Teaching Today

A 4-Step Program for Cellphone-Dependent Students

How can you get students to put down their cellphones and engage in class? Dwight DeWerth-Pallmeyer offers some suggestions for helping them give up their addiction.

April 4, 2017

Have you noticed less eye contact with students when you lecture these days? Are you increasingly more familiar with the tops of their heads rather than their faces? If so, you are not alone.

As an educator for more than 30 years, I have no doubt that many of today’s students are at the mercy of their cellphones. My increased frustration with students’ cellphone use in class, coupled with reading Matt Richtel’s A Deadly Wandering, inspired me to look into today’s cellphone-obsessed culture. I was hoping to gain a deeper understanding of my students’ behavior and ultimately help me connect with them better in the classroom.

My fact-finding mission has since turned into a documentary project titled “Cellular Aftershocks,” which I plan to finish this summer. While there is still an argument in the psychiatric community on whether or not an overreliance on cellphones is a learned dependency or a clear behavioral addiction, I lean toward the latter classification.

Numerous studies point to a dopamine rush whenever we hear the cellphone ring or even when we experience phantom phone vibrations in our pockets. Most people perceive a ring or vibration as some kind of personal interest or opportunity. This perception feeds the addiction.

When conducting informal research about students’ relationships with their cellphones, I discovered correlations between excessive cellphone usage and increased levels of depression, anxiety and poor academic performance. In one focus group, a student admitted that she could not give up her cellphone for three hours, much less three days -- even if offered $10,000 to do so. Another admitted that she felt anxiety if she did not check her cellphone at least every 15 minutes.

When our students’ dependency on their cellphones has become an addiction, an outright cellphone ban is no longer a realistic classroom policy. I anticipate the result of a cellphone ban would either lead to students skipping class or using much of their energy while in class figuring out how to peek at their screens.

So instead of establishing rules that we know are rarely adhered to anyway, I suggest we deal with this phenomenon the only way we know how: from an academic perspective. We should tackle it head-on with honest conversations that touch on how cellphones not only enhance our lives but also cause us significant harm. I suggest that you find ways to use your own disciplines to open up these discussions.

I’ve found that by examining cellphone usage with my underclassmen from a variety of angles -- philosophical, social, theological and psychological -- I have essentially created a four-step program to help students become less dependent on their cellphones. One or all of these approaches may work in your own classroom.

Step 1: Admit to the problem. Help students overcome their cellphone addiction by encouraging them to admit that they have a problem. Do this through an academic exercise that challenges students to both understand the concepts of philosophical thought and develop the critical capacity to outline their reason for attending college in the first place. If they are spending an inordinate amount of time on their cellphones, they are essentially robbing themselves of the real value of a college education: the development of essential critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that will assist them through their adult lives.

As a communication studies professor, I have incorporated an exercise into my Intro to Media courses. I ask students to fill out a daily journal for a week and estimate the amount of time they spend with various media. Most of my students’ time is tied to their cellphone: texting, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube and the like. After analyzing their media usage, the students write a short essay on how their usage might compare with that of their peers and their parents. They are typically shocked by how much time they spend on their phones, and their analyses often cause them to realize how little time they spend on their schoolwork outside of class and how little they actually engage while in class.

Step 2: Acknowledge the harm caused. A second way to help students with their cellphone addiction is to call them out for lapses in interpersonal skills and encourage them to work on those skills. True interpersonal communication involves reading each other’s tone of voice, making or not making eye contact, a slight physical touch or full hug in appropriate circumstances. It usually involves a slow process of self-disclosure -- virtually everything that Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram are simply not designed to accomplish. Today’s students often have a shallow understanding of others’ feelings and an inability to read nonverbal signals. Those deficiencies often set the stage for ineffective collaborations on class projects.

Perhaps with more attention placed on best practices for group work before diving right into it, we can help students self-correct before entering the work force. If our students engage with us, one another and classroom guests appropriately, they simply cannot spend as much time on their phones. For example, when I teach public speaking, I approach each student when I ask questions. I note the importance of eye contact, attentive listening and responding with their own questions following each interaction to emphasize these skills.

Step 3: Consciously change the behavior. We can also help our students with their cellphone addiction by challenging them to see how long they can go without their cellphones -- a technological Sabbath of sorts. This challenge is yet another way we can open up dialogue with our students about whether or not they view themselves as having a cellphone addiction and how their interactions with others change when they are not constantly reaching for their phones. It also forces them to consider whether or not their preoccupation with their phones matches their core values. It may even help them define their own core values … something many have rarely, if ever, seriously considered.

Step 4: Reinforce the problem to lead to sustained change in behavior. Finally, we may be able to help our students realize the dangers of their cellphone usage if we focus on the psychological effects. An informal exercise might ask for a student volunteer to talk or text on their phones while doing some other activity, such as writing a five-minute essay. Then have the student write another short essay without their cellphone in reach. Adam Gazzaley, a professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, has demonstrated the human brain’s cognitive inability to multitask, leading many to erroneously believe they can competently and safely do other things, such as drive a car while talking on a Bluetooth device. Such an in-class exercise can help reinforce the notion that Gazzaley is right, as the second essays will typically be more coherent and grammatically correct.

The overall idea is to get students to think critically about the tool they consider so essential. By emphasizing possible long-term consequences, such as the effects on one’s career due to poor academic performance or a lack of interpersonal skills, we may be able to chip away at our students’ cellphone usage.

Undoubtedly, the biggest contribution we can make is to draw attention to the problems we all face, students and faculty alike, associated with cellphone dependency. We need to teach and model a world in which we can function intellectually in conjunction with our cellphones and other electronic devices, not entirely dependent on them. Life is richer and more complex than can be understood in even the most poetic of 140-character tweets.


Dwight DeWerth-Pallmeyer is an associate professor of communication studies at Widener University.

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