Smart Phones & Sad Students

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Several years ago I was teaching a night class and noticed a student smiling broadly with his arms twitching a bit. Looking closer, I noticed that his hands were moving rapidly under the desk—I immediately thought “well, this could be the most awkward and bizarre moment of my teaching career.” Fortunately, it turned out to be my first encounter with a student using a phone to text in class rather than the awful alternative. Since then, I have seen smart phones take over not only my classes, but the world. Like digital versions of Heinlein’s puppet masters, they are the new rulers of humanity.

Like most educators, I saw it as obvious that the phones would be an impediment to the students. After all, if a student spends the class time texting, booking their faces, and gazing upon the awful majesty of grumpy cat, then they will not be paying attention to what is occurring in class. While some students are capable of self-educating (or effective cheating), a failure to pay attention would generally have a negative impact on the GPA of a student. I predicted, correctly, that the phones would evolve and become ever more distracting. I am now waiting to see whether or not wearable tech becomes a thing with students—just imagine the impact of things like Google Glasses on students.

Apparently other educators share my concern about the impact of smartphones on students. Recently Kent State researchers Andrew Lepp, Jacob Barkley and Aryn Karpinski did a study of 500 university students. The study involved tracking phone use, measuring happiness (defined in terms of anxiety and satisfaction) and retrieving official grade point averages. The study population was composed of 500 undergraduates taken equally from each class (freshman, etc.) and included 82 different majors. As such, the study seems to be adequate in size and diversity in regards to the target population.

The analysis showed that as phone use increased, GPA decreased and anxiety increased. The overall conclusion was that high frequency users will have a lower GPA, greater anxiety, and less life satisfaction than those who are lower frequency users. Naturally, these results involve college students. However, it seems reasonable to infer they would apply more generally.

On the face of it, these results seem intuitively plausible and it makes sense to accept that increased phone use can lead to lower GPA, greater anxiety and less life satisfaction. First, it certainly makes sense that a student who spends more time using the phone is most likely spending less time paying attention in class, studying and doing coursework. This would tend to have a negative impact on the student’s GPA. Second, the lower GPA could certainly lead to more anxiety and less satisfaction. Third, there are various other studies that link the things people do on phones (like checking Facebook and seeing the awesome staged photos and crafted status updates of friends) that cause dissatisfaction.  As such, these results seem believable.

That said, as with any causal claims it is important to consider alternatives. First, the possibility of a common cause must also be considered. The basic idea is that when it seems like C is causing effect E, it might be the case that C  and E are both effects of a third factor. In the case of the phones, it might be the case that there is a factor (or factors) that are making students anxious, making them less satisfied, lowering their GPAs and causing them to use their phones more. Personal issues, such as with family or with a significant other, are likely candidates for common causes. In fact, it certainly makes sense that this could be the case in some instances.

Second, there is the possibility of reverse causation. The gist is that when it seems as if C is the cause of E, it might be the case that C is the cause of E—that is, the causal arrow is backwards. In the case of the phones, it might be a low GPA that leads to the anxiety and dissatisfaction and they lead to more phone use.

Third, there is also the possibility of mere coincidence—after all, correlation is not causation. However, the existence of clear causal mechanisms makes it unlikely that it is just coincidence.

While the alternatives are worth considering (and probably hold true in some cases), it does seem sensible to accept that higher phone use is a detriment to students (and people in general). While I would oppose schools passing regulations limiting student use of phones (after all, I consistently hold to the right of self-abuse and poor decision making), I do think that university faculty, staff and administrators should make students aware of the harms of phone use and should encourage students to look away from their phones more often, especially in the classroom. So, kids, if you do not want to be stupid, sad and a failure, put down that phone.

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  1. The beginning of your article is hilarious.

    What amounts to being a participant or a spectator in life has a lot to do with small choices. Some people need distraction, they need information, latest gossip, latest scores, latest social media outputs.

    It could be argued that some people would be unhappy and potentially stupid without smart phones. Smart phones just help a little, in a generally positive manner for those people. But the majority of people are, in general, hindered by the overuse of smart devices. It is an empirical fact that the time using the smart phone takes away from other activities, physical or mental, that would otherwise be more likely productive. Examining the possibility that social media provides solutions to a problem that one is solving is generally unlikely. Humans conquer knowledge by creating cohesion in their memory and fixing it to ideas that take abstract reasoning and concentration, like memorizing a piece of music. Things as simple as that are not done while being distracted by smart phone capabilities, they are being avoided.

    We all need to take breaks, but smart phones are unnaturally creating conditions where those breaks feel justified, when they are not. It is a mental killer, like the ubiquity of food is a physical killer for so many.i

  2. Methinks the institution of higher education bears some responsibility for this problem. Why is the institution admitting students who are not class-ready? Blah, blah…

    But lemme goto a surefire solution. Educational institutions should not be paid fixed fees based on what they teach. Instead they should be paid a variable fee based on how much the student has learned. The student who has learned little should pay little. But, of course, it would not be quite that simple as the student also pays in time wasted.

  3. Boreas:

    It seems that your proposal that students only pay for what they learn is analogous to restaurants only charging for what customers eat.

    In a restaurant one pays for a meal, whether one eats it or not. One is paying for the food, the service, a clean plate and glass on the table, space at a table, access to a bathroom, etc.

    So too in a university one should pay for the opportunity to listen to a professor, the professor grading one’s homework, access to a library, etc., whether or not one uses them well or not.

  4. From the article …”So, kids” (?)

    In lies the problem of both camps…

    The System has/is and will always be geared to the extended childhood mentality (by the responses above it seems most have all been bitten/smitten). After all, it pays the bills at universities across the board and keep bread on the table of Change Agents.

    Oh ye Students of life: (or are U merely “teachers” now)

    Until U “smart” folk boycott the entire madness of it all beginning from K’ all the way thru’ and right on up until these hallowed halls of indoctrination are exited by these “kids”… there will be endless and virtually useless threads just like this.

    Apparently the bulk of university employees have never really had a passion to learn or have lost their way in lieu of a comfortable living/job. Which is it? Simply pay impartial attention any you’ll see for yourself – if you don’t (and look the other way) by now.

    For those whose “student” mentality has not atrophied completely the next 16 hours should breath live back into your spirit so as to help grow a soul Foot notes you say… more info then here then can be had at four year clip.

    For those nay sayers who are just too damn smart for their own good (as don Juan Matus calls it… “achieving Clarity”) – there’s probably no hope for U. However, for those that aren’t remotely nor in at least a cursory level familiar with the original history of “schooling”… this link outlines the basics so that one who has more than a degree, but is smart too, will have a proper foundation to understand the many fallacies that have befallen them over the years they’ve been walking this planet.

    Good luck.

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