I asked my students to turn in their cell phones and write about living without them
A few years ago, I performed an experiment in a philosophy class I was teaching. My students had failed a midterm test rather badly. I had a hunch that their pervasive use of cell phones and laptops in class was partly responsible. So I asked them what they thought had gone wrong. After a few moments of silence, a young woman put up her hand and said: “We don’t understand what the books say, sir. We don’t understand the words.” I looked around the class and saw guileless heads pensively nodding in agreement.
I extemporized a solution: I offered them extra credit if they would give me their phones for nine days and write about living without them. Twelve students—about a third of the class—took me up on the offer. What they wrote was remarkable, and remarkably consistent. These university students, given the chance to say what they felt, didn’t gracefully submit to the tech industry and its devices.
The usual industry and education narrative about cell phones, social media, and digital technology generally is that they build community, foster communication, and increase efficiency, thus improving our lives. Mark Zuckerberg’s recent reformulation of Facebook’s mission statement is typical: the company aims to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
Without their phones, most of my students initially felt lost, disoriented, frustrated, and even frightened. That seemed to support the industry narrative: look how disconnected and lonely you’ll be without our technology. But after just two weeks, the majority began to think that their cell phones were in fact limiting their relationships with other people, compromising their own lives, and somehow cutting them off from the “real” world. Here is some of what they said.
“You must be weird or something”
“Believe it or not, I had to walk up to a stranger and ask what time it was. It honestly took me a lot of guts and confidence to ask someone,” Janet wrote. (Her name, like the others here, is a pseudonym.) She describes the attitude she was up against: “Why do you need to ask me the time? Everyone has a cell phone. You must be weird or something.” Emily went even further. Simply walking by strangers “in the hallway or when I passed them on the street” caused almost all of them to take out a phone “right before I could gain eye contact with them.”
To these young people, direct, unmediated human contact was experienced as ill-mannered at best and strange at worst. James: “One of the worst and most common things people do nowadays is pull out their cell phone and use it while in a face-to-face conversation. This action is very rude and unacceptable, but yet again, I find myself guilty of this sometimes because it is the norm.” Emily noticed that “a lot of people used their cell phones when they felt they were in an awkward situation, for an example [sic] being at a party while no one was speaking to them.”
The price of this protection from awkward moments is the loss of human relationships, a consequence that almost all the students identified and lamented. Without his phone, James said, he found himself forced to look others in the eye and engage in conversation. Stewart put a moral spin on it. “Being forced to have [real relations with people] obviously made me a better person because each time it happened I learned how to deal with the situation better, other than sticking my face in a phone.” Ten of the 12 students said their phones were compromising their ability to have such relationships.
Virtually all the students admitted that ease of communication was one of the genuine benefits of their phones. However, eight out of 12 said they were genuinely relieved not to have to answer the usual flood of texts and social-media posts. Peter: “I have to admit, it was pretty nice without the phone all week. Didn’t have to hear the fucking thing ring or vibrate once, and didn’t feel bad not answering phone calls because there were none to ignore.”
Indeed, the language they used indicated that they experienced this activity almost as a type of harassment. “It felt so free without one and it was nice knowing no one could bother me when I didn’t want to be bothered,” wrote William. Emily said that she found herself “sleeping more peacefully after the first two nights of attempting to sleep right away when the lights got shut off.” Several students went further and claimed that communication with others was in fact easier and more efficient without their phones. Stewart: “Actually I got things done much quicker without the cell because instead of waiting for a response from someone (that you don’t even know if they read your message or not) you just called them [from a land line], either got an answer or didn’t, and moved on to the next thing.”
Technologists assert that their instruments make us more productive. But for the students, phones had the opposite effect. “Writing a paper and not having a phone boosted productivity at least twice as much,” Elliott claimed. “You are concentrated on one task and not worrying about anything else. Studying for a test was much easier as well because I was not distracted by the phone at all.” Stewart found he could “sit down and actually focus on writing a paper.” He added, “Because I was able to give it 100% of my attention, not only was the final product better than it would have been, I was also able to complete it much quicker.” Even Janet, who missed her phone more than most, admitted, “One positive thing that came out of not having a cell phone was that I found myself more productive and I was more apt to pay attention in class.”
Some students felt not only distracted by their phones, but morally compromised. Kate: “Having a cell phone has actually affected my personal code of morals and this scares me … I regret to admit that I have texted in class this year, something I swore to myself in high school that I would never do … I am disappointed in myself now that I see how much I have come to depend on technology … I start to wonder if it has affected who I am as a person, and then I remember that it already has.” And James, though he says we must continue to develop our technology, said that “what many people forget is that it is vital for us not to lose our fundamental values along the way.”
Other students were worried that their cell-phone addiction was depriving them of a relationship to the world. Listen to James: “It is almost like the earth stood still and I actually looked around and cared about current events ... This experiment has made many things clear to me and one thing is for sure, I am going to cut back the time I am on my cell phone substantially.”
Stewart said he began to see how things “really work” once he was without his phone: “One big thing I picked up on while doing this assignment is how much more engaged I was in the world around me … I noticed that the majority of people were disengaged … There is all this potential for conversation, interaction, and learning from one another but we’re too distracted by the screens … to partake in the real events around us.”
In parentis, loco
Some parents were pleased with their children’s phone-less selves. James said his mother “thought it was great that I did not have my phone because I paid more attention to her while she was talking.” One parent even proposed to join in the experiment.
But for some of the students, phones were a lifeline to their parents. As Karen Fingerman of the University of Texas at Austin wrote in a 2017 article in the journal Innovation in Aging, in the mid to late 20th century, “only half of [American] parents reported contact with a grown child at least once a week.” By contrast, she writes, recent studies find that “nearly all” parents of young adults were in weekly contact with their children, and over half were in daily contact by phone, by text message, or in person.
Emily wrote that without her cell phone, “I felt like I was craving some interaction from a family member. Either to keep my ass in line with the upcoming exams, or to simply let me know someone is supporting me.” Janet admitted, “The most difficult thing was defiantly [sic] not being able to talk to my mom or being able to communicate with anyone on demand or at that present moment. It was extremely stressful for my mom.”
Safety was also a recurrent theme. Janet said, “Having a cell phone makes me feel secure in a way. So having that taken away from me changed my life a little. I was scared that something serious might happen during the week of not having a cell phone.” And she wondered what would have happened “if someone were to attack me or kidnap me or some sort of action along those lines or maybe even if I witnessed a crime take place, or I needed to call an ambulance.”
What’s revealing is that this student and others perceived the world to be a very dangerous place. Cell phones were seen as necessary to combat that danger. The city in which these students lived has one of the lowest crime rates in the world and almost no violent crime of any kind, yet they experienced a pervasive, undefined fear.
Live in fragments no longer
My students’ experience of cell phones and the social-media platforms they support may not be exhaustive, or statistically representative. But it is clear that these gadgets made them feel less alive, less connected to other people and to the world, and less productive. They also made many tasks more difficult and encouraged students to act in ways they considered unworthy of themselves. In other words, phones didn’t help them. They harmed them.
I first carried out this exercise in 2014. I repeated it last year in the bigger, more urban institution where I now teach. The occasion this time wasn’t a failed test; it was my despair over the classroom experience in its entirety. I want to be clear here—this is not personal. I have a real fondness for my students as people. But they’re abysmal students; or rather, they aren’t really students at all, at least not in my class. On any given day, 70% of them are sitting before me shopping, texting, completing assignments, watching videos, or otherwise occupying themselves. Even the “good” students do this. No one’s even trying to conceal the activity, the way students did before. This is just what they do.
What’s changed? Most of what they wrote in the assignment echoed the papers I’d received in 2014. The phones were compromising their relationships, cutting them off from real things, and distracting them from more important matters. But there were two notable differences. First, for these students, even the simplest activities—getting on the bus or train, ordering dinner, getting up in the morning, even knowing where they were—required their cell phones. As the phone grew more ubiquitous in their lives, their fear of being without it seemed to grow apace. They were jittery, lost, without them.
This may help to explain the second difference: compared with the first batch, this second group displayed a fatalism about phones. Tina’s concluding remarks described it well: “Without cell phones life would be simple and real but we may not be able to cope with the world and our society. After a few days I felt alright without the phone as I got used to it. But I guess it is only fine if it is for a short period of time. One cannot hope to compete efficiently in life without a convenient source of communication that is our phones.” Compare this admission with the reaction of Peter, who a few months after the course in 2014 tossed his smartphone into a river.
I think my students are being entirely rational when they “distract” themselves in my class with their phones. They understand the world they are being prepared to enter much better than I do. In that world, I’m the distraction, not their phones or their social-media profiles or their networking. Yet for what I’m supposed to be doing—educating and cultivating young hearts and minds—the consequences are pretty dark.
Paula was about 28, a little older than most students in the class. She’d returned to college with a real desire to learn after working for almost a decade following high school. I’ll never forget the morning she gave a presentation to a class that was even more alternatively engaged than usual. After it was all over, she looked at me in despair and said, simply: “How in the world do you do this?”
Ron Srigley is a writer who teaches at Humber College and Laurentian University.
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