I am frustrated and dismayed by the use of smartphones in my classroom. I begin every semester with a short lecture on why I don’t allow the use of electronic devices. The argument comes in two parts—the first involves me and the second is about them.
I say that it is common courtesy to pay attention to the person you are with. So when they have something to say, I listen to them. I provide eye contact, make appropriate sounds to indicate that I’m listening and I respond with an appropriate word or two. The person in front of you should be given your full attention simply because they matter. I can ignore objects—a doorstop doesn’t have feelings, it has no interests or mind. But a person is different. People have feelings and one of the worst feelings to have is that of being ignored.
So I say, “Pay attention to me and to the other students around you. It is a sign of respect. And mutual respect is the first step in good human relations.”
Put away your phones as a sign of respect to me. In return, I promise to respect each student.
The second argument for banning electronic devices is aimed at them. I make the assumption that they are in college for a reason. Someone is paying tens of thousands of dollars each year for them to attend my private university. The fact is, despite what students may claim, it isn’t possible to give two thoughts equal attention. That’s why many states ban cell phone use while driving. You can’t pay attention to the road sufficiently when using the phone. And you can’t learn properly when your mind is elsewhere other than the classroom.
Of course, no one can pay attention all the time, especially not in an hour-and-half long class. Everyone’s mind drifts. Drifting can be rejuvenating and it can be time for creative thought. But that’s different than engaging in tweets, texts and on-line shopping. Those are simply intrusions.
Are my two points sufficient for students to put away their phones? For some, yes, the arguments for respect and self-interest are compelling. For others, no. They dismiss me as being out of touch with the world. I think far more common is that some continue to use the phone because of the fact that they can’t put it away. They are addicted.
The U.S. isn’t the only country faced with this problem. China recognizes it, too. And they have taken steps to face it head-on by creating military-style internet addiction centers. As one mother said, as she enrolled his son at one of the sites, “Our son’s addiction to the internet is destroying our family. He completely lost control and spent more than 20 hours in front of the computer.” During the minimum stay of three months, her son will be denied access to all electronic devices, prohibited from outside contact, will have to follow all orders and may receive electroshock therapy.
The director of Daxing Internet Addiction Treatment says that internet addiction is even more damaging than heroin addition: “It destroys relationships. All of them have eyesight and back problems. Their brain capacity is reduced by eight per cent.” Ninety person of the patients suffer from depression, he claims, and more than half have attacked their parents.
The Chinese government is cracking down on the treatment centers for their excessive use of force. At the same time, the government is considering legislation that would limit the number of hours could play online games and would prohibit minors from playing online games between midnight and 8 a.m.
There is some debate as to whether excessive use is an addiction at all. While I think it is, China’s Ministry of Health no longer uses the term, but the China Youth Association for Network Development, a committee under the direction of the Communist Party, reported that more than 24 million users between 13 and 29 years old were digital addicts.
Whatever the terminology, it is a serious problem. There are police departments in this country that now provide training for new officers because the recruits often lack basic people skills. They don’t know how to make eye contact or small talk, for example. Businesses are discovering the same thing.
If you or someone you know can’t put their phone away for more than a short time, what are you going to do about it?