Some much-needed space : A brief reflection on the ?Smart Phone?s? effects on how we connect with each other

Posted by Brittany Dingler

Walking around campus, it is often difficult to find any two students or faculty members engaging in the lost art of eye contact.  As soon as the professor begins wrapping up his or her last comments, those slick, shiny, plastic boxes slide effortlessly from our pockets to their natural position, resting just under our thumbs for optimal use.  Sometimes, it seems, even the distance to our pockets induces too much separation anxiety, leading us to situate our homing device on top of the desk in a comforting spot between our professors and ourselves.  Although no one is making the argument that the presence of the phone necessarily dictates one's aptitude as a student or status as a member of the Skidmore community, it most definitely sends a message.  That message?  We would rather be somewhere else. 

            It should be noted, however, that this sentiment is not synonymous with the "anywhere but here" state of mind.  Rather, the former is a product of what cognitive psychologists like Shawn Achor refer to as culturally induced ADHD (The happy secret to better work, 2011).  In other words, the rapid increase in the accessibility of superdevices -an obvious reference to Apple's iPhone and its aspiring competitors - coupled with the infinite, pre-existing social networking formats, has redefined sociability as an obligation to multi-task.  As a result, we are stuck in an inescapable loop of refreshing, scrolling, checking, clicking, commenting, liking, and refreshing again to see if we may have momentarily piqued the curiosity of our friends who are also running on their social hamster wheels.  But what happens if we don't refresh, refresh, refresh?  A sense of fear that we are, in some way, missing out.  Even using only one virtual social medium at a time seems to induce this effect; if we're texting we might be missing that exhilarating, red notification box on facebook.  But if we're on facebook we might be missing a vital snap chat, text, or that retweet we crave to confirm our unrivaled wit. 

            Researchers like Rosen, Carrier, and Cheever (2013) discovered that this switching back and forth has significant implications in our ability to focus on other things in life - like school.  They were motivated to conduct this study from previous findings of the negative impact that tech-based multi-tasking has on college students' ability to contemplate, deeply understand, and remember material.  Essentially, because of our dopamine-driven habit of checking and rechecking our phones, we seem to have a hard time devoting the mental faculties required to be fully present and able to challenge ourselves academically. Expanding on this concern, Rosen et al. find that there was a statistically significant negative relationship between the amount of time spent texting or on facebook with college students' GPAs.  But can anyone truly be surprised by this finding?  In all, Rosen et al. and similarly concerned researchers are simply offering some scientific support to explain the battle we all face every time we sit down to write that paper, a process we fear will be unpleasant and, compared to the pleasure we feel when texting or facebooking, painful.  So, instead, we exchange academic immersion for more scrolling, liking, and "lol-ing."  And why not?  Thinking in terms of a gross simplification of evolution, we endured by engaging in activities that felt good (i.e., "creating" offspring) and avoiding those that didn't (because, at the time, they probably weren't good for us).  However, we must now acknowledge the scientific support showing that we no longer know how to differentiate between what feels good for us and what is good for us. 

            So what do we do?  How can we remove ourselves from this addictive cycle of instant (but fleeting) gratification? By taking a step back to reevaluate.  By becoming more aware of how, when, and - most importantly - why we are so addicted to these plastic boxes that talk back.  Essentially, we do what feels good or, when given options, what feels better.  So how do we find something that feels better that isn't in app-form? By going out and remembering what we enjoyed before Mr. Jobs made it oh so easy to "connect."  By remembering the powerful relief that tech-free life can provide.  By allowing our thumb muscles to relax and by retraining our arms and fingers to reach for others' arms and fingers.  By jumping off that social hamster wheel and taking a walk outside.  By realigning our spine to support our neck and head in an upright position, allowing us to look forward rather than down. By turning off our phone for a while and really experiencing classes; because there's nowhere else we need, or want, to be in that moment.  By looking up at our friends, colleagues, and professors because maybe, just maybe, they will too.  

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