You’ve probably had one of those moments, driving down some packed city street or a rural backroad relying on a directions app, when you’ve exclaimed, “What did we do before phones?” Ask a member of Generation Z, and they may not be able to tell you.
Some may bemoan map reading as a lost art, still others may say good riddance to a difficult and outdated system. No matter where you stand on the particular issue of digital directions, it is hard to argue that the cell phone hasn’t enhanced society.
From easier communication to near-universal access to the world-wide web, from personal cameras to portable music players, the cell phone has completely changed human life, and in many ways for the better. But what happens to a vulnerable part of the population—teenagers — who hardly remember a time when cell phones weren’t a universal part of life? Perhaps the most important question to ask is if these ubiquitous tools are more sinister, affecting the health of teenagers when phones enter schools and classrooms.
For that lucky part of the population who never has to enter a high school again, you may not know that schools differ on their phone policies. In many high schools, such as my own Falmouth High School, cell phones are out constantly throughout the day—during lunch, breaks, and even some classes, introducing a question that is raging across the media and medical community: Are high schoolers addicted to their phones? In 2018, students at Falmouth High School had a lot to say about that.
Although research has proliferated on the topic of cell phone addiction (CPA), medical professionals may not officially diagnose it. Nevertheless, CPA has been defined as an irrational and excessive dedication to phone use, which has been found to overlap with behavioral addiction in both realms of symptomology and neurobiology. Even though the medical community is unsure about whether to call it an addiction or a disorder, international groups of researchers believe CPA is all too real.
Studies report that certain groups of people are more at risk for CPA, including those with certain personality factors like extroversion, as well as gender and age groups. Teenagers, predictably, are the most at risk for developing CPA. In fact, one Spanish study reports that the single greatest predictor of CPA is the age at which one’s first cell phone was first acquired—thirteen years and below being the magic number of risk.
In general, psychologists report that interacting through screens is easier than traditional, face-to-face communication, because screen based socializing requires much less emotional investment. Plus, tech companies have implemented certain features to keep users on their sites, such as autoplay and pull-to-refresh. Researchers also generally agree that phones alter brain chemistry in short-term ways by increasing dopamine levels during use, much like substances.
Today, it is easier than ever to become overly reliant on technology—even addicted. Excessive screen use, of course, has adverse effects on the body, from eye strain to neck pain. In addition, the toll on the brain is even worse — researchers report atrophying brain matter in areas of empathy and attention span, and have also connected screens to depression, anxiety, and suicide. In some cases, CPA and high overall screen use are a matter of life and death, or at least grave mental and physical problems.
In 2017, an organization called Common Sense Media released the results of a survey regarding CPA. In it, a staggering 50 percent of teenage respondents felt addicted to their phones. This may seem like a large number, and it very well may be.
In a survey I sent to the student body of Falmouth High School, 267 people responded. The purpose of the survey was to confirm sources like Common Sense Media, and to provide a snapshot of phone use at my school. I asked students to self-report if they felt addicted to their phones, and only 28.8 percent of respondents said they did. Although my survey failed to confirm the high levels of self-reported addiction that Common Sense Media found, it nevertheless revealed a sizable portion of high schoolers who may have the condition—an unacceptable amount of people, given the negative outcomes of CPA.
The data from this survey did reveal a great deal about phone use habits, as well. On average, students report spending two to three hours a day on their phones. Broken down by gender, females use their phones for 2.9 hours a day, while males use their phones for a little over 2 hours a day. Not only do females regularly use their phones for longer, but they also report feelings of addiction at twice the rate of males (33 percent versus 17 percent). For each gender, total time of cell phone use among those addicted increases, to 3.5 hours for females and 2.7 hours for males. Further research is required to reveal cell phone use trends among all genders.
In addition, one very telling statistic regarded stress and discomfort related to phone use. Over half of respondents indicated that they used their phones when they felt stressed, possibly as a way to alleviate negative moods. Students who reported picking their phones up uncontrollably reported slightly higher levels than those who did not. Phones, therefore, represent a nasty cycle. Though teens often use their phones to combat stress, these very devices may be causing their stress in the first place.
My classmates seem to agree, however, that phones belong outside the classroom. Most students attend classes in which phones are banned, and most people don’t use their phones in these situations, though about 30 percent will occasionally. In addition, the majority of students think that phones are distracting in the classroom, though 25 percent do not. Despite this consensus, phones are still as commonplace a presence around school as backpacks and binders. As we know, excessive phone use has a measurably negative effect on health, and could pose one of the greatest—and most hidden—threats in schools.
School administrators have an obligation and responsibility to protect students from all health risks, including cell phone addiction and overuse. I don’t support banning phones at this stage in education. They are now too important to my age group, and pursuing a zero tolerance policy for phones would create discord between students, faculty, and adult leaders.
However, students should know the risks of phone use, and CPA needs to appear in health courses about addiction, especially as some experts claim teens are replacing drugs with phones. Health classes should also arm students with ways to decrease their phone use; for example, providing counseling, or recommending apps that track phone use. With this information, concerned students can independently make the necessary decisions to reduce their reliance on phones, and to protect their health in the process.
Emma Auer is a contributing writer for Raise Your Voice, and is a senior at Falmouth High School.