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Smartphones are integrated into our lives—almost as much as toothbrushes, textbooks, and cat videos. By 2013, nearly three out of four college students had a smartphone. “Meeting someone at college who doesn’t own a smartphone is rare,” says Ally M., a third-year student at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
To get a sense of what this means for campus life, look around. We have our eyes and thumbs on our smartphones—in class, on the bus, even when socializing with friends. We’re checking, tweeting, posting, and uploading. Are our smartphones facilitating campus connections, or displacing them?
When smartphones get in our way
While we’re maintaining old relationships, our smartphones can cost us the chance to form new ones, says Dr. Fjola Helgadottir, a psychologist at Oxford University, UK. “Attending college can be a challenging time, especially for shy first-years. They are exposed to many new social situations and are expected to meet new people and develop new friendships”—often within within the first month, she says. If you’re living in the digital world instead of on campus, you could miss that key period of social opportunity.
“During my first year at college I found my smartphone to be a major distraction during orientation and events,” says Alex B., a third-year student at the University of Buffalo, New York. “I was too busy trying to document what was happening on social media and keeping up with what others were doing that I wasn’t able to fully enjoy being in the present.”
One in twenty students who responded to a recent Student Health 101 survey said their smartphone had been an obstacle to their participation in campus life. An additional one in five said their smartphone was useful but limiting at times.
“I was so busy trying to document what was happening on social media that I wasn’t able to fully enjoy the present.”
Who’s most at risk?
Smartphones are a particular trap for shy or socially anxious students. “Some students use their smartphone as a way to cope with social situations,” says Dr. Helgadottir, who is co-founder of A1-Therapy, an online treatment program for overcoming social anxiety. “For example, by using a smartphone you may be trying to project the image, ‘I’m not shy, I’m just busy.’” But being engrossed in our phone tells our peers we’re not up for conversation, or that our boyfriend from high school is still our priority.
“As a result of being on your smartphone in social situations, you miss out on an opportunity to confront your fear, which is the best way to improve,” Dr. Helgadottir says. “Also, when you are on your phone it may end up irritating other people, and this can cause them to judge you negatively—which is what you were trying to avoid in the first place.”
Too anxious to switch off
The constant need to feel connected has become an anxiety symptom in its own right—and the last thing we need at the start of the academic year is another reason to feel anxious. Nomophobia, the fear of being without your cell phone, and FoMO, the fear of missing out, are increasingly common among college students, according to recent research sponsored by SecurEnvoy, an internet security firm.
Too tired to switch on—socially
Smartphones can mess with our campus lives in other ways too. “Smartphones have a pretty clear and harmful effect on sleep,” says Dr. Christopher M. Barnes, an assistant professor of management at the University of Washington, DC. Late-night smartphone use is especially disruptive. “Research indicates that sleep is a driver of mood and helping behavior, which are important components needed to engage in a healthy and involved campus life,” says Dr. Barnes.
When our smartphone is our friend, we have good reason to love it. We can connect easily with others online and keep in contact with family and old friends at different schools. Some research suggests smartphones can help us study more effectively. Just be sure yours is working with you, not against you.
You and your smartphone might be overdoing it if…
- You turn to your smartphone when feeling shy or anxious
- In bed, you chat with (sorry, on) your phone
- You text someone when he or she is in the same building (or right beside you)
- You take your phone with you to the bathroom
- You panic when parted from your phone
Get help or find out more
Social Anxiety Scale: New York State Psychiatric Institute/Columbia University Medical Center
50 Smartphone apps for college students: Rasmussen College, Illinois
Cell phones and college: Tips on Cellphone Etiquette: Summer Discovery