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Firefox 64 offers better tab management and personalized extension recommendations

Firefox introduced its latest variant – Firefox 64 – last night with features like improved tab management and smart suggestions.

The update should make tab junkies happy: Firefox now lets you select multiple tabs and move, bookmark, mute, or pin them all at once. To do that, hold Control/Cmd, and then click on tabs to select as many of them as you need to wrangle together.

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That’s cool, but you should know that rival browser Vivaldi supports grouping tabs along with the aforementioned functions. I really hope Mozilla brings that to Firefox soon.

Firefox 64’s second biggest highlight is called Contextual Feature Recommender (CFR); it suggests features and extensions that you might find useful, based on your browsing habits. For instance, if you visit certain sites often, Firefox will recommend pinning those tabs for easy access.

Some default extensions suggestions are Facebook container (for stop the social network from tracking you), Enhancer for YouTube (for blocking ads and controlling playback), and Google Translate (for handy translation). The CFR feature is available for only US customers at the moment, and it won’t work in the private mode.

The company assured its users that it processes the data for recommendation locally, and doesn’t upload any of it to its servers.

Additionally, it has improved scrolling speed on the Android version of the browser.

Mozilla introduced a bunch of developer-facing features in Firefox 64, including improved JavaScript and CSS support. You can check out the list of enhancements for developers here.

Firefox 64 doesn’t bring too many changes, but the new tab management and suggestion features sound like they’re worth updating your browser. The update is available for both desktop and Android.

The latest version is available on both desktop and Android; try out the new version and let us know in the comments if you’re enjoying Firefox enough to ditch Chrome entirely.

Is Screen Time Bad for Kids’ Brains?

A study featured on “60 Minutes” is sure to alarm parents. Here’s what scientists know, and don’t know, about the link between screens, behavior, and development.

A $300 million research project is studying 11,800 children through adolescence to see how drug and alcohol use, concussions, and screen time may affect brain development.
A $300 million research project is studying 11,800 children through adolescence to see how drug and alcohol use, concussions, and screen time may affect brain development.

A generation ago, parents worried about the effects of TV; before that, it was radio. Now, the concern is “screen time,” a catchall term for the amount of time that children, especially preteens and teenagers, spend interacting with TVs, computers, smartphones, digital pads, and video games. This age group draws particular attention because screen immersion rises sharply during adolescence, and because brain development accelerates then, too, as neural networks are pruned and consolidated in the transition to adulthood.

On Sunday evening, CBS’s “60 Minutes” reported on early results from the A.B.C.D. Study (for Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development), a $300 million project financed by the National Institutes of Health. The study aims to reveal how brain development is affected by a range of experiences, including substance use, concussions, and screen time. As part of an exposé on screen time, “60 Minutes” reported that heavy screen use was associated with lower scores on some aptitude tests, and to accelerated “cortical thinning” — a natural process — in some children. But the data is preliminary, and it’s unclear whether the effects are lasting or even meaningful.

Yes, but so does every other activity that children engage in: sleep, homework, playing soccer, arguing, growing up in poverty, reading, vaping behind the school. The adolescent brain continually changes, or “rewires” itself, in response to daily experience, and that adaptation continues into the early to mid 20s.

What scientists want to learn is whether screen time, at some threshold, causes any measurable differences in adolescent brain structure or function, and whether those differences are meaningful. Do they cause attention deficits, mood problems, or delays in reading or problem-solving ability?


Not convincingly. More than 100 scientific reports and surveys have studied screen habits and well-being in young people, looking for emotional and behavioral differences, as well as changes in attitude, such as in body image. In 2014, scientists from Queen’s University Belfast reviewed 43 of the best designed such studies. The studies found that social networking allows people to broaden their circle of social contacts in ways that could be both good and bad, for instance by exposing young people to abusive content. The review’s authors concluded that there was “an absence of robust causal research regarding the impact of social media on the mental well-being of young people.” In short: results have been mixed, and sometimes contradictory.

Psychologists have also examined whether playing violent video games is connected to aggressive behavior. More than 200 such studies have been carried out; some researchers found links, others have not. One challenge in studying this and other aspects of screen time is identifying the direction of causality: Do children who play a lot of violent video games become more aggressive as a result, or were they drawn to such content because they were more aggressive from the start?

Even if scientists found strong evidence of a single, measurable effect — if, say, three hours of daily screen time was associated with a heightened risk of being diagnosed with A.D.H.D. — such a clear association wouldn’t necessarily suggest there were any consistent, measurable differences in brain structure.

Individual variation is the rule in brain development. The size of specific brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex, the rate at which those regions edit and consolidate their networks, and the variations in these parameters from person to person make it very difficult to interpret findings. To address such obstacles, scientists need huge numbers of research subjects and a far better understanding of the brain.

Yes. The ongoing A.B.C.D. study expects to follow 11,800 children through adolescence, with annual magnetic resonance imaging, to see if changes in the brain are linked to behavior or health. The study began in 2013, recruiting 21 academic research centers, and initially focused on the effects of drug and alcohol use on the adolescent brain. Since then, the project has expanded, and now includes other targets such as the effects of brain injury, screen time, genetics, and an array of “other environmental factors.”

The recently published paper covered by “60 Minutes” provided an early glimpse of the anticipated results. A research team, based at the University of California, San Diego, analyzed brain scans from more than 4,500 preteens and correlated those with the children’s amount of screen time (as reported by the children themselves in questionnaires) and their scores on language and thinking tests. The findings were a mixed bag. Some heavy screen users showed cortical thinning at younger ages than expected; but this thinning is part of natural brain maturation, and scientists don’t know what that difference means. Some heavy users scored below the curve on aptitude tests, others performed well.

But the accuracy of self-reported screen time estimates is hard to ascertain. And the association between small differences in brain structure and how people actually behave is even more vague. As a result, researchers effectively are multiplying one uncertain relationship by another, and need to make statistical adjustments. Clear conclusions are extremely hard to come by, and complicated by the fact that a brain scan is no more than a snapshot in time: a year from now, some of the observed relationships could be reversed.

The authors acknowledge as much. “This diversity of findings provides an important public health message, that screen media activity is not simply bad for the brain or bad for brain- related functioning,” they concluded.

In other words, the measured effects may be good, or, more likely, not meaningful at all, until further research demonstrates otherwise.

It’s probably both bad and good for the brain, depending on the individual and his or her viewing habits. Many people who are socially isolated, as a result of abuse, personal quirks or developmental differences such as Asperger’s syndrome, establish social networks through their screens that would be impossible to find in person.

Disentangling negative consequences to physical brain development from positive ones will be enormously difficult, given the many other factors potentially in play: the effects of marijuana use, drinking, and vaping, genetic differences, changes at home or school, and the entire emotional storm of adolescence.

Most parents are probably already aware of the biggest downside of screen time: the extent to which it can displace other childhood experiences, including sleep, climbing over fences, designing elaborate practical jokes and getting into trouble. Indeed, many parents — maybe most — watched hours of TV a day themselves as youngsters. Their experiences may be more similar to their children’s than they know.

How to redesign cities to fight loneliness

Simple and smart ideas to create more connections in city life.

How to redesign cities to fight loneliness

Do you feel lonely? If you do, you are not alone. While you may think it’s a personal mental health issue, the collective social impact is an epidemic.

You may also underestimate the effects of loneliness. The health impact of chronic social isolation is as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Loneliness is a global issue. Half a million Japanese are suffering from social isolation. The U.K. recently appointed a minister for loneliness, the first in the world. In Australia, Victorian state MP Fiona Patten is calling for the same here. Federal MP Andrew Giles, in a recent speech, said: “I’m convinced we need to consider responding to loneliness as a responsibility of government.”

What do cities have to do with loneliness? “The way we build and organize our cities can help or hinder social connection,” reads a Grattan Institute report.

Think of the awkward silence in a lift full of passengers who never communicate. Now think of a playground where parents often begin chatting. It’s not that the built environment “causes” interaction, but it can certainly either enable or constrain potential interaction.

Winston Churchill once observed that we shape the buildings and then the buildings shape us. I have written elsewhere about how architects and planners, albeit unwittingly, are complicit in producing an urban landscape that contributes to an unhealthy mental landscape.

Can we think of different ways to be in the city, of a different architecture that can “cure” loneliness?

Taking this question as a point of departure, I recently conducted a graduate design studio at the Melbourne School of Design. The students, using design as a research methodology, came up with potential architectural and urban responses to loneliness.

Have you ever waited at a rail station, killing time without engaging with the person next to you? Diana Ong retrofitted the Ascot Vale rail station with multiple “social engagement paraphernalia” to promote conversations and activity. Michelle Curnow proposed to convert train cars into “sensory experience cabins” that attract people to explore the in-built gallery spaces and listen to other people’s stories while commuting. Who said commuting had to be boring?

[Source Images: roberuto/iStock]

Having a pet is one of the most effective ways to tackle loneliness, but often people don’t have enough time to care for one. Zi Ye came up with “Puppy Society,” an app that connects a pet with multiple owners. The dogs are housed in a shared facility where the owners come to pet the dog.

Denise Chan studied the Melbourne CBD streets and found many of them are quite dead, despite being an icon of Melburnian liveliness. She reimagined the streets revitalized with community plant gardens, book nooks, and furniture to entice people to enter them and connect, say, during office lunch hours.

Are you one of those people who has a hard time eating alone? Fanhui Ding is, and she came up with a student-run restaurant for the University of Melbourne. Students get credit working on the aquaponic farms that supply the restaurant, which can be used to pay for a meal. People also get discounts for dining at the same table, encouraging students to interact over food. Given the many international students who suffer from loneliness, her concept used cooking, food, and farming as a therapeutic activity.

Beverley Wang looked at loneliness in the aging population. She came up with a project called “Nurture,” for which she designed a kindergarten co-housed with a nursing home. Designing spaces for storytelling, she brought the elderly into the kindergarten as informal learning aides, giving them a sense of purpose.

There is an utterly different kind of loneliness that accompanies the loss of a loved one. Malak Moussaoui, taking note of this, designed an installation that grows flowers on itself to be inserted into cemeteries. Instead of just buying some flowers on the way, Malak’s design is meant to bring people together, introduce flower gardening as a therapeutic measure and give people spaces to mourn together. They might then meet other people who share similar stories of loss and connect.

Other students tackled more familiar cases, such as designing more social interaction spaces in high-rise apartment buildings and redesigning supermarkets to make them places for people to visit on a Sunday morning. The student work can be viewed here.

Moving beyond merely analyzing the problems, the research output shows that an alternative, less lonely future is indeed possible. Without claiming to solve loneliness, design can be a important tool in response to it.