Cell Phones and College Students

Some students are rethinking the impact of technology on their lives.

Posted Apr 30, 2016

I only see my friends Steve and Debbie once a year for dinner and drinks when they make their annual trip to Hilton Head, but the first thing they ask me is always the same: “So, Deb, is this the year you’re finally going to allow students to use laptops and cell phones in the classroom?” Every year, my answer is a firm “No.”

Deborah Cohan
Source: Deborah Cohan

Here’s why.

I regularly talk with my students about the connections between technology, the self, identity, friendships and intimate relationships, and the larger society.

Having taught for 20 years, I can say that without a doubt, technology is affecting the college experience. Many of my students claim that they sleep and shower with their phones, that they consider them "warm blankets" for "safety" and "security" and "to be sure they don't miss anything."

A student recently told me that she often rejects social plans with friends in favor of "staying in with my phone." And, still another student referred to her phone saying, "It’s my baby! In fact, I can even dress it up with new cases with different designs." 

I now have colleagues who are permitting cell phone breaks during classes so students can check their phones. Some of my colleagues text message friends from their classes and even answer the phone when it’s not an emergency.

Still, a small number of students report that they barely check their phones but those students describe it as "freeing" and "liberating."

In my classes, we talk about social psychologist Sherry Turkle's idea of the tethered self and the significant impact that relentless tethering has on people's ability to have and enjoy solitude and to have and enjoy intimacy

Recently, I have been teaching about this and discussing it in my online class of all places---the irony is not lost on me. On a discussion board this semester, one male student said, "I think one of the worst habits that I have picked up is recording events that are taking place. A number of events are stored on my phone and in many cases, looking back on it, I feel that I really didn't even see it with my own eyes. I feel as if capturing the moment on my phone took priority over actually being part of the moment and enjoying it. I felt the need to be able to share it with my 'friends' on Facebook and Twitter and really think that in the future, whether it be concerts or sporting events, I will be leaving my phone in the car."

Another student echoes this sentiment in his self-reflection of being at dinner with his friends: "Speaking of being tethered and isolating myself, just a few nights ago I went out to eat with my friends and half the time we were at the restaurant I was constantly checking my phone; in fact I was too busy checking my own to even notice if anyone else had been looking at theirs. For some parts of the conversation I just gave short replies or nods to the conversation because I was missing what was actually being said. Even watching this video for class, I had to stop and rewind a few times because I found myself getting distracted by my phone.”

If students themselves are questioning the ways that they are communicating with others and experiencing a sort of self-imposed isolation as a result, I can’t see my response to Steve and Debbie changing anytime soon.