Getting students to think about smartphone addiction (Classroom activity)

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“Cell phone addiction” is a strong term that may or may not be appropriate to describe our current obsessions with our phones. But, now that I have your attention, I think it is important to bring into the classroom a discussion of the wider, perhaps unseen and perhaps deleterious, implications of cell phone culture in today’s society.

Indeed, there has been a lot of chatter lately on the potential negative ramifications of social media use in our society. For example, I recently shared on article on Pocket and Twitter that I came across from the New York Times titled: “Early Facebook and Google Employees Form Coalition to Fight What They Built.”

While I am not an expert in many of these areas of concern (such as mental health, physical health, what constitutes cell phone addiction, etc.), I do think these broader questions are things we cannot ignore as social media educators. We are in a unique position to bring attention to the broader relationship between social media and life in today’s society.

With that in mind, I am doing a brief 2-part series on ways I have sought to bring the topic of social media concerns into my teaching.

In the first post, we’ll talk about an activity. In a future post, I will talk about smartphone distraction in the classroom.

Okay, let’s get into it!

I want to share a quick activity I did last semester with my social media class. The activity brought forward a great deal of discussion in the class. It was great to have students sharing the challenges and concerns that they have with their phones and social media.  I was surprised and inspired by the candid nature in which students took on this topic. It was one of the best discussions I felt we had all semester.

Here’s how it worked:

First, I threw up this statement on the board and asked students if they agreed or disagreed and why:

“You’re only as good as your next post.”

Then, we discussed this statement:

“Your phone is like your life.
You either control it, or it controls you.”

Infographic: Next, as a class, we took a look at some of the reported benefits and drawbacks of social media While there are a number of sources for such info, here is one infographic that is easy to show in class.

Pre-Test: Next, I had students do a little ‘pre-test.’ The questions are below

  1. Do you think you’re addicted to your smartphone and/or social media?
  2. What are the 3 primary benefits you get out of using your smart phone?
  3. What are the 3 ways in which your smartphone has a negative effect on you?

Video Prompts: After students completed this, I gave them the following prompt that led to a discussion after the videos. Note, I will share the videos mentioned in the prompt below:

  1. What are the most compelling argument(s) or stats presented in these videos?
  2. What do you disagree with?
  3. How much control do you think you have over your smartphone use?

Cell Phone Habit (or addiction) ‘Experiment:’– But, before I showed the videos, I also set up a little ‘experiment.’ I asked the students to do the following:

  1. Pick up your phone.
    Look at the last few posts you made, and check the stats.
    Write down the emotions you feel.

I asked them to share some of these emotions. Answers include: excitement, anxiety, boredom, etc. I then told the student:

  1. Turn your smartphone off and put it in your bag.
    Log off the computer (we were in the computer lab).
    Get out a scrap paper.
  2. We’re going to watch 3 videos.
    1. Every time you find yourself wanting to check your phone/ reaching for it:
    2. Stop. Make a check on the paper. Write down the emotion you feel.

So, the students were both analyzing the videos (the video prompts above) and paying attention to their habit of wanting to reach for their phones.

After each video, we stopped and went around the room and had students share how many checks they had on their paper, and how they felt about how things were going. After all 3 videos played, we discussed the merits of each video, how the students felt, etc.

The videos were hard to choose. There are so many great Ted Talks and other videos discussing some of the pitfalls of social media. Here are 3 videos I settled on. I chose these because each touches on a different argument related to smartphones and social media.

  1. Dopamine and smart phones
  2. Cal Newport’s “Quit Social Media” TED talk.
  3. This Panda is Dancing – Time Well Spent

Note, there is an engrossing TED talk by Tristan Harris that I also recommend showing. I show part of it in my Communication & New Media course, however. So I did not want to repeat it in my social media class. Tristan Harris is mentioned in the New York Times article above, and his foundation created the “This Panda is Dancing” video.

After this, I asked students to look back at their pre-test results and their prediction of how much control they felt they had over their cell phone use. In other words, how aware are people of how much they use their phone? Were they surprised at the frequency with which they found themselves wanting to reach for their phone during the videos?

As we began wrapping up, I asked the students to jot down:

  • What is 1 thing you could do between now and next class to curb your smartphone use, as it relates to the negative effects you identified
  • Between now and next class, I want you to try and do that 1 thing.
  • How likely do you think you’ll succeed at that one thing? (Scale of 1 to 7 from Not at all – very likely)

Then, I gave the students some tools and tips to try and help them.

I encouraged students to download a free phone usage tracking app. Here are a few:

  • Moment (Apple)
  • MyAddictometer(Android)

For the following class, I asked them to provide the stats on their usage. Specifically, I was interested to know: how much time they used their phone each day, the number of times they checked their phone each day, and the top 2-3 apps they used.

Lastly, I provided some additional tips for helping take back control over cell phone usage that are provided in the Time Well Spent website Harris helps run. Note: The organization has since changed its name to HumanTech.

Conclusion

This exercise was a thought-provoking activity for my students and for me. I don’t expect that it is going to have long-term effects on cell phone use behavior by my students. But, I think it brought the issue in front of them and I am hopeful that it nudged them to be a little more mindful of just how engrossing our phones are.

Our discussion really brought out the struggle we all have between our hopes that we had a little more control and our love for the convenience and experiences our phones give us.

I left the students to wonder about whether they used their devices intentionally and were thus in control, or whether they allowed their devices to dictate the terms.

For the experiment, I went along with the students by monitoring my phone usage. I was appalled at how many times I go to use my phone. Seeing the statistic pop up when I first went to use the phone, helped me curb my usage some. I thought I only used my phone 45 minutes to an hour a day. Turns out, I was quite wrong.

Each year, I try to have a few goals and a theme. One thing I’ve been working on, is trying to be more mindful of how I spend time. I’ve never been one to waste too much time, or so I thought. I’ve learned there are many ways in which distractions are ‘scheduled into our lives,’ as Harris puts it.

I think many of us struggle with control over our time. Yet, time is all we have in life.

I was listening to a great interview on NRP with Tim Wu about a book I hope to find the time to read some day, Attention Merchants by Tim Wu. In it, citing William James, Tim said the following:

“… we must reflect that, when we reach the end of our days, our life experience will equal what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or by default. We are at risk, without quite fully realizing it, of living lives that are less our own than we imagine.”

I think he’s  profoundly right. I printed this quote and put it above my desk to help me remain mindful of how I’m spending my attention.

– Cheers!
Matt

p.s. If you’d like some additional content related to the above blog post, check out:

above photo is a free stock photo from pexels.com

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