Love it or leave it: why you can’t negotiate with a smartphone

1070 words

Screen addiction is a fixture of modern life. So too is the belief system that goes with it.

We assume phones have made our kids depressed, isolated and suicidal. We assume that if phones are the problem, we can make them the solution — design them to be less addictive and users will break free. Or, as we saw in the previous post, start using time-management apps and stop wasting time on all those other apps.

Something wrong with this picture? Definitely, say two opinion pieces this week.

Said the spider to the fly. In the first piece, Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman has a provocative question:  “Can you trust Big Tech to cure you of your smartphone habit?” He has his sights on the “digital wellness” movement, whose aim is to cure our tech addiction with more tech — a subset of the larger credo that sees tech as the fix for everything. Burkeman has spotted my new favorite self-improvement app: Forest, which displays a tree on your phone when you put it down. It gradually begins to grow — oops, and dies when you pick it back up. What will they think of next?

This incrementalism doesn’t solve anything. And really, do grown adults need to see a tree dying to remind them not to waste their lives? Worse, it perpetuates the original problem, leaving you stuck right where they want you, inside the walled garden with its lush, toxic flowering devices:

“… digital wellness aims to diminish your dependency on your devices – but at the cost of increasing your dependency on the corporations behind those devices. … More generally, it seems likely to weaken your self-discipline muscle, by outsourcing the job of managing your time and attention to a third party.”

Crisis without a cause. In the second piece, we find a bigger affront to conventional wisdom. As psychology prof Tracy Dennis-Tiwary writes in the NYT, “Taking Away the Phones Won’t Solve Our Teenagers’ Problems.” Not simply because that ploy, like the anti-app apps, won’t get a parent very far — but because there’s simply no evidence that the compulsive use of smartphones actually causes mental health problems like depression (some specialists see it differently, e.g. Jean Twenge, this lit review, this current study). 

Phones may look like the problem. For kids, however, phones are a symptom, and a very effective coping mechanism for the anxiety that fills their lives:

“… if smartphone addiction is a reflection of adolescent anxiety, cutting screen time may not solve the broader problems that drive teenagers to their screens. Just blaming the machines is a cop-out, a way to avoid the much more difficult task of improving young people’s lives so they won’t need to escape.”

Hard to dispute: ignoring the underlying problems is not a strategy, any more than blaming the devices and their makers.

But here’s the dilemma. You can’t change anyone’s compulsive attachment to their phone without taking it away first. Any more than you can run group therapy while the participants are still high. 

As I’ve explained ad nauseam, I’ve concocted a classroom experience that turns a very unpopular move — taking away student phones — into an unlikely success story. I retold that story as part of a recent report issued by Pew Research in conjunction with its experts survey on the future impact of digital technologies. Unlike the report discussed in the previous post, this one is more anecdotes than analysis: Stories From Experts About the Impact of Digital Life (pdf here).

Here, in slightly under 500 words, is why I’m a big fan of taking phones away — in the right circumstances (Stories, pp. 48-49):

“Several years ago I walked into my fourth-year class and, in a fit of pique, announced I was confiscating everyone’s phone for the entire three hours. I later upped the ante by banning all digital devices in favor of pen and paper. Some unusual revelations have emerged since then – including some happy outcomes from going digital cold turkey. The students in my courses are there to learn about telecom and internet technologies. On the surface, it looks like a perfect match: hyperconnected digital natives acquiring more knowledge about digital. If only. The sad truth is they suffer from a serious behavioral addiction that makes it pretty much impossible for them to pay attention to their instructors or classmates. 

“It also turns out these self-styled digital natives don’t know anything more about digital than their elders. At the start of classes, students react with predictable shock and annoyance when I confiscate their phones. Some even drop out rather than suffer the indignity of being offline for an entire class. Yet to pretty much everyone’s surprise, redemption comes to almost everyone. Within a month, I get enthused reactions about how good it feels to be phone-deprived. Grades go up, along with the quality of class discussion. Some students report this is the first time they’ve been able to concentrate on the course material. Or it’s the only course in which they’ve learned something. That would be flattering if it weren’t such a sad indictment of the state of higher education today, where classrooms have become a wasteland of digital distraction. 

“It’s tempting to assume our hyperconnected 20-somethings are the authors of their own fate, and have only themselves to blame for not getting the best from their education. Except it’s not that simple. First, students are behaving exactly like the grownups in our tech-addled culture, ditching their moment-to-moment social responsibilities for another jab at the screen. Second, the unseemly classroom behavior is a coping strategy for many students, who have to put up with indifferent professors and a pervasive campus culture that casts them in the role of customers rather than learners. And third, they have many enablers – the instructors who see not paying attention as the new normal; the parents who can’t bear to be out of touch with their kids for even an hour; and the campus administrators who turn a blind eye because of their own obsession with new technologies as a panacea for every institutional problem. For all their initial resistance, however, depriving students of their devices for three-hour stretches has turned out to be a remarkably simple and effective solution. There’s also good research that students are less effective at learning their course material when they’re online and ignoring the instructor. Not to mention studies showing that students learn more and better using pen and paper instead of keyboards and screens.” 

D.E.

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The digital life is killing higher ed (2)

Yesterday I described the latest Pew/Elon survey on the future of the Internet. The first of three main questions for the participants asked whether the digital life will help or harm our personal well-being. Harm, says I.

The next question asks for a personal anecdote to illustrate some of the concerns being aired:

“Please share a brief personal anecdote about how digital technology has changed your daily life, your family’s life or your friends’ lives in regard to well-being – some brief observation about technology’s impact on life for you, your family or friends. Tell us how this observation or anecdote captures how hyper-connected life changes people’s well-being, compared to the way life was before digital connectivity existed.”

Another easy choice. Here’s what I wrote in my survey response: Continue reading

Are digital technologies bad for us? (1)

Of course they are. Just ask the phone addicts ditching the millions of colors on their hi-res screens in favor of boring old black and white.

This ploy to rescue some personal agency from the jaws of the phone monster is part of a much larger trend engulfing our tech-addled culture. Everyone’s worried. The worries are popping up everywhere — like the New York Times, which asks this week, Is the Answer to Phone Addiction a Worse Phone?

The NYT piece does a nice job of exposing the absurd lengths we’re going to in our digital lives. What’s unusual is that it takes the underlying problem for granted — “twitchy phone checking” — and goes right to a coping mechanism. These days we’ve agreed on a long list of digital evils, from homicidal texting behind the wheel to the end of online privacy. We’ve also agreed on a short list of culprits, with Facebook, Amazon and Google at the top of the list.  Continue reading

An uncertain future for higher ed (Pew/Elon 2016)

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Last month I wrote about the Pew/Elon experts survey on the future of the Internet. I included comments on the ubiquitous use of algorithms and the costs that entails. That was one of five questions on the 2016 survey. I answered two others: one on the future of education (#2) and the other on the effects of ever-increasing connectedness (#5).

My views on the future of higher education – especially in the liberal arts – have grown more pessimistic over the last year and a half. They’ve been shaped by the research and interviews I’ve done while working on a book proposal aimed at the uses and misuses of technology in the classroom. The working title, Turned off Tech, reflects the long-ago inciting incident: confiscating student phones and all other digital devices, the better to make the classroom a place to learn again.

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Students adjust nicely to the idea that paying attention is a good way to find out how digital technologies work – as opposed to staring into a screen and expecting some miracle of osmosis. These days they’re much more concerned about what happens after they leave class and graduate. Many tell me that their 4-year degree was a painful necessity that will bring nothing by itself. Continue reading

Moronic multitaskers vs digital natives: the smartphone crisis

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First impressions are important

“The single biggest problem facing education today is that our Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.” –Marc Prensky, 2001 (creator of the “digital natives” concept)

“Multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.” –Clifford Nass, 2009

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Almost four years ago, I launched a radical new approach to teaching my courses. I began confiscating student phones for the duration of every class.

blank-face-2Let’s pretend her name was Kathy. I kept issuing the usual pleas to her – and everyone – to stay off their phones, as it’s hard to participate in a seminar discussion when you’re typing Facebook likes. Kathy was worse than most, so I moved her to a seat directly in front of the lab podium. But even when I was hovering, she kept typing furiously, like I was invisible. She was the last straw. Neither my ego nor my pedagogy could take it any more.

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Where phones go to facilitate the learning process (COMN 4520)

Around the time I started my full frontal phone attack, I posted the first of three items on dumb things you can do with smartphones, in September 2011. I took it for granted that thousands of other instructors faced the same problem every time they walked into a classroom. But I figured I had a particularly good reason for my phone strategy. I was teaching liberal arts undergrads how the Internet works. Continue reading