Illustration by Dave Cutler
T hree years ago, when I started teaching journalism and new media at a Midwestern university, I was sure my students would think I was the coolest professor ever. Like them, I’m fascinated by MTV’s Teen Mom . I check TMZ on my phone. I’m hip to the latest YouTube sensations. But I’ve come to realize that there’s a huge gap between us. Here are a few things I’ve observed:
They are blind to technology etiquette. They simply cannot stop futzing with their gadgets. According to the Pew Research Center, 95 percent of Americans ages 18 to 34 own a cell phone. Seventy percent own a laptop. And during any spare moment (and even moments that aren’t free – such as when I’m lecturing), they whip out their phones or laptops to update Facebook and send texts and tweets.
I used to allow students to type notes while I lectured. But I quickly realized that what looked like note taking was in fact Web surfing. In one study of college students who use laptops during class, 64 percent admitted to multitasking during lectures – and by multitasking, they meant checking email (81 percent), instant messaging (68 percent), surfing the Web (43 percent), and playing online games (25 percent). These days, I – and nearly every other instructor I know – have “a no computers or cell phones in the class unless I say so” policy.
During one class, I mentioned that it’s rude to use a phone or a computer while someone is talking to you. My students were stunned. Several said, “Really? I do that all the time.” A few apologized afterward for any tech transgressions they may have unwittingly committed. But Judith Kallos, the etiquette expert behind www.netmanners.com, a website dedicated to teaching people to be courteous when using technology, is skeptical of those apologies. “They know, but they choose to do it anyway,” she says. “We live in a very narcissistic culture where we are no longer naturally gravitating toward courtesy. It’s all about ‘I want, and I want it now.’”
Multitasking is hurting their brains. I allow students to use computers in class for activities such as writing or building websites. Recently, I said, “Let’s keep open only the software I’m asking you to use while we work. Don’t open an Internet browser, iTunes, or anything else.” They moaned and rolled their eyes, but they did try. Unfortunately, most of them failed. Within five minutes, they were perusing the Internet while completing the task I’d given them.
When I called them on their behavior, they justified it by saying they were multitasking. They explained that simultaneously writing, texting, reading websites, refreshing Facebook, listening to music, and watching TV online is just the way they roll.
So I told them about a few studies I’ve come across. Clifford Nass, a professor at Stanford University, has found that students who multitask perform worse than non-multitaskers in nearly every category, including critical-thinking skills and memory tests. He’s also found that multitaskers have difficulty judging others’ emotions. Researchers in China have discovered that students who spend a great deal of time online have less gray matter in their brains – the area responsible for thinking. But my students think this data doesn’t apply to them.
They dislike conversing face to face. I’m not surprised that students don’t talk to me much. But I am surprised by how little they talk to one another. Before and after class, the room is silent. Most are messing around with their phones or using a computer.
“We’ve found ways to avoid having to confront people face to face,” says Naomi Baron, one of the leading researchers in the field of technology and communication and a professor of linguistics at American University in Washington, D.C. She has developed the idea of “controlling the volume” on conversation. “If I text you, your reply will be short,” she explains. “If I talk to you, you might have a whiny voice and talk for a long time.”
A former student of Baron’s recently sent her a photo of her son’s sleepover party. In it, all of the boys are sitting in a room together, but each has his cell phone out. “The entire notion of social interaction is in danger of being redefined,” Baron says. “There’s no impetus to converse with the person in front of your nose.”
Their only news comes from Facebook. When I ask my students what they’re so busy doing on their cell phones and computers, they tell me they’re on Facebook. In the past year, only one of the nearly 200 students I taught did not have a Facebook account. One study found that, on average, undergraduates spend almost two hours per day on Facebook.
That doesn’t leave time for much else, including consuming news. Only a few of my students read newspapers. A handful regularly visit traditional news websites such as CNN. Only 10 of the 90 students I taught last semester regularly watched any nightly news on TV (and that includes the Daily Show and Colbert Report ).
The only news they encounter is in the articles and videos that Facebook friends post on their walls. The trouble is, most of their Facebook friends care about the same things my students care about – pop culture, beauty, fashion, and sports.
In my reporting classes, I occasionally give pop news quizzes. I expect my students to have a basic understanding of major news stories. But last spring, 8 of 20 students couldn’t name a single Middle Eastern country that had been rocked by protests. One student answered “Siberia.”
Life without technology leaves them depressed and anxious. Last spring break, I had my students in an introductory communications class give up social networking, emailing, Web surfing, and texting for 48 hours and then write a paper about their experience.
According to their papers, they could live without the Internet in general. But 48 hours without Facebook was torture. (No one mentioned email. According to them, that’s how old people communicate.) The words addiction, depression, withdrawal, lonely appeared in almost every paper. Phone use wasn’t against the rules, but only a few called friends or family. Many wrote that conversing with someone on the phone would be too “weird.”
This isn’t strictly a U.S. phenomenon. Last year, the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda asked about 1,000 students across five continents to not use media for one day and then report back. They, too, reported feeling depressed and lonely. They also felt that because their cell phones had become an extension of themselves, living without them was like losing part of their identity.
But I have hope. Most of my students spent some of those 48 tech-free hours writing their papers. They noticed that it was easier to focus when they weren’t also texting, watching YouTube videos, and checking Facebook. In fact, this was the most well-thought-out and articulate set of papers I’ve read since I began teaching. Perhaps, eventually, they will learn to rule technology and not let it rule them.
Patti Lamberti is a freelance journalist and a professional in residence at Loyola University Chicago's School of Communication.