Several years ago I was teaching a night class and noticed a student smiling broadly with his arms twitching a bit. Looking closer, I noticed that his hands were moving rapidly under the desk—I immediately thought “well, this could be the most awkward and bizarre moment of my teaching career.” Fortunately, it turned out to be my first encounter with a student using a phone to text in class rather than the awful alternative. Since then, I have seen smart phones take over not only my classes, but the world. Like digital versions of Heinlein’s puppet masters, they are the new rulers of humanity.
Like most educators, I saw it as obvious that the phones would be an impediment to the students. After all, if a student spends the class time texting, booking their faces, and gazing upon the awful majesty of grumpy cat, then they will not be paying attention to what is occurring in class. While some students are capable of self-educating (or effective cheating), a failure to pay attention would generally have a negative impact on the GPA of a student. I predicted, correctly, that the phones would evolve and become ever more distracting. I am now waiting to see whether or not wearable tech becomes a thing with students—just imagine the impact of things like Google Glasses on students.
Apparently other educators share my concern about the impact of smartphones on students. Recently Kent State researchers Andrew Lepp, Jacob Barkley and Aryn Karpinski did a study of 500 university students. The study involved tracking phone use, measuring happiness (defined in terms of anxiety and satisfaction) and retrieving official grade point averages. The study population was composed of 500 undergraduates taken equally from each class (freshman, etc.) and included 82 different majors. As such, the study seems to be adequate in size and diversity in regards to the target population.
The analysis showed that as phone use increased, GPA decreased and anxiety increased. The overall conclusion was that high frequency users will have a lower GPA, greater anxiety, and less life satisfaction than those who are lower frequency users. Naturally, these results involve college students. However, it seems reasonable to infer they would apply more generally.
On the face of it, these results seem intuitively plausible and it makes sense to accept that increased phone use can lead to lower GPA, greater anxiety and less life satisfaction. First, it certainly makes sense that a student who spends more time using the phone is most likely spending less time paying attention in class, studying and doing coursework. This would tend to have a negative impact on the student’s GPA. Second, the lower GPA could certainly lead to more anxiety and less satisfaction. Third, there are various other studies that link the things people do on phones (like checking Facebook and seeing the awesome staged photos and crafted status updates of friends) that cause dissatisfaction. As such, these results seem believable.
That said, as with any causal claims it is important to consider alternatives. First, the possibility of a common cause must also be considered. The basic idea is that when it seems like C is causing effect E, it might be the case that C and E are both effects of a third factor. In the case of the phones, it might be the case that there is a factor (or factors) that are making students anxious, making them less satisfied, lowering their GPAs and causing them to use their phones more. Personal issues, such as with family or with a significant other, are likely candidates for common causes. In fact, it certainly makes sense that this could be the case in some instances.
Second, there is the possibility of reverse causation. The gist is that when it seems as if C is the cause of E, it might be the case that C is the cause of E—that is, the causal arrow is backwards. In the case of the phones, it might be a low GPA that leads to the anxiety and dissatisfaction and they lead to more phone use.
Third, there is also the possibility of mere coincidence—after all, correlation is not causation. However, the existence of clear causal mechanisms makes it unlikely that it is just coincidence.
While the alternatives are worth considering (and probably hold true in some cases), it does seem sensible to accept that higher phone use is a detriment to students (and people in general). While I would oppose schools passing regulations limiting student use of phones (after all, I consistently hold to the right of self-abuse and poor decision making), I do think that university faculty, staff and administrators should make students aware of the harms of phone use and should encourage students to look away from their phones more often, especially in the classroom. So, kids, if you do not want to be stupid, sad and a failure, put down that phone.