Let’s get one thing straight. Teachers are not anti-cell phone. We use them too. We use them to check the time, browse the web, and pester our kids with “Dad jokes.” It is an important tool in managing and organizing our lives. However, most teachers at Loyola are old enough to remember a world without them. Trust that our “long view” on this issue might provide some insights, especially for students who have always lived in a mobile phone world.
When I entered Loyola Blakefield as a student back in the late ’80s, personal computers were just entering the scene. Although I did a fair amount of word processing on the six computers in the Creaghan Library, I still typed AP Composition papers on a typewriter, composed long essays on a notepad, and had to physically go to a library to do a research paper. People organized events using paper memos and phone calls. Gatherings had to be planned well in advance to allow time for information to spread via letters, flyers, or posters. Today, editing a paper on the computer is a must-have skill, the entire world’s libraries ride around in your backpack, and gatherings are arranged almost instantaneously with a few text messages. The result is that our lives have been sped up. This is helpful if there is an emergency, but humans are not evolved to build true and deep connections with one another at this pace.
Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Oxford University, compared the social groups of various primates, including humans, to the size of their brains. Interleaving us into the data suggests that humans have an ideal social group of about 150 individuals. This means that each of us has the capacity to maintain approximately 150 meaningful relationships with other people. Yet in our “sped up” world it is perhaps tempting to scoff at such a low number. After all, I have 470 friends on Facebook. I am sure your Instagram and Snapchat contacts could be much higher. Surely these are all meaningful connections? Sadly, no. Most of these “collected contacts” are just acquaintances. I barely ever see in real life at least three quarters of my Facebook friends. To say that they are “good friends” would certainly be a stretch. But sometimes we feel like we have to keep up with this stream of contacts. We must respond to every text, comment on every meme, and participate in every conversation. Before we realize, we have abandoned the person sitting next to us, in pursuit of the illusion that we are “connecting with our friends.”
“What is the harm in that?” you might ask. Studies show that this fear of missing out on our social media feeds can lead to increased levels of anxiety and depression, impact our sleep quality, and increase our risk of injury or death when driving. How can it do this? That little notification ding triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in your brain. You can think of dopamine as a car travelling on a highway. However, this highway only goes to the most amazingly fun place you can imagine. Call it the “reward highway.” Every time that ding goes off, your brain’s GPS system navigates the car along this reward pathway and makes your brain feel a little bit “rewarded.” We all like to feel rewarded. So, your brain starts to want those cars to travel along the reward highway again and again. It seeks new opportunities to drive those cars to “happy land.” This is the basis of addiction. While most scientists don’t believe that cell phone use is quite as addictive as say a hit of cocaine, those little notifications have power. How many of you have ever felt your phone buzzing in your pocket when it wasn’t even there? I have. Spooky! Take these little pleasure drives away and well, the brain gets worried, anxious, depressed and sad. This is something that limiting cell phone use can help diminish and one of the reasons why teachers are cautious about a “use it for anything at any time” cell phone policy.
This neurological phenomenon not only applies to those text messages and notifications, but also to what you view on your phone. Our brains also like to be right. It is rewarding. I mean who wants to be told they are wrong. Would you raise your hand in class if you didn’t at least think you had a correct answer to a teacher’s question? Social media platforms have made this their business model. Figure out what someone likes and feed them all the content they can on those topics. We’ve all had that freaky experience when we search for something on the internet, then change websites, and oddly an advertisement for the first thing we were searching for just happens to pop up. It’s like someone was watching us. Is this dangerous or just annoying? Well, consider it this way. High school is a time for you to explore new ideas. You can “try on” different identities, try different activities, and explore different ideas in an environment that is meant to be physically, emotionally, and academically safe. But what if you spend a majority of your time exploring only a few ideas? You know, the ones that keep coming up on your social media feeds. The result is that as a school society we become more polarized and isolated. We tend to only want to associate with those that agree with us and we become less open to new ideas presented by classmates and teachers. We might even feel resentful and angry that they would have the audacity to change our minds! Afterall, they are messing with our GPS directions to “happy land.”
At this point, I can hear your counterargument. “All these things can happen now with our Surfaces – that you gave us. Why are you so worried about us using our phones?” You’re right, but I am sure you would also agree that the cell phone is far more integrated into your mental life than your Surface. It’s easier to check. It’s easier to send and receive messages. And, perhaps most importantly, it isn’t controlled by the school. We can essentially browse whatever we want, whenever we want, on our phones. Take that LanSchool.
Therefore, to this point the only practical way to protect against the aforementioned concerns is to ban the phones outright. Hence the popularity of going to the bathroom during 3rd period. You know who you are. And thus, we arrive at the conundrum: how can we actuate the important life management features that our phones provide while still providing healthy guardrails against the dopamine-induced FOMO fallout they can cause? I applaud our administration and the SGA for their careful dialogue around this question.
In closing, I offer one final anecdote that might be helpful. I had the opportunity to visit another Jesuit all-boys high school right before the pandemic. This school had a more liberal cell phone policy that allowed students to use phones freely in common areas (hallways, lounges, outdoors) but required them to stow them during classes, in the library, and in the cafeteria. In their student lounge, I observed groups of students huddled around their phones sharing links and photos, searching social media feeds, laughing together, and enjoying themselves. Sounds great right? I thought so too, until I stepped back a bit and looked at the entire room. On this particular day in a common room with about fifty students, there were no students talking to one another without a phone at the center of the conversation. Not a single interaction was happening that wasn’t phone mediated. It got me thinking, what if this behavior expanded beyond this common room to the park benches and the bus stations and the classrooms of the school? What if there weren’t “guardrails” up to create “no phone” spaces. Would this community simply devolve into one where community members couldn’t talk to one another unless a phone acted as the middle-man? And if the phone is the middle-man, what devious algorithm driven “reward pathways” could gear their relationships? Would they even be interested in one another’s ideas at all? Would everything else in life that is interesting fall away leaving only the Pavlovian ding of the phone apps? I believe that this is a significant question to ponder. How do we achieve balance between our humanity, our mindfulness, and our desire for relationship on one hand and the power of technology for good or for ill on the other? For me, I am not anti-phone. I am just more pro-relationship.
Thank you to seniors Michael Dent ’22 and Oluwatoni Akintola ’22 for their dialogue and invitation to contribute this essay.