The Cell Phone Dilemma: Valuable Tool or Source of Anxiety?

Education is always in a state of flux. This is not surprising, considering schools are packed with a demographic which, since the 1960s, has been one of the largest catalysts for cultural change in Western society. And often, change in education is driven either by the students or for them. From liberation movements to cross gender equality, from cyber-bullying initiatives to “Wear pink” days, much of what are held as the morals and beliefs of modern society are questioned, dissected and reflected in our schools.

Lately, the most massive change to education, and arguably one of the most influential changes to society in the past 100 years, has been the explosion of technology, and with it social media. It is pervasive and all-encompassing, and is most notable in education in the way it has impacted the relationship between teacher and student in the classroom. The cell phone has, quite simply, changed the game.

I am not anti-technology. I have a web site for my classes. I utilize provincially supplied teacher/ student communication tools like Moodle. I have a Facebook page. I Tweet. And, yes, obviously, I blog.  And for the most part, these are seen as positive elements in my educational arsenal. Teachers who do not subscribe to these new trends in education are often criticized as being dinosaurs, throwbacks to a bygone time, unwilling to accept the new realities of electronic education.

However, the more experience I get in this new reality, the more I am surprised at how little I, or any of us really,  know about technology. Not the ins and outs, mind you. The “How it works” stuff is easy enough; neither the hardware nor the software makes me scratch my head. No, it is the bio-ware that has me befuddled. That element most common in technology that we seem to take for granted, but which we seem utterly incapable of admitting we know next to nothing about. That is, of course, the human side of the equation. We spend a great deal of time in education considering what to do with technology. I wonder, however, why it is that we seem unwilling to consider what technology is doing to our kids?

I began to question my assumptions about cell phones when I stumbled across an article, (ironically enough, on the web) from  Psychology Today which spoke about a phenomena known as Phantom Pocket Vibration. This is an issue where the phone user feels a vibration from their phone in their pocket, or hear it vibrate in their purse, and find that there is no message. But it was not that these incidents happen that caught my eye, but rather why. The piece suggested that the real cause of the syndrome was anxiety. According to the author, Larry Rosen, “Our body is always in waiting to anticipate any kind of technological interaction, which usually comes from a smartphone. With that anticipatory anxiety, if we get any neurological stimulation, our pants rubbing against our leg for example, you might interpret that through the veil of anxiety, as “Oh, my phone is vibrating.”  In short, since we are anxiously anticipating a text message, our brains interpret any stimulus as a text message.

These incidents are common, according to the article, and I admit to having experienced this myself. This gave me pause. If my brain, the brain of a so-called, “electronic age immigrant” was always on high alert anticipating a text message, I found myself wondering about the effect on the “anxious by definition” teenagers in my classes.

The connection between anxiety and cell phones is fairly well established, it seems. In 2008, a study from the University of Florida showed a correlation between anxiety and cell phone use.  In 2009, a study from a group called Intersperience claimed that over 65% of teens questioned self identified as feeling addicted to their cellphone. In 2011,  The International Center for Media and Public Affairs tried to get young college students to unplug from their technology for only one day. The majority, the study found, could not.

This was not a matter of “would not”. The results were that they “could not”. It’s not that the students were unwilling to unplug, but rather that they were simply unable to do so. Students who were able to unplug for the day reported feeling “sad”and “depressed”. As one student put it “I was itching, like a crackhead, because I could not use my phone.”

So this brings me back to the quandary of the classroom. If I am teaching students and they are texting their friends or updating their Facebook status, they are not learning. However, if I make them put the phone away, they may become anxious and simply spend the next six and a half minutes (the frequency, according to expert Tomi Ahonen, with which average people check their phones) pretending to listen while thinking only about how they can check their phones. Again, they are not learning. And if I manage to take a phone from a student, (many now simply refuse to give them up) then they may very well suffer from feelings of anxiety and depression. In that state of mental anguish, they are, again not learning.

This may sound a bit alarmist, but teachers will tell you. Some kids in class seem to simply not be able to get off their phones. Their learning is constantly being interrupted by a barrage of text messages and twitter feeds. Of course, the adult world is not immune to this, as there are a fair number of studies that show billions of dollars are lost each year when people access social media at work. But the billions of dollars lost by a corporation because their workers are tweeting is not my problem.

The students who I face each day, however? Well, that rests with me.

I do not know of a single school district in this province that has an outright cell phone ban. Indeed, I believe now that unless cell phones are proven to, say, cause cancer, (this is it’s own area of research) such a ban is unlikely in the future. In many districts, the schools have been left to develop their own policies regarding cell phone use. And as cell phones become more and more a part of the daily lives of kids at a younger and younger age, these policies seem to be losing steam. At the end of the day, the last battles in the war over cell phones are happening in the classrooms.

And teachers are losing.

It wasn’t always thus. When cell phones first emerged in classrooms a mere seven to ten years ago, they were a novelty that could be dealt with fairly easily. However, as their use grew, rules such as “No cell phones in school” changed to “Cell phones are to be kept in lockers” which became “No cell phones in class”and then “No use of cell phones during instructional time” to, finally “Look, at least put the darn thing down when I am speaking to you, will you?”

Now, of course, this is not the case in all classes, and there are a few bright spots. One particularly inspiring teacher at my school went out and purchased, (with her own money, of course) enough clear plastic containers for each student’s desk. Attached with tape, the boxes are receptacles for the kids phones. The kids come in, and put the phones in the boxes, and shut the lids. The phones are not in pockets, not in purses. They are in sight, and attainable, just not in use. I hear the kids commenting on how quickly they find their math class going now and how they are able to get so much work done.

I have embraced technology in the classroom. My students use their cell phones and tablets for learning and they are often asked to incorporate the devices into my lessons. But when I read about teens comparing giving up their phones to being a crack addict, I have to pause.

Of all the battles schools have been asked to fight on behalf of society over the years, this might have been one that perhaps, we, as a society, should have tried harder to help them win.

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Filed under Education Policy, Educational Change, Public education, Technology

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