Plummeting seven stories in an elevator at Montana State University Billings, I found myself in a car full of students. All of them were standing quietly, looking at their phones.
I usually spend elevator time contemplating eternal questions, such as what large and ungainly animals humans appear to be when they are corralled in an elevator. But this day, I couldn’t keep quiet.
“I have a phone, too,” I announced. When the students all glanced up from their phones to look at me, I added, “Just so you know.”
I really did have a phone that day a couple of weeks ago, since my wife was being prepped for surgery, and I needed to be available for emergencies. But although I have owned a cellphone for well over a year now, its function remains one of life’s great mysteries. I still struggle even to find and delete messages. I have yet to send my first text.
When I pick up the phone, my thumbs feel like ball-peen hammers. They take me places I don’t want to be, and they deny access to places I do want to be.
Not so with my college students. Watching their fingers fly over those tiny keyboards, I feel as likely to throw a 90 mph fastball as I do to match their speed and accuracy.
And they are using those phones in practically every idle moment. Once last year, six students arrived early to one of my classes. When I walked in, all six were on their phones.
“Why aren’t you looking at your cellphone?” I demanded. Records must be broken.
Once in a class full of phone-gazing students, I waxed nostalgic. “You know,” I said, “when I was in college we had to talk to each other before classes started. It was a nightmare.”
I think they knew I was kidding about the nightmare part, just as I think they know I am kidding when some fact question arises in class and I say wistfully, “If only it were possible to have some handheld device that contained all the world’s knowledge.”
These are tiny blows, if they are blows at all, against the ubiquity of the cellphone in modern students’ lives. Toughening up language on the syllabus about cellphones during class time has alleviated that distraction, but students are nestled with their phones just about everywhere else – walking between classes, sitting in the cafeteria, even in groups with their friends.
If having all of the world’s knowledge at their thumb tips has made them wiser, I can’t detect it. The same old mistakes show up in their papers, plus innovative new ones. Dogs no longer eat their homework, but computers do.
The manual typewriter on which I wrote every college paper still stands in my office closet, heavy as a cartoon safe. If nothing else, it taught me to be careful, knowing that every misstep would mean fumbling with liquid paper or correction tape or, worse, retyping the whole page. I let some of the worst sentences I ever wrote stand naked on the page rather than endure the pain of repairing them.
But while that typewriter strained my patience, it left my soul unscarred. A growing body of evidence suggests that my students won’t be so lucky.
A recent article in Atlantic Monthly by Jean M. Twenge sums up the evidence. She argues that since the advent of the Smartphone, accompanied by an explosion in social media, rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed. Teens date less and stay at home more.
Some of this is good news. Teens are less likely to get pregnant and they lead safer lives. They have sex later and learn to drive at older ages. They are less likely to work for pay while in school.
But they are using their increased leisure time on the phone, in their rooms. Twenge writes that nearly all of her undergraduates sleep with their phone either in their bed or in reach.
And surveys indicate that the more time they spend looking at those tiny screens the more likely they are to feel lonely and depressed. They sleep too little and fret too much. Cyber bullying takes its ugly toll.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those symptoms show up more often in girls. On social media, they worry about how many likes and comments they get, not unlike an insecure weekly columnist. They feel isolated and left out, unwanted and alone.
I am skeptical of some of Twenge’s assertions. The charts that accompany her article indicate that some of the trends she discusses were in motion well before Smartphones were introduced. As she acknowledges, it isn’t easy to account for all possible causes, or to tease out causes from effects.
Still, her overall argument is persuasive, and I have mentioned this phenomenon in a couple of classes. One student agreed that it was probably true that cellphones were making students unhappy.
“Why do we do things that make us sad?” I asked.
“That’s a good question,” she said.
Perhaps she will Google it.