I teach American government at my local university. Of course, every student has a smart phone. And every student is looking at that smart phone, all the time — including during class. I try to keep my lectures peppy, but there is no competing with a palm-sized universe of entertainment.
Several times, I have stopped teaching and walked right up to a student engrossed in an online video. Especially if he is wearing headphones (!), it takes several awkward seconds before he notices me.
Last quarter, I decided to make my class “device-free”: No visible phones, laptops, or headphones. I made this announcement the very first day, posted it on the door, and highlighted it in the syllabus. I figured students could drop the class if they had a problem with it.
Perhaps they didn’t think I was serious. The first couple classes, I had to call students out and ask them to please put their devices away. One student cursed out loud, and another student actually flipped me the bird.
But I don’t care. Below are eight reasons I’ve made it my new mission to free students from the shackles of their screens.
1. Screens Endanger Student Safety
All states except Montana have banned various forms of driving while distracted by screens. Drivers’ education teachers use disturbing videos such as this one to hammer the dangers of texting and driving. But for some reason, screens and walking are considered an acceptable combination.
Sure, pedestrians don’t usually travel at a high rate of speed. But they are still at risk for tripping, running into other people and inanimate objects, and generally being unaware of their surroundings. Pair screens with headphones, which is common on campus, and you get double impairment.
Sadly, at my university, multiple pedestrians have been hit by cars while walking blithely out into traffic. For safety’s sake, students should wait until they are stationary before using their mobile phones.
2. Screens Jeopardize Learning
The internet is a terrific research tool. YouTube and other platforms can also be very informative. From what I can see of my students’ screens, however, most of what they do online is not educational.
Of course, everyone needs time to relax, de-stress, and have fun — just not at the expense of a college education. Following my lectures while scrolling Instagram is physically impossible. That goes double for students who wear headphones in class.
Sometimes a student will come to my office, complaining she got a D on the test after studying for five hours. I only have to ask one question: Where was your phone while you were studying? The student will smile sheepishly and acknowledge it’s possible she might have gotten distracted. I try to be compassionate, but really, if her phone was right next to her, chiming and chirping, she probably studied for the undistracted equivalent of five minutes. I’m surprised she even got a D.
Students, their parents, and taxpayers spend thousands, and often tens of thousands, of dollars per year for college. To get maximum value, students must learn to put down the screens, pay attention to professors, and banish the phone to the backpack. After all, sometimes knowing the three branches of government comes in handy in the real world.
3. Screens Sabotage Social Life
College is a great place to meet young people who are fun, smart, and ambitious. Even better, every semester, students get to mix it up with three to five new classes, meaning three to five rooms full of potential new friendships. That dead time before and after class is the perfect time to get to know each other. At least, that’s how college used to be.
Today, classrooms are eerily quiet, even when full of students. Each student is absorbed in a solitary world. It breaks my heart to see a handsome young guy next to a lovely young lady, never even looking at each other. Even in the dining halls, people often eat alone. The long tables of my college years, where friends sat for hours debating the meaning of life, are no more.
College is a unique time and place. Where else do big groups of young adults have large blocks of unstructured time for socializing? We didn’t have dating apps when I was in college, nor did we need them. Students today are missing huge opportunities to meet potential mates and to observe them in casual, real-life situations, rather than through the artificial filter of social media. This is much more difficult after college, when everyone is boxed into the working world.
4. Screens Stunt Career Growth
When students shun real-life interaction, it’s not just their social lives that suffer. At college, instructors dedicate their lives to helping students succeed, mentors readily share hard-won advice, and scholars are willing to introduce students to their life-long passions. Fellow students will also go on to become entrepreneurs, engineers, and experts in their fields. College is the chance to make lifetime connections.
In the working world, people pay good money and spend dreary hours at rubber chicken dinners for the networking opportunities students have right now. But sometimes opportunity knocks softly — those who are wearing headphones may not hear it.
5. Screens Undermine Physical Health
Most Americans today are overweight, and obesity is a bigger killer than smoking. I wonder, could sitting on our butts looking at screens all day have anything to do with this? Most universities have gyms and all kinds of outdoor facilities, not to mention parks in the wider community. It’s time for students to get outside and go while their knees are young and pain-free.
In addition to sucking up time that students could use for physical activity, social media “feeds” undermine efforts to get healthy. How much time do we spend scrolling through recipes with lovingly staged photos, restaurant selfies, and endless ads for food prep services? Surely this obsession with food only fuels the cravings that make Americans fatter.
6. Screens Bust Budgets
Speaking of advertising, those apps do not exist for the altruistic purpose of showcasing our selfies. Big Tech views us as consumers, and those companies are grooming us to consume. Commercial interests infiltrate social media by creating their own accounts, both branded and covert. The more students scroll — and they scroll a lot — the more companies are triggering them to want to buy the new hot items.
Of course, Amazon and other online vendors are making it ever easier to pull the trigger: “buy now,” “one click,” “free next-day shipping.” Even when shopping at a new site, we no longer have to enter a credit card number. What a chore — just use PayPal!
These conveniences are all available and marketed to college students, who are just learning how to manage their money (or not). No wonder we have a student loan crisis. Every corner of the internet is incessantly pushing college students to buy, buy, buy.
7. Screens Attack Mental Health
At my university, more students drop out for mental health reasons than for academic reasons. From speaking with several of my deans, I understand this phenomenon holds true throughout the country. College students are seeking mental health resources in unprecedented numbers.
While some of this may be due to a decrease in stigma surrounding counseling and medication, it seems likely that serious mental illness is increasing. The evidence strongly suggests that electronic devices affect emotions, self-esteem, resilience, and even brain development, and not in a good way. After all, the images we follow online are curated to perfection and utterly unrealistic. Who wouldn’t get depressed comparing selfie-life to actual life?
The best way to build confidence and self-esteem is to get out and do something worth doing in the real world. Instead, students are pickling their brains in a toxic soup.
8. Screens Corrupt Souls
Screens can corrupt your soul in two ways. The first way is obvious: pornography. A discussion of the evils of porn is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, this is not just a religious issue; secular researchers have also documented the destructive nature of porn. Fortunately, there is hope, as people learn to quit porn and live better lives.
More subtly, even PG-rated online activity endangers inner life. Ever-present phones invade the quiet spaces between activities, the time otherwise spent waiting and daydreaming and meditating and just doing nothing. The noise from screens — whether good, bad, or neutral — drowns out the still, small voice of God. When we feel stressed, do we pause to think about why? Do we take the time to pray? Or do we distract ourselves with shiny, online spectacles?
New research shows that intermittent fasting from food is good for our health, helping to recalibrate important hormones such as insulin. Likewise, a fast from social media can benefit the soul.
Back-to-school season is a good time to take a hard look at device addiction and plan some changes for the new school year. If you or a student you know has a toxic relationship with tech, take steps to address it now. Don’t be afraid to ghost your phone and take back your life. Your professors, most of whom still remember life before the internet, are rooting for you.