Don't Be a Slave to Your Smartphone

Some may be beginning to recognize the problem with addictive technology.

Posted Oct 04, 2019

Observations of students from a couple of my classes isn’t scientific proof, but it may be suggestive: in my experience, students may be now beginning to recognize the downside to smartphones. This may be a result of the bad publicity around Facebook and other social media. In addition, the novelty and faddishness of the devices may be wearing off.

Years ago, to the astonishment of many, I stopped wearing a watch when I realized that I frequently glanced at my wrist to see what time it was for no good reason. Checking the time had become a senseless habit, a tic (excuse the pun)—looking at my watch, as if it mattered, when it mainly didn’t. There were enough other clues around to know the time when it was necessary. One simple technique: ask someone. But I looked many times during the day. I couldn’t help myself.

Not one of my students wears a watch any longer to tell the time. Wrist watches have been replaced by ubiquitous mini-computers known as smartphones. Well, almost ubiquitous—I still own a traditional cell phone. Cell phones, though, come equipped with a digital clock, which I can read at the press of a button. Now I can tell the time when I need to by taking out the phone from my pocket and pressing a button.

I keep the phone out to start the class on time, and then put it away. Once in a while, I take it out to make sure we don’t run overtime. Until recently, when students saw me looking at the phone, they snickered—in the way that only young people can, to express their condescension of an old person’s antique ways. I explained that I didn’t own a smartphone, found no reason to have one, and was glad that I didn’t have the urge to look at a screen every spare moment. They found this amusing.

Each semester, more of my students’ laughter at my simple cellphone has turned to understanding. While most students still sit staring at their little screens before class begins, there now seems to be some acceptance on their part about the downside of being tethered to their phones. Smartphones have been associated with neck strain, arthritic symptoms, sleep problems, driving accidents, and the disruption of medical devices.

The greatest liability is what I see before class begins: 30 young people each sitting in a room as though alone, communicating via texts and learning through pixels, as though the person in the next desk was a non-entity and had nothing of interest to offer. This anecdotal experience has also been observed in research. In a controlled study, Kostadin Kushlev of Georgetown University and colleagues found that strangers smiled less at one another in a waiting room when they had a smartphone at hand.

In another controlled study, University of Chicago psychologists Epley and Schroeder found that commuters who interacted with others reported a more positive experience than those who did not. So while smartphones have undeniably opened up a wide-world, offering the possibility of distant contacts and instant information, they also appear to have closed off interacting with live people in close proximity.

The laughter at my antiquated piece of equipment seems to be on the wane. Flip phones are on the verge of becoming retro chic. I take the change in attitude as a hopeful sign that a generation is coming along that will value electronics for what they have to offer but will put them in their proper place, as an aid in fostering connections, not as an impediment to relations. What I've seen so far may be the beginning of an appreciation of simple interactions. I learned that I could do fine without a wristwatch and my life has gone well without a smartphone. Some of my students, too, may be recognizing that they can be a master of the technology, not a slave to it.

Disenchantment with smartphones appears to be setting in. Whether it is enough to overcome some people’s dependence on them remains to be seen.