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By Darren Johnson

Campus News

We didn’t expect so many responses to our expert query on smart phone use at the college level.

In just the past couple of years, especially, it seems, at commuter colleges, the majority of students in campus corridors seem to be staring down at these interactive devices.

“In the classroom, cell phones are a major distraction,” said Stoney Brooks, a professor of Computer Information Systems at Middle Tennessee State University. “Many students do not think that multitasking – checking Facebook, texting, watching a harmless YouTube video, etc. – is harmful to their learning. This is not true. Humans cannot multitask – we rapidly task-switch. And whenever we switch tasks, our brains have to refocus our processing to the new task, and we forget some of the information that we had for the first task. There are studies that show that, for example, social media use in the classroom is associated with increased stress and lower classroom performance.”

Obviously, this can be a safety concern, too, with no one actually looking up and taking in the action happening around them. But also it can be a quality-of-life concern, as students may not feel they can escape their day-to-day worries while on campus, instead managing their private lives via the device. What suffers could be the so-called “college experience,” the experts warn us. You may be missing out on enjoying your time on a real, physical campus while you tend to a virtual world.

“Cell phones have a great potential for help and for harm. Sadly, the harmful effects are more prevalent than the helpful ones for today’s students, and they are cheating themselves out of the true college experience,” Brooks added.
One professor told us an anecdote of another professor who gives his students allotted breaks for their cell phone use. This would be analogous to the cigarette breaks given in the 1970s and prior. The students have trouble keeping focus if they can’t get a fix.

Although quality use of the smart phone is more important than using it for fun.

Dr. Turel
Dr. Turel

“What the students are reading on their phones isn’t all unimportant content,” said Steven Rothberg, president of College Recruiter, a job placement site. “With well over 90 percent using smart phones and most reading emails on their smart phones, students are often using their phones to search for an internship or entry-level job. That type of reading will require more focus on their phones and less on their surroundings than if they were looking at videos of cute kittens.”

We decided to focus on the work of Dr. Ofir Turel, professor of information systems and decision sciences at Cal State Fullerton, for this issue. There is a separate story on page 3 with more of his thoughts.

“Smart phones are like refrigerators full of surprising foods; it is very tempting for many users to get sucked into checking and updating content,” Dr. Turel told us. “Taken together, the strong psychological rewards people receive from using applications on their cell phones, the inconvenience they feel when they do not use them, and the time it takes to do all this are reasonable possible explanation for the need to spend break time, while walking through university corridors, on the cell phone.”

You have to ask yourself, is what you’re doing on social media really all that important?

“The concept of a “friend” has changed, from having 10-30 friends when I grew up to having hundreds or thousands of ‘friends’ on Facebook, some of whom you have never met,” Turel said. “Managing so many so-called friends, following their daily, and often mundane, routines and activities, is time consuming.

“Overall, the balance between the positive and negative effects of cell phone really depends on the self-control of users and their understanding that they need to put limits on and control their use patterns. … Ultimately, allowing the use of such sites in class assumes a certain level of maturity – students need to refrain from abusing such systems, and use these ‘re-charging’ rights wisely.”

So what can be done about this problem, if anything?

“First, we need to increase awareness among students regarding potential problems associated with excessive and sometimes addictive use of some technologies,” Turel said.

Some universities already include a module on Internet/video gaming risks for incoming freshmen students, he noted, so adding a seminar on appropriate smart phone use would be easy.

“Many causes of dropping out have to do with spending too much time on non-productive Internet activities such as playing videogames,” he said. “Teachers can explain the risks to students and discuss their cell phone and social media use policies in class.”

Turel added: “Cell phones, Facebook and other technologies are like food – we need them and we do not want to avoid them. When consumed at healthy levels, for the right purpose and properly (for example, around the table and not while driving) they are very useful. However, over- and improper consumption can lead to adverse consequences. We need to be better aware of these risks and teach ourselves to develop the right balance of both food consumption and technology use.”

Brooks concluded: “The addiction that students have to their mobile devices has fundamentally changed the nature of interpersonal relationships and communication. … The technology has allowed us to communicate and connect easier and more rapidly, but has caused even more distance between people.”


Read more from my interview with Dr. Turel.