting Online

Too much screen time is harmful for children.

Many teachers, parents, and others who work with kids have accepted this as the gospel truth. But where is the evidence of this “truth”?

Two UK researchers who have done a deep dive into the subject say it doesn’t exist.

If you had attended the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ international congress in London last week you could have been forgiven for coming away with the following thoughts. Addiction to Fortnite, the online game, is a real disorder; social media is depleting “our neurotransmitter deposits”; and “excess screen time has reduced our attention span to eight seconds, one less than that of a goldfish”.

Scary stuff! Only problem is, none of these claims is supported by facts or a drop of scientific evidence.

Some of those “reports” from the congress will wind up in news headlines and two-minute video segments, presented by commentators who “don’t know – or don’t care – that they are cherry-picking from an evidence base riddled with errors”. It sounds logical – and not a little scary – that screens are causing our kids to under-perform goldfish.

The research from the writers “focused on a sample of more than 10,000 preteens and teens, analysing1 nearly a decade of longitudinal data collected from British adolescents”.

And what did they find?

Well, mostly nothing! In more than half of the thousands of statistical models we tested, we found nothing more than random statistical noise. In the remainder, we did find some small trends over time – these were mostly clustered in data provided by teenage girls. Decreases in satisfaction with school, family, appearance and friends presaged increased social media use, andincreases in social media use preceded decreases in satisfaction with school, family, and friends. You can see then how, if you were determined to extract a story, you could cook up one about teenage girls and unhappiness.

But instead of seeing these results as disappointing – as they might be in a journalistic story sense – in science the lack of an expected finding is inherently valuable, making us reconsider, challenge and update our notion of how social media is affecting us.

By referring you to this article (and, in a post from last April, to a book whose author also makes the point that screen time is a poor indicator or child wellbeing) I’m not advocating for unlimited device use for anyone, much less kids.

As the authors note, there are “many good reasons to be sceptical1 of the role of Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok in our society”. But the more important factor when it comes to the wellbeing of children is the quality of the time they spend with these and other online activities. And that’s where parents and teachers come in.

Don’t just count the number of minutes kids interacting with a screen. Look at what they are actually doing with those devices.

At the same time, you may want to reflect on whether the stuff you’re doing on that smartphone is a good use of your time.


The picture, one of my favorites, is from our trip to Cuba in 2016. Even in a country that severely restricts internet access, kids and adults still spend a lot of time on their screens.

1. Those are not typos, only British spellings of the word. You know, the original English language. :-)

Camera Shopping

Photo of two cameras

This post is long and rather geeky. If you have no interest in interchangeable lens cameras (ILC) and/or my process of buying a new one, it’s time to move to the next item in your RSS feed.

As you may have noticed from the photo-related posts around here, and especially if you have followed the link to my photo site, I make a lot of pictures. If you dug a little deeper, you would find that most of them were taken with a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera. I also use a smartphone camera, of course, but most often those wind up on Twitter, Flickr, and other sharing sites with no processing.

My current camera1 is now more than six years old, which, considering it’s been well-used on a dozen major trips, lots of shorter ones, and plenty of local photowalks, is getting up there in age. When I bought it, this model was considered “entry-level” in the world of ILC cameras, as was my previous DSLR and which I used for seven years.

So, I’m shopping for a new camera, a not-at-all simple process as well as a potentially expensive investment.

One complicating factor is that the technology has made some major advancements since I last did any serious camera research. Another is that I’m ready to move up a category, to something that might be considered “intermediate”. And that means more complex options.

However, the biggest issue I’m dealing with are the titanic developments in mirrorless technology coming from camera companies. Mirrorless will almost certainly become the standard for ILCs in the future, but we are currently near the beginning of that shift. Although the basics of shooting with a mirrorless camera aren’t really different, there are still some key differences between them and traditional DSLRs. And some important features still lag behind.2

All of this is why I rented a mirrorless camera last week and did a lot of shooting with it.3 Renting gave me a relatively inexpensive opportunity to play with the new technology, along with experience with the new operating system of a different camera brand.4 Plus a whole lot of buttons, dials, and joystick, all of which I couldn’t possibly learn in just a few days. But it was fun trying.

Of course, everything above is just about the camera. Buying an ILC system also means there are new lenses to consider, lenses that can also be very expensive. Although, I have friends who are really into camera equipment and own four or five different pieces of glass, in addition to a couple of bodies, my needs and wants are simpler. I will start with just one general purpose “travel” zoom lens and maybe add a second “prime” lens later.

Anyway, the bottom line to this long rambling post is that I won’t be buying anything right away. My current camera still has some good life in it, and budgeting for a whole new system will require some additional savings.

But the big unknown in my decision-making process is that the industry has not heard from the two big guys in ILCs. Canon and Nikon have not yet released “serious” mirrorless camera systems. They seem to be close. Both are expected to make some big announcements about their new equipment very soon, possibly at Photokina, the huge international photography show in September. The new systems aren’t expected to be widely available until next year, but knowing something about their plans will be good.

In the meantime, I’ll do more research, keep adding to my piggy bank, and continue making many more pictures with the cameras I have.

The common wisdom, of course, is that the best camera is the one you have with you. And that it’s not the equipment that makes great images, it’s the photographer.

However, advanced technology and understanding how to make the best use of it can make even better photographs possible.

Thanks for reading to the end of this rant. If you have any thoughts or experience to contribute to my search for a new ILC, I’d love to hear them. Or if you could benefit from what I’ve learned, I’m happy to help. Either way, please leave a comment or tweet at me.


1. The one on the left in the photo is my Canon Digital Rebel T4i. It was released in June, 2012 and I bought it not long after in advance of a big trip. The camera was unique at the time for having a touch screen, something that is now common on most ILC, but was by no means state of the art. BTW, no irony in the fact the picture was taken with an iPhone.

2. If you’re interested in digging deeper into the differences, this post from Tom’s Guide is a good place to start.

3. The one on the right is the rental, a Sony A7 III. That model was released in April of this year and is considered one of the best intermediate mirrorless cameras available right now. A few photos from experimenting with this camera are here. More to come.

4. Unlike computers, every camera company has their own OS. Like computers, all of them are very similar but just different enough to add another layer of difficulty when moving to a new camera.

What’s Your Attitude Towards Science?

Word cloud based on question

3M, the US-based conglomerate probably best known for their Post-It notes, recently released a report called the State of Science Index. They call it “one of the largest, most global studies” done in recent years to gain some understanding of the public attitude towards scientists and their work, surveying more than 14,000 people in 14 countries.

Overall, the general attitudes expressed were positive:

  • 87% said that their general attitude towards science was one of fascination, rather than boring.
  • The same percentage thought “the world is a better place today because of science” and were “hopeful” when they heard the word mentioned.
  • Two-thirds said they were “excited when thinking about the future impact of science on society” and that “science is very important to society in general”.

However, when you dig down into the responses, there is much to be worried about.

I don’t mind the 32% who said they were “skeptical” of science. Questioning claims made in scientific reports is a healthy approach to understanding complex ideas. Especially since most people get their science news from a TV news reader who likely doesn’t understand beyond the summary statement in their script.

Far more troubling than skeptics is the 27% of respondents who “do not see the point of needing to understand science as adults”. Plus the relatively large percentage of people who agree with statements like “If science didn’t exist, my everyday life would not be all that different.” and who fail to see a link between scientific research and “technology”.

In the US, these numbers parallel the around-30% in political poll after poll who refuse to accept basic scientific findings like the existence of climate change as major problem facing society. Or who believe that childhood vaccinations are some kind of conspiracy between doctors and drug companies.

These kinds of attitude surveys can be interesting, although they should also be read with some skepticism. But if you teach middle or high school students, you may want to give them the executive summary and ask them to reflect on the findings. How do their attitudes compare to those of the adults in this survey?

Of course, the 3M Index is looking at current opinions and only tangentially addresses the state of science education. However, how children are taught science during their years in K12 directly affects their understanding of science as adults.

There is a direct link between classroom science instruction that involves memorizing lots of facts and little direct interaction with scientific concepts and the 86% of respondents who say they know “little or nothing” about science. And the large percentage of those people who have no interest in learning more as adults.

Unfortunately, we tend to elect far too many of those people to leadership positions.


I learned of this survey through a discussion with former astronaut Scott Kelly on Marketplace Tech, a daily podcast about how technology affects our lives.

The image is from the executive summary of this report and shows the word cloud created when people were asked to complete this task: “Please fill in what you think science is in no more than two to three sentences. Science is…”.

Don’t Blame the Lecture

A few days ago, the New York Times published the latest high profile story advocating for a ban of laptops from classrooms, mostly at the college level. They all point to a “growing body of evidence” claiming to show that students learn less and get poorer grades when they use devices during lectures.

I was going to chime in with my thoughts on the matter, including more than a few questions about the methodology and assumptions behind these studies. But marketing guru Seth Godin, who occasionally chimes in on education issues (and often makes a lot of sense), has already written a high profile response that has popped into my Twitter feed many times in the past few days.

While it’s not a great challenge to this simplistic nonsense, at least Godin is exactly right that the professor who authored the Times op-ed has missed the real issue.

The times they are a'changing

Why give lectures at all?

Why offer a handmade, real-time oration for a small audience of students—students who are expected to slow down their clock speed, listen attentively and take good notes at the very same rate as all the other students?

I know why we used to do it. We used to do it because a lecture is a thoughtful exposition, a reasoned, researched argument that delivers a lot of information in a fairly condensed period of time. And before technology, the best way to deliver that exposition was to do it live.

But now?

Godin’s recommendation to replace the live lecture – basically going to the “flipped” classroom approach and have students watch a recording of the presentation outside of class – is a crappy alternative.

But he does ask the right question: Why lectures? Why do we continue with the “watch presentation-take notes-answer test questions” approach to learning? Especially since it is becoming clear that this is not an effective learning process.

Which leads to the other half of this question: if we’re not going to lecture at students, what do with do with all that “precious classroom time”?

And it is precious. It’s a curated group of thirty or a hundred students, coordinated in real-time and in real-space, inhabiting a very expensive room, simultaneously.

The K-12 experience is thirteen years built on compliance and obedience, a systemic effort to train kids to become cogs in the industrial machine. And it has worked. One component of this regime is the top-down nature of the classroom. We don’t want to train kids to ask difficult questions, so we lecture at them.

Although teachers in K12 don’t perform as many lectures as college instructors1, most classrooms are still structured around direct instruction. With material structured by the adults and presented to students, who are then expected to extract the required information, and recall it on some kind of test at some later time.

In the end, however, my biggest objection to all these “laptops are making kids stupid” stories is that the researchers – and the writers reporting on their work – always start by blindly blaming the technology and the students.

And assuming our current educational structure is above reproach and needs no alteration.


1 However, the lecture format is still a fundamental part of many high school courses, especially Advanced Placement, which is essentially a college course adapted for slightly younger students.

Picture from Flickr and used under Creative Commons license from brett jordan.

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