Opinion
School Climate & Safety Commentary

The Teenage Smartphone Problem Is Worse Than You Think

By Donald Coburn — February 01, 2018 5 min read

At a certain moment last year, an uncomfortable silence took hold in my classroom. Lauren had volunteered to read the part of Mama during a reading of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Lauren was an excellent student: She was kind, insightful, a frequent participant in class discussions, and a remarkably hard worker. That day though, her mind was elsewhere.

In perfect silence, her classmates stared at me with faces that anticipated how I would respond to Lauren’s missed cue. I looked in her direction, waiting for some acknowledgement on her part before breaking the silence. Eventually, she caught on. “Oh, God,” she said, re-orienting herself. “I’m so sorry.” Her classmates giggled and sighed, as she put aside her iPhone and struggled for some time to find her place in the paperback. We weren’t able to finish the scene before the bell rang.

Of all the individual struggles I had with students and their smartphones over the past few years, this one got to me most. This wasn’t a case of a student being disengaged or bored—she had volunteered to read, after all—yet, Lauren’s impulse to check her Twitter account was strong enough that she was willing to risk stalling the entire class’ progress to satisfy it. Surely, I told myself, the smartphone issue was more complex than I wanted to believe.

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Indeed, the numbers are staggering: According to Common Sense Media’s 2015 Census, on any given day the average American teenager consumes just under nine hours of entertainment media, excluding time spent in school or for homework. This raises the question: Where can learning fit in?

The truth? It can’t.

As the smartphone has given way to an explosion in American teens’ media consumption in recent years, the rise of media multitasking habits has followed. In addition to the vast majority of teens who admit to at least some degree of multitasking while doing their homework, the Common Sense 2015 Census also notes that “nearly two-thirds of teens who multitask say they don’t think watching television, texting, or using social media while doing homework makes any difference to the quality of their work.”

Yet, media multitasking doesn’t work.

In 2009 an influential Stanford University study ironically revealed that those who considered themselves to be excellent media multitaskers were “terrible” at it. Shockingly, however, further evidence suggests the costs of heavy media multitasking can be felt not just during the multitasking, but even during moments where a heavy media multitasker isn’t multitasking. In fact, chronic media multitaskers “are worse at most of the kinds of thinking not only required of multitasking, but what we generally think of as involving deep thought,” one of the study’s researchers, Stanford sociology professor Clifford Nass, explained to NPR, following the release of the study.

Additionally, a recent California State University, Dominguez Hills, study of 263 middle, high school, and university students found that the average student studied for fewer than six minutes before switching tasks, often distracted by technology including social media or texting. What kind of critical thinking can possibly exist within the span of six minutes?

If we continue to allow our teenagers to lapse into binges of media consumption, our polarized cultural narrative is doomed to intensify."

While many of these studies are also relevant to adults, the brain chemistry of adolescents makes them particularly vulnerable to excessive smartphone use and media consumption. Neurologically, most adolescents aren’t ready to think about the consequences of their actions, plan for the future, or manage their impulses like adults. Yet, despite their underdeveloped frontal lobes, it is also true that a person’s capacity to learn will never be greater than during their adolescence.

While teens are in a prime stage of life to learn, they simultaneously possess powerful habit-forming abilities that make them vulnerable to dependency and addiction. Thus, it follows that as adolescent attention spans continue to diminish in the interests of unrestrained media consumption, we may be raising a generation of students who are cognitively unprepared to think critically.

What are the implications of minds that are both addicted to media and incapable of focused study? Clues may be found in the heat of today’s increasingly polarized social and political discourse.

As journalist Nicholas Carr explains, “Political discourse becomes most valuable when it involves careful deliberation, an attention to detail and subtle and open-ended critical thought—the kinds of things that social media tends to frustrate rather than promote.”

And further research backs up Carr’s assertions. Last summer, researchers from Columbia University gathered information from a month of web visits to five major online news outlets and discovered that 59 percent of the URLs shared on Twitter had never actually been clicked, suggesting that a majority of the social media site’s users share news they themselves hadn’t read. Forget “careful deliberation” and “attention to detail,” many of us, it appears, don’t bother to read about the very ideas we claim to understand.

The erosion of critical faculties is the child of the interaction between uninhibited media consumption and the six-minute attention span. If we continue to allow our teenagers to lapse into binges of media consumption, our polarized cultural narrative is doomed to intensify.

The smartphone isn’t going away, and kids will have their whole lives to experiment and engage with the virtues of technology. But if adolescence is the ripest time of life to learn, develop cognitive abilities, and reinforce positive behavior, we must allow them opportunities to grow as truly critical, free-thinking defenders of our democracy. If our polluted political discourse and the melting polar ice caps are any indication, our lives depend on it.

It’s time we recognize the extent to which these devices nullify the benefits wireless internet offers adolescent students. In many ways, we are at a crucial stage in terms of determining the degree to which wireless mobile technology should influence our lives. Where to draw the line, however, is a difficult question. If students can—somehow—be weaned off their smartphones, what about tablets, laptops, gaming devices, and television?

It’s time we have the conversation.

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