“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in while, you could miss it” – Ferris Bueller
This summer, I’m teaching a 4-week psychology course that lasts for 3.5 hours a day. I know that students have a hard time paying attention for more than about 30 minutes at a time—especially when someone boring like myself is blathering on and on about research methods—so I try to schedule in mini-breaks here and there.
For the past few days, I’ve been watching what my students do during these breaks. Without fail, one activity predominates over the others.
Can you guess what it is?
If you guessed “use cell phones,” you’re right on.
As soon as the break starts, most of my students whip out their cell phones and start checking their text messages, Facebook feed, Snapchat messages, and email (although fewer and fewer students seem to be checking email regularly these days).
Some of them get up and walk around, but the large majority of them immediately jumps onto their cell phones to see what they might’ve missed over the last 30 minutes.
The other day, I noticed something especially interesting about my students. During their entire break, there was nary a word exchanged among them. Instead, for the entire duration, they all stayed in their seats, glued to their cell phones.
As I sat there and watched them, it took everything I had not to yell at them, “For the love of God, please put away your damn phones and have a conversation!”
My experience is not novel, though. This lack of social interaction has become increasingly common in my classes over the last few years. (My colleague Dana Dunn wrote about this recently, too. Check out his blog.) Rather than chat with the people sitting just a few feet away from them, students prefer to “interact” with others through the medium of technology. In fact, a recent report from the Pew Research Center showed that cell phone use among young adults is up dramatically over the last few years (and a good chunk of that use occurs in class).
Cell Phones: Why the Appeal?
Now, from a psychological perspective, it’s fairly easy to understand why cell phones are so appealing.
One thing we know from a ton of research is that immediate “rewards” are more appealing than delayed rewards. For instance, most people would rather have $100 now than $100 in 1 year. The dollar amount is the same in each of those choices, but having to wait 1 year reduces its psychological value immensely.
So, think about what happens when you check your cell phone: You have access to immediately available “rewards” in the form of text messages, Facebook “Likes,” Snapchat messages, and amazing YouTube videos about the hilarious things that cats do.
Similarly, we know from a good amount of research that rewards requiring effort are less appealing than rewards we can easily obtain. To illustrate, imagine the following choice:
You can either have $100 for “free,” or you can have $100, but only if you clean the entire house.
Again, my guess is that most of you would rather get the money for free than work for it.
Now, imagine how effort probably impacts cell phone use in my classes. Jumping on your phone and having a text-message conversation with your friend is probably easier than initiating a conversation with someone you don’t know very well. Plus, when you initiate a conversation with a relative stranger, you never know how it’s going to turn out (‘cuz, you know, there are some real weirdos out there).
So, I get it—I understand why students (and others) are quick to jump on their cell phones. And you know what? I’m no saint when it comes to this either. I probably check my cell phone way more each day than I should. (Just because I understand why behavior happens doesn’t mean I’m immune to the factors that cause it.)
Cell Phones: Causing Problems Since 1980
Unfortunately, cell phone use can be problematic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s a leading cause of car accidents. But here are just a couple more reasons why it might be relevant to my students:
Multi-tasking reduces productivity immensely, which means that students who check their cell phones while studying will probably have to spend more time getting their work done (which, for those students who hate their majors, won’t make life any more enjoyable).
It also reduces learning. My colleague Mandy Gingerich has shown convincingly that texting in class significantly reduces exam performance (and yet, even after I talk to students about these studies, many still use their cell phones in class).
But I think there’s an even more important reason why all of us should put our cell phones away more regularly: Being on them (and other technology) all the time simply makes us miss life!
Was That My Life That Just Went By?
This point was drilled home for me a few years ago.
I was sitting in my favorite recliner with my laptop in my lap (hence the reason they’re called laptops), trying to get through the mountain of email that had accumulated in my Inbox. Just as I was getting into a rhythm, my son, who was about 3 years old at the time, tapped me on the shoulder. He started to ask me to play but quickly stopped himself. “Oh, I see you’re working,” he said. “Never mind. I’ll go and play by myself.”
The disappointment in his voice was like a knife to the heart. I thought about all the times he had asked me to play and how I frequently replied, “Just a minute. I’m working.”
I also noticed how old he looked. It seemed like only yesterday that he was the tiny baby I rocked to sleep. And now, here he was, 3 years old and growing like a weed. It made me wonder how much of those 3 years I had missed simply because I was too busy looking at my computer or checking my cell phone.
At that point, I realized that I needed to be more focused on the present moment and less focused on everything else: my lengthy to-do list, the mountain of emails in my Inbox, the text messages, Facebook, and, most importantly, that “hilarious” YouTube video where Charlie bites his brother’s finger.
Because here’s the thing: The present is all we have.
The Importance of Being Present
The past is gone, and the future isn’t here yet (and, in reality, it never gets here). In fact, when you think about it, life is ultimately made up of nothing but the present moments, experienced over and over again.
And that means if we don’t pay attention to the present moment, we essentially miss out on life. If we are constantly thinking about the past or the future, we’re missing out on the present. If we are constantly glued to our cell phones, we’re missing out on important things that might be happening right in front of us.
It reminds me of a concert I was at a few years ago. My wife and I were seeing Cowboy Mouth at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC. Anyone who’s seen a Cowboy Mouth show will tell you that they’re one of the greatest live acts around. (If you don’t believe me, check out this video of the band playing their late-90s hit “Jenny Says.” Plus, how can you dislike a band that writes a song about Kelly Ripa?). During one moment of the show, their energetic drummer/singer, Fred, was getting the crowd riled up. I remember him saying to someone in the crowd, “Dude, put down your cell phone, and stop living life through a screen.”
I love that.
Put down your cell phone, and stop living life through a screen.
Ultimately, it makes me wonder if my students are missing out on life. It makes me wonder how many potentially amazing opportunities they’re missing out on simply because they’re glued to their cell phones—both in class and out.
When I ask my students about their college years, they inevitably say one common thing: how fast they flew by. “I can’t believe I’m already done with my first semester of college” quickly becomes, “I can’t believe I’m about to graduate. Where did the time go?”
I remember feeling the same way. And here’s a dirty little secret for you: As you get older, the time flies by even faster.
I can’t believe it’s been 20 years since I graduated from college. I can’t believe I’ve been a college professor for 13 years. I can’t believe it’s been almost 9 years since I got married. I can’t believe it’s been nearly 7 years since my first son was born and 4 years since my second son was born. I can’t believe how quickly my beard has turned gray (which, I believe, is directly related to the birth of my sons).
When it comes right down to it, I want to be present for my life. I want to be present for what’s happening right now. I want to be present for my wife. I want to be present for my boys. I want to be present for my friends. I want to be present for my students. (For the curious reader, here’s a nice blog post on learning to become more present.)
I don’t want to spend too much time thinking about the past—because it’s done and gone.
I don’t want to spend too much time thinking about the future—because it’s not guaranteed.
And I certainly don’t want the next 20 years to fly by and wonder how I missed out on them.
I think we all need to put down our cell phones and stop living life through a screen.
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