Do cell phones take precedence over most other interactions?

cell-phonesHere’s a question that I pose occasionally to the college freshmen in my writing classes: Which is more interesting, television or conversation with other human beings?

They nearly always answer that conversation is more interesting. They may believe that it should be. Or that it actually is. Or they may believe that I wish them to affirm some old-fashioned value to which they imagine that I cling.

But I’m less interested in what should be more interesting than what really is. And, let’s face it, some of the most creative and innovative minds in our culture, as well as a great deal of money and energy, are focused on making television irresistible.

And largely they succeed, which explains why several sources report that at least two-thirds of American families always have the TV on during dinner.

But, really, the question at the top of this column is itself old-fashioned. TV is only one of a slew of electronic distractions — games, videos, photos, movies, texting — that find their most intense focus and access in the devices in the pockets and purses of virtually every American college student. How can mere conversation compete with such an attraction?

Or how can anything else? According to a 2013 survey by Harris Interactive, 20 percent of Americans, 18 to 34 years of age, use their cell phones during sex, generating a new meaning for the expression coitus interruptus.

Thus, before class, my students are more likely to text or play video games than talk to me or to their classmates, and the urge to consult their cell phones during class is almost irresistible.

Some professors have become more or less resigned to the presence of cell phones in their classes; others, not so much. Search for “professors smashing cell phones” on YouTube for some eye-opening displays of what the loss of patience looks like.

But others have looked for more peaceful solutions. Last week a National Public Radio education website reported on an astronomy professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, who gives his students extra “participation points” for turning off their cell phones and leaving them on his desk.

He says this method works, and maybe it will help the 75 percent of undergrads at his school who text in class, which he links to an average drop of half a letter grade in his course.

But Larry Rosen, a research psychologist at California State University who studies smartphone use among college students, says in the same report that he doesn’t think rewarding students to turn off their cellphones in class is a good approach.

Using the language of addiction, he says that most college students are “heavy users” and that his experiments show that their heart rates and other vital signs actually spike when they can’t use their phones, in response to increased anxiety and distraction.

In his classes Rosen calls a “tech break” every 15 minutes and gives his students a minute to check their phones. He says that, over time, he can increase the interval to half an hour, but a full hour without checking the phone would be “too anxiety enhancing.”

It’s an interesting passage that we’ve reached as a culture, and college professors are trying to navigate the middle course between indignant cellphone smashing and resigned acquiescence.

For some this has more to do with focus and attention, the habits that, they believe, enhance their students’ ability to learn. A student who is texting can’t possibly be very engaged with what’s going on in class, they contend, quite plausibly.

For other professors, it’s probably more a matter of respect and decorum. Nobody likes to take second place to whatever is happening on the cellphone, no matter how interesting, valuable, entertaining or excruciatingly irresistible.

The professoriate hasn’t figured out what, if anything, to do about this. One response should probably not be undue sanctimony. The ability to concentrate without distraction for an hour or so is in trouble everywhere. If you doubt it, glance around at your next faculty meeting. Your colleagues will be on their cell phones, probably in about the same proportion as your students are.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at

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