Stash Your Cell: Technology Use and Overuse

February 28, 2019
A nail-polished hand holding an iPhone

In our increasingly technocratic world, it can feel good to take a breather from technological devices and re-engage with the aspects of the tactile world that one may miss out on with increased dependence on various forms of technology.

On March 1st, persons across the nation will challenge themselves to leave their phones at home during The National Day of Unplugging—an attempt to emerge from the whirlpool that is 21st century media and technology.

Sound impossible? Americans have become increasingly dependent on their cellphones and other forms of technology (laptops, tablets, televisions, etc.), which is normal, bearing in mind the trajectory of human history. But considering the technological boom that has occurred since the first iPhone was released in 2007, it is important to understand how the ways a sudden increase of reliance on technology can affect not only the lives of everyday individuals, but how their minds function—both good and bad.

With the advent of Duo Push on Carmen, it has become increasingly difficult for members of the university community to become independent of their phones. Thanks to Duo, it is now required that members of our campus community carry at least two devices with them everywhere they go in order to be able to access Carmen, Buckeyelink and other essential online university functions.

Researchers at UCLA have begun examining technology as adverse on human health. They have found that technology may affect one’s amount of sleep, weight gain, one’s perceived ability to communicate and connect with others, and one’s ability to focus versus “multitask.” (Psychologists contend that the human brain is actually incapable of multitasking—when “multitasking,” the human brain is really just rapidly switching attention between various projects—and this affects one’s production level adversely overall.)

A recent UCLA study found that “college students felt most ‘bonded’ to their friends when they talked face-to- face, and most distant from them when they text-messaged.” Social interaction in person is clearly a fundamental part of normal human function, and interacting too much over text can have adverse effects on one’s perception of social relationships. In fact, according to psychologist Jim Taylor, PhD, “frequent exposure by so-called digital natives to technology is actually wiring the brain in ways very different than in previous generations.” And the use of technology in class can also affect one’s learning abilities: a recent study showed that “contrary to conventional educational wisdom, students who were allowed Internet access during class didn’t recall the lecture nor did they perform as well on a test of the material as those who weren’t “wired” during class.

Professor Beverly Moss of the Department of English notes that “technology can be positive in that it facilitates long-distance communication due to increasing globalization,” but she also wonders what happens when we focus all of our energy on long-distance communication. Professor Moss has noticed that while advances in technology have certainly allowed for far-removed individuals to reach out to each other in a way that would have been unprecedented even 20 years ago, at the same time technology can get in the way of in-person communication.

According to Futurist author Marcel Bullinga, teens and adults who grew up frequently using video games “find distraction while working, distraction while driving [and] distraction while talking to the neighbors.” Bullinga also perceives that “parents and teachers will have to invest major time and efforts into solving this issue,” presumably by “helping young people learn to appreciate quiet contemplation without their mobile devices.”

However, as Professor Moss points out, “technology means something different to everyone.” One could consider the differences generationally, such as the Baby Boomer’s love of television and radio, versus the Millennial’s love of tablets and smartphones. In fact, to the Victorians, “a piece of a paper and a pen was technology,” says Professor Moss. Letters were the easiest way to communicate with far removed loved ones, and reading books was the primary source of entertainment, similar to our current propensity to wind down at night with an episode of The Great British Bake Off.

Writing letters and reading periodicals felt to the Victorians like an essential part of socio-cultural living, just as texting and HBO feel essential to us. Unplugged Day will challenge individuals to reassess what they see as “essential technology”—it IS possible to go a day without the use of one’s cellphone and computer, even though it may be inconvenient and quite difficult at times. The key is to evaluate the various ways one uses technology, and determine which uses are essential and which are superfluous.

For example, an individual may use their cellphone as an alarm clock—thus, cellphones have become essential for this person in waking up on time to get to work or school on schedule. This same person may also use their phones to scroll through Instagram every morning, which could be a serious time-consumer and may adversely affect one’s self-image, depending on the content of one’s Instagram feed. In this case, it would be difficult for this individual to function without a cellphone alarm, but it may be beneficial to work out a morning routine in which Instagram is not involved. However, this negotiation is different for everyone—there are those who need no morning alarm, but may find that their use of social media each morning is essential to their daily functioning. The necessity of technology is subjective—and it is individual to everyone. Professor Moss says that “determining when we feel like we’re dependent on technology versus feeling like technology aids us in being more efficient” is the solution to discerning which technologies can be easily given up.

A New York Times columnist recently underwent a “cellphone cleanse” and documented the results of his experiment. Kevin Roose perceived that he was feeling unproductive and out of control when it came to his cellphone usage, so he consulted a specialist who helped him to become less dependent on his cellphone. Roose states that “Mostly, I became aware of how profoundly uncomfortable I am with stillness.” He notes that, at first, it was difficult for him to not reach for his cellphone in moments in which he did not even realize that he had become dependent on using his phone—such as on public transportation, or even during meals with loved ones. After reassessing his use of technology, Roose noted that “One of the most unexpected benefits of this program is that by getting some emotional distance from my phone, I’ve started to appreciate it again.”

Genie Giaimo, the Director of the Ohio State Writing Center, has a no-phones policy for both students and staff during consulting meetings. Giaimo feels that “you have to eliminate cellphone from certain learning spaces in order to make those spaces conducive to learning.” Of course, cellphones can be used for a variety of educational-aiding purposes, and it is important to recognize that cellphone use in certain spaces is beneficial to learning in terms of accessibility. As Giaimo points out, “as technology becomes increasingly integrated with our work and lives, technology will inherently become both more useful and more necessary for productivity, accessibility, and communication.” Because of far-reaching programs like Duo, technology has become more embedded in the daily function of communities than ever before.

And, more than ever, Giaimo says, “our dependence on technology has halted our ability to be comfortable with boredom”—which is thought of as an essential part of cognitive processing, just like daydreaming, which has the ability to tap into our default network, increasing our ability to be creative and retain memory. Because we have effectively eliminated our “open time,” boredom—and that essential “down time” for our brains—has also become increasingly eliminated.

And that is what Unplugged Day is all about—reevaluating our technological practices and assessing the ways in which technology has been both helpful and harmful to us as individuals. Unplugged Day goes from March 1st to March 2nd, starting at sundown on the 1st. I will be participating—will you?

by Michaela Corning-Myers