Cellphone Addiction: Nuisance or Serious Threat?

Do cellphone and social media addictions matter on a planet without a future?

Posted Jan 23, 2020

People outside the academic communities often wonder why teachers are so concerned about the flood of student cellphones into our nation’s classrooms. There are several related reasons. For many educators, cellphones have become a major threat to creating a positive learning environment free of disruptions. Some evidence also exists that “cellphone addictions” have become serious impediments to the development of cognitive skills. As a college professor, I would like to share some personal perspectives and connect them to related media accounts of others who are concerned about cellphone and social media impacts on education and personal growth.

In my last post, “Do Cellphones and Social Media Create Superficial Thinking?” I questioned the youth culture that is aligned around cellphone usage, texting, and social media. In the next essay assignment, I had my students address the same issues. I had them work with the sources I used: Bianca Vivion Brooks’s New York Times article “Our Fear of Being a Nobody”; the San Diego Union-Tribune article, “Human Interaction Improves While on ‘Digital Detox'”; and the chapters I assigned from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond (1854). I was curious as to whether there was a generational divide that separated my early life on the Minnesota prairie, when there were no cellphones or social media, from the world of young people today that seems almost too electronically interconnected.

Before the essays were due, I remembered the film version of George Orwell’s classic novel, Nineteen Eighty-four. The scenes deeply ingrained in my memory were the ones in which the masses, who were psychologically enslaved in Orwell’s dystopian future, moved to the directions of “telescreens” positioned throughout private and public locations. Those telescreens, which controlled their thoughts and actions, were the symbols of powerful forces that had systematically destroyed independent thinking. I wondered if what we were witnessing in our current electronically connected culture was a sneak preview of where this groupthink would lead to in the future.

The media was also lighting up with articles regarding the effects of cellphones and social media on our culture and educational systems. Paulina Cachero researched and wrote an article titled, “High school bans student cell phones and teachers are ecstatic: They’re engaged with the real world instead". The article describes a high school in Anchorage, Alaska, that “banned all student cellphones from classrooms during school hours.” Cachero reported that students at first did not support the policy, but weeks later “teachers—and students—are ecstatic.” Teachers at this school also noticed significant improvement in students’ cognitive and retention abilities. Students at this same school eventually discovered the artificial universe of social media was distracting them from fully engaging with the learning they needed to shape their own lives.

Another writer, comedian Monica Heisey, admitted in an article written for The New York Times that “algorithms broke my brain.” She confessed that her own personal addiction to social media stifled her development as an adult during her twenties, and she was not living her life at a deeper cognitive level.

When I received my students’ essays, I realized that many of them were not overly impressed by the chapters from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Thoreau wrote very eloquently against those throughout human history who have sought to control the means of disseminating messages so they could eventually control the message being disseminated. My students’ written responses to the essay prompt made me worry that Thoreau, like Orwell, may have predicted the future we are now living—and perhaps the cellphone/texting/social media culture is contributing to an even more ominous form of groupthink. 

Other students acknowledged that they had already gone through “digital detox” programs. These students admitted they experienced early anxieties and misgivings about being separated from their cellphones. However, like Bianca Brooks and Monica Heisey, many soon realized their cellphones had distracted them from engaging fully with the world and people around them. All of them admitted they would “probably be lured back into the world of social media” in spite of participating in a digital detox program.

Perhaps the most heartfelt responses came from a few students who raised the question posed in the subtitle of this essay: “Do cellphone and social media addictions really matter in a world without a future?” These students pondered whether concerns about cellphone addictions were misplaced in the context of the many problems that confront the human race globally. They were far more concerned about the future of the planet than they were about their own cellphone addictions. These responses made me realize there was another context for this discussion that could not be ignored.

Every generation undoubtedly worries about the future. I still remember the growing depression I experienced during the middle of the last century when I became aware of the emerging atomic and nuclear technologies that could destroy everything on this planet in a single, massive explosion. “On the Beach,” the novel that tells the story of the survivors of an atomic holocaust that destroyed the rest of humanity, sent me into a mild state of depression for several months.

As I read my students’ essays, I realized that today’s young people have to live with the reality that the human race is facing challenges to its survival everywhere. These young people are inundated by a dramatically warming planet, endless wars, ever greater threats of nuclear annihilation, eradicated diseases returning, untreatable new diseases, drinking water and food shortages, limited career opportunities, and other threats. In their minds, the dangers of cellphone addictions and servitude to electronic media pale in comparison to the many potential planet-ending threats that surround them. I had to admit they have a right to feel they are living in a world without a future.

Nonetheless, I am still convinced if solutions to these many problems are to be found, they will not come from young people who are looking for the easy answers on their cellphones or on social media. Those can be terrific tools to organize movements to change things that really matter. However, they become counterproductive when they undermine cognitive development as some educators have reported.

Still, we should salute the many young people today who are clearly utilizing the deeper levels of their unique talents and cognitive skills. They are taking the future into their own hands and resurrecting this damaged planet from the follies and criminal neglect foisted upon it by earlier generations.

Dennis M. Clausen
"Today's young people have to live with the reality that the human race is facing challenges to its survival everywhere."
Source: Dennis M. Clausen


Dennis Clausen post: “Do Cellphones and Social Media Create Superficial Thinking?” (Nov. 2, 2019) Bianca Vivion Brooks: “Our Fear of Being a Nobody” (New York Times, October 4, 2019) Human Interaction Improves While on ‘Digital Detox', San Diego Union-Tribune, October 29, 2019 “High school bans student cell phones and teachers are ecstatic: They’re engaged with the real world instead,” Yahoo Lifestyle 10/09/2019