Are We Addicted to our Cell Phones?

Readability

Are We Addicted to our Cell Phones?

SHREVE­PORT – As a high-​school Eng­lish teacher I have long strug­gled with the dis­trac­tion of cell phones in the class­room. I know many teach­ers who have strug­gled with this issue and have found var­i­ous ways to deal with it – most often sim­ply incor­po­rat­ing that tech­nol­ogy as an instruc­tional tool. I’ve seen “Cell Phone Jail” jars and boxes on Pin­ter­est and I’ve seen hang­ing shoe stor­age pock­ets used as charg­ing sta­tions, where the stu­dent can drop his phone in the pocket and leave it to charge all class period.

None of these have worked for me. The allure of that incom­ing text mes­sage or SnapChat photo is too pow­er­ful to ignore and invari­ably the stu­dent will check the phone, thus turn­ing his atten­tion away from instruction.

I was com­mis­er­at­ing with another teacher about this one day in an attempt to find out what my col­leagues do about this issue when some­one sug­gested I read A Deadly Wan­der­ing by Matt Rich­tel. The book came out in 2014 but is based on the author’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize win­ning series for the New York Times. The book tells the story of a teenager who caused an acci­dent while tex­ting and dri­ving which resulted in the death of two rocket sci­en­tists. It’s a com­pelling read and filled with the sci­ence to sup­port the author’s the­sis which is basi­cally that cell phone tech­nol­ogy has insin­u­ated itself into our most basic instinct to pay atten­tion in order to sur­vive, except now we are pay­ing atten­tion to the incom­ing text mes­sage or email rather than the more impor­tant tasks at hand, like per­haps driving.

This is espe­cially true for the younger gen­er­a­tion – those who have grown up with this tech­nol­ogy in their hands their entire lives.

Rich­tel cites sci­ence that explains how the phone works sort of like an imme­di­ate grat­i­fi­ca­tion sys­tem and that pos­i­tive reward releases dopamine in the brain each time you use the device:

…You hear the ping of an incom­ing text or call, you respond; the ping hap­pens, you respond. And each time you respond, you get a hit of dopamine. It’s a plea­sur­able feel­ing, a release from the reward cen­ter. Then it’s gone. There is no incom­ing text, no stim­u­la­tion. You start to feel bored. You crave another hit.”

The result is now we have a gen­er­a­tion of kids who find it “hard to sus­tain peri­ods of atten­tion” and who “are less tol­er­ant of wait­ing for delays.” Most telling to me, and what I see in my class­room is Richtel’s point that “Their brains are rewarded not for stay­ing on task, but for jump­ing to the next thing.”

So while this book is a fas­ci­nat­ing read and does help me under­stand a great deal about how the brain works and how addicted we are to our devices, it still doesn’t tell me how to man­age this issue in my classroom.

I had a con­ver­sa­tion with a stu­dent one day recently along these same lines. We had been read­ing Mac­beth and she was amazed that an actor could mem­o­rize so many lines of Shake­spearean dia­logue in order to per­form on stage. I pointed out that it seems that our brains have evolved over time to adapt to our chang­ing soci­ety; once trav­el­ing scops could recite 3,000 lines of Beowulf but you might be hard pressed to do that these days. And when I explained to her how we had to do research papers with­out inter­net and with­out com­put­ers (remem­ber the old Reader’s Guide?) she was astounded and shook her head in dis­be­lief. And then her phone vibrated and her eyes dropped to the screen to see who was mes­sag­ing her. End of conversation.

Since I’ve been read­ing Richtel’s book, I’m much more con­scious of my own cell phone ten­den­cies. I even laughed at the irony of my stop­ping read­ing long enough to mes­sage the friend who had rec­om­mended the book to me.

As I said, I still have not found a class­room man­age­ment strat­egy that will work in my room as far as the phone issue goes, but I think I’m get­ting closer to it by hav­ing read this book. At least now I under­stand that it’s a much big­ger prob­lem than I realized.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.

SHREVEPORT – As a high-school English teacher I have long struggled with the distraction of cell phones in the classroom.  I know many teachers who have struggled with this issue and have found various ways to deal with it – most often simply incorporating that technology as an instructional tool.  I’ve seen “Cell Phone Jail” jars and boxes on Pinterest and I’ve seen hanging shoe storage pockets used as charging stations, where the student can drop his phone in the pocket and leave it to charge all class period.

None of these have worked for me.  The allure of that incoming text message or SnapChat photo is too powerful to ignore and invariably the student will check the phone, thus turning his attention away from instruction.

I was commiserating with another teacher about this one day in an attempt to find out what my colleagues do about this issue when someone suggested I read A Deadly Wandering by Matt Richtel. The book came out in 2014 but is based on the author’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning series for the New York Times. The book tells the story of a teenager who caused an accident while texting and driving which resulted in the death of two rocket scientists.  It’s a compelling read and filled with the science to support the author’s thesis which is basically that cell phone technology has insinuated itself into our most basic instinct to pay attention in order to survive, except now we are paying attention to the incoming text message or email rather than the more important tasks at hand, like perhaps driving.

This is especially true for the younger generation – those who have grown up with this technology in their hands their entire lives.

Richtel cites science that explains how the phone works sort of like an immediate gratification system and that positive reward releases dopamine in the brain each time you use the device:

“…You hear the ping of an incoming text or call, you respond; the ping happens, you respond.  And each time you respond, you get a hit of dopamine. It’s a pleasurable feeling, a release from the reward center. Then it’s gone. There is no incoming text, no stimulation. You start to feel bored. You crave another hit.”

The result is now we have a generation of kids who find it “hard to sustain periods of attention” and who “are less tolerant of waiting for delays.”  Most telling to me, and what I see in my classroom is Richtel’s point that “Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task, but for jumping to the next thing.”

So while this book is a fascinating read and does help me understand a great deal about how the brain works and how addicted we are to our devices, it still doesn’t tell me how to manage this issue in my classroom.

I had a conversation with a student one day recently along these same lines. We had been reading Macbeth and she was amazed that an actor could memorize so many lines of Shakespearean dialogue in order to perform on stage. I pointed out that it seems that our brains have evolved over time to adapt to our changing society; once traveling scops could recite 3,000 lines of Beowulf but you might be hard pressed to do that these days. And when I explained to her how we had to do research papers without internet and without computers (remember the old Reader’s Guide?) she was astounded and shook her head in disbelief. And then her phone vibrated and her eyes dropped to the screen to see who was messaging her. End of conversation.

Since I’ve been reading Richtel’s book, I’m much more conscious of my own cell phone tendencies. I even laughed at the irony of my stopping reading long enough to message the friend who had recommended the book to me.

As I said, I still have not found a classroom management strategy that will work in my room as far as the phone issue goes, but I think I’m getting closer to it by having read this book. At least now I understand that it’s a much bigger problem than I realized.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.