Look across any college campus and you’ll see large number of students walking around with their faces glued to their smartphones. Some times, you’ll see three or four students walking together and staring at their smartphone rather than talking to one another. You’ll also see students using their smartphones to capture the minutiae of their days. They post images of their lunches or their outfits or the squirrels playing in the park. The smartphone has become a ubiquitous device in students’ lives.
If you’ve wondering whether there’s been a growth in smartphone ownership over the years, there has been. Last year, the Educause Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) reported that smartphone ownership outpaced laptop for the first time in its decade of research on technology ownership among undergraduate students. In the 2016 study, ECAR reported that 96% of undergrads report owning smartphones while only 93% report owning a laptop. Considering that the iPhone just had its 10th birthday, it’s amazing to see how rapid this mass adoption has occurred.
Many of us who work with instructional technology think of the educational opportunities that these tools present. Compared to the computers that many students used decades ago, the computing power of a smartphone is orders of magnitude more powerful. And our students have these devices on them all the time. The devices offer limitless educational opportunities for students. But there is another side to recognize.
In a New York Times article titled Hooked on our Smartphones, Jane Brody writes about the negative impact that widespread smartphone use causes. The article begins with a quote from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the award winning musical “Hamilton.” Smartphones, Miranda argues, has stolen our downtime and made us less creative and innovative. “The good idea comes in the moment of rest. It comes in the shower.” Miranda says. “It comes when you’re doodling or playing trains with your son. ‘Hamilton’ forced me to double down on being awake to the inspirations of just living my life.” When smartphones are used to fill every down second of our days, we’re losing these moments of inspiration.
Is Miranda exaggerating? Consider research that Nancy Colier shares in her book, The Power of Off. On average, people check their smartphones 150 times a day, or roughly every six minutes. Young adults, Colier writes, send “an average of 110 texts per day” and are increasingly overexposed to online media. Returning to the Times article, Brody shares a study conducted by the University of Maryland that showed that “a clear majority” of students experienced distress when they tried to go without their devices for a day. And this isn’t just a phenomenon experienced in the U.S. Students from across the globe report similar emotional reactions. As a student from Mexico reported “It was an unpleasant surprise to realize that I am in a state of constant distraction, as if my real life and my virtual life were coexisting in different planes, but in equal time.”
So, what’s the big take-away? Often, with technological advances and innovations, we focus on the gains and improvements that occur. With smartphones, we can communicate and interact with a larger population. We have unlimited information at our fingertips. We can document our lives through text, images and video. But what have we lost with our smartphone usage? While we think we’re filling a void by entertaining ourselves during “downtime, if Miranda and Colier are correct, we’re actually robbing ourselves of a powerful creative catalyst and becoming dependent on the flood of media that these devices supply. While the phones have become smarter, can we say the same for ourselves?