Watch out! A seductive little thief, often dressed in black and carrying a miniature camera, is trying to steal our education right out from under our noses. This ambitious little thief also wants to undermine our bonds with family, friends, classmates, reality, nature and even time itself. This hand-held thief, powered by ‘unpredictable doses of positive rewards’ (because random rewards keep humans responding for longer), also wants to transform the kind of human being we are. If we allow it to, this little thief will use its immense power at hijacking our attention and turn us into homo distractus – i.e., A human being with an ever shorter attention span perpetually distracted by spending too much time on one’s smartphone.
Last semester, I gave students in my ‘Addiction: A Human Problem’ class a little experiment. They had to go 48 hours without using their smartphone, social media and the Internet. Students then wrote about their experience of ‘going cold turkey’ from using technologies that have almost overnight become central to our lives, wherein we are seemingly ‘dependent’ upon these ‘must-have’ devices. Some students only managed to last a few hours before picking up the precious phone again. Some made it to 12 or 24 hours before the desire to use outweighed their determination to desist. Some ‘failed’ multiple times, finally giving up in frustration. The majority of students, however, made it to the 48-hour mark – and discovered after quickly getting back online that despite their FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) they hadn’t missed much that was important.
What did these students learn during this 48-hour smartphone-free period? Some felt more in touch with their ‘true self’, and more aware of their surroundings; such as the natural environment, which is being discarded as we walk around with our eyes on the seductive screen. The silence of having no phone to constantly distract them allowed them to engage in contemplation and reflection. They reflected upon over-use of their smartphone, and used the silence to ‘sort things out’ in their head and to think about different ways they could spend their precious time. This reflection prompted some to think back to life before the smartphone had suddenly made its appearance. They were shocked at how quickly they have become so attached to their smartphone, as though it is an extra limb. While some found this ‘freedom’ to be liberating, some felt bored, lonely, anxious and unsure of how to now entertain themselves. They discovered that while always-on devices offer us a way to ‘defeat our loneliness’, we may deny ourselves the rewards of solitude because we are not cultivating the art of being alone.
During their 48-hour ‘withdrawal’ period, many students were frustrated when socializing with their friends, because these friends would regularly turn to their smartphone, thus leaving the (temporary) phoneless student ‘together alone’. While they noted this is how they normally act when together with friends, this experience made them think that being constantly tethered-to-technology was perhaps negatively affecting the quality and depth of their social bonds.
Many students also noted how time seemed to slow down when they were ‘freed’ from the (compelling and absorbing) Internet. With less distractions, they were more productive and more efficient with their school work. This freedom also allowed them to ‘return to reading’. Reading - the heart of education - is an activity they always had the ‘intention’ of doing but didn’t because they would pick up their smartphone instead.
Following the experiment, some students had changed their habits to help ‘rein in’ their smartphone use. It will be interesting to see how long these changes last – or don’t last.
We are learning that many Silicon Valley tech experts prohibit or limit their own children from using the very ‘smart’ devices they design, sell and promote to us. ‘Don’t get high on your own supply’ the smart drug dealer likes to say, because they fear if they use the drugs they sell they will become addicted and stop making lots of money. Are smartphones stopping us from making full use of our precious educational opportunities?
Trent Bax Associate Professor, Sociology