Every day, I see two people having lunch with one another, both glued to their cellphones, not talking. And I cannot help but think: something valuable is being lost. What is the point of scheduling a lunch date with a friend when your attention is somewhere in digital la-la land?
Working on a college campus, I see many situations like this. Someone forgets their cellphone at home and suddenly it seems as if the earth is crashing down. Cellphones have become the new-age security blankets.
I recently took a group of students on a community-building trip to play mini golf, and they were more preoccupied with taking photos, and posting them to Instagram, than they were actually able to enjoy playing the game. Declaring to the world, online, about their fun day at mini golf trumped engaging in conversation and laughter with those who were there right beside them. In that moment, I witnessed how cellphones have changed the in-person human-interaction landscape.
We cannot blame these students entirely, as this is their norm. On average, a person checks his or her smartphone 150 times per day. Nielsen Media Research has dubbed those born after 1990 and who have lived their adolescent years after the 2000s Generation C, in large part because of their constant connectivity to all digital things. Students who are now entering our colleges' and universities' doors simply don’t know life without cellphones, iPads and laptops. And cellphones are not all bad. These gadgets help college students easily keep in touch with families who may be far away and give students access to campus resources to help navigate the complexities of their new college life.
Yet we all pay a price -- and one that is hard to see, as the damage usually takes place within people. But that does not mean it is any less real. As a master’s student at the University of San Francisco, I have been studying the impact that cellphones have on student engagement. Research has shown cellphone use changes brain activity, negatively impacts one’s ability to identify nonverbal cues and our empathy for others, and can increase risk of depression, anxiety and stress.
And just as concerning, authentic in-person conversations happen less frequently. So while students today may argue that a cellphone is just an object, we who work at colleges and universities can argue otherwise.
In fact, along with their diploma, college graduates should take with them useful skills that they will use in their everyday lives. As educators, it is our job to teach students to think about their relationship to their cellphones and other gadgets. If we care about the livelihood of our current and future generations of students, we need to make teaching healthy digital boundaries a priority on our campuses.
For instance, colleges and universities should consider creating workshops and resources that teach students such boundaries. Liberty University in Virginia is an example of a pioneer in that area. This year, as a part of the university’s academic and advising support services, Liberty launched the nation’s first Center for Digital Wellness with the purpose to “raise awareness about the dangers of digital overuse and saturation.”
The center has organized innovative events including a Digital Detox retreat, where students spend a weekend at a camp with no Wi-Fi access. The center also provides students with a variety of resources such as a digital wellness quiz and a digital wellness challenge that encourages students in concrete ways how can change their daily behaviors using technology.
In addition, a student-led Reclaim Conversation campaign on that campus encouraged students to go out and talk about the importance of face-to-face conversations for happy lives and healthy relationships. Even in its early stages, students at Liberty have already seen changes in their own behavior, how they see others and their relationships with their friends and communities.
The center’s webpage highlights student testimonies on how involvement in the center’s programs has helped enrich their relationships and their ability to self-reflect and be engaged. As one student notes, “My digital life is different now because I have increased my intentionality of making friendships a priority over spending time online. So I have to be more efficient with time to have space for meeting a friend for coffee or spending time in a conversation. It is worth it. I need rich relationships.”
One might argue that it’s too late to try to teach healthy digital boundaries at the college level and that it should instead be addressed in elementary and secondary school. I agree this issue should be dealt with at an earlier age, and I encourage K-12 educators to start thinking of ways they can teach our youth about it. For now, I challenge those of us in higher education to take a lead on dealing with this pervasive issue on our campuses.
While your institution may not have enough fiscal or human resources to build a physical Center for Digital Wellness like at Liberty, you can start in small ways. You can make changes to your student employee handbook for your office, and you can make a change to the office environment. Use your student employee handbook to teach skills of professionalism and tell students to put away their cellphones during work shifts to be more attentive to their work and those whom they are serving.
You can also carve out a portion of the new student orientation program to raise awareness of the issue. Try replicating SoulPancake’s experiment Take a Seat -- Make a Friend to get students talking with one another, and see how much more they learn about their peers without their phones. By doing such an activity, students can experience firsthand the potential upside to unplugging their phones. That can set the tone, telling students to rethink how they show up and participate in campus activities throughout the school year. In these ways, new students can start their college experience on a positive foot while truly engaging with their fellow classmates, as well as faculty and staff members.
In short, we all need to start thinking, start talking and start listening to one another on our campuses. Let’s all put down our damn cellphones.
Jadelin Pikake Felipe is a student services specialist at Stanford University's Archaeology Center and formerly director of enrollment management operations at Menlo College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.