I was naked, standing in the middle of the Quad, surrounded by hundreds of my peers and brutally aware of my own vulnerability.
All of my clothes were on. I was even wearing boots. But my phone, my consummate security blanket, was turned off and far away on my bedside table.
Within the lifetime of the typical Occidental student, cell phones have gone from non-existent to an omnipresent part of daily life. Today, a student without a smartphone is an anomaly; a circus marvel who manages to function without constant access to emails and Twitter. But a completely phoneless student? The existence of one has yet to be confirmed.
Having a phone is like having an extra appendage. It has become an integral part of daily life, one that presumably makes one’s day easier by making just about everything more accessible. Instead of needing a watch, GPS, calendar, notepad, daily planner, newspaper, music player and radio, one needs only to remember a single item hardly bigger than a deck of cards. In streamlining these items, however, life has not only become “easier” but also more anxiety-producing. Easier, it seems, does not necessarily mean simpler.
Phones are so prolific that they have become another entity that defines the campus environment. This compelled The Occidental Weekly to wonder just what would happen if students were asked to turn off their phones for 48 hours. Students were given a series of questions to which they responded over a two-day period while their phones remained turned off and left at home. Weekly staff members from various class years and social groups contacted friends, either directly or via social media, asking them to participate. Out of the multitude of students who were contacted for participation, only nine successfully completed the informal study.
Some students had legitimate reasons for refusing to turn off their phones: they were club directors whose jobs required that they be in constant contact, they were waiting for calls from prospective employers or their families were coming into town and they had to be reachable. But for others, just the words, “Turn off your phone,” caused them to respond adamantly, “Absolutely not.” The anxiety these students felt at the mere prospect of being out of contact was almost universally reflected in the survey responses of the nine participants.
Art History and Visual Arts major Liz Wells (senior) was one of the many who chose not to participate in the study, having already experienced an extended period of time without a phone.
“I didn’t realize [until that experience] how much I had come to depend on it and how safe it made me feel to have constant contact with people. Not having all of that, and especially not having Facebook – being very disconnected from everyone in my life – made me feel very vulnerable,” Wells said.
Her response is reflective not only of a generational dependency on mobile technology, but of its relevance at Occidental, specifically.
Significance of phones at Occidental
Though it can be assumed that smartphones have taken over all college campuses, they have a particular importance at a school like Occidental, where students frequently balance a myriad of obligations.
“Everyone is so busy all the time and, without a phone, there is just no way to translate my busy schedule to someone else’s busy schedule,” Diplomacy and World Affairs (DWA) major and study participant Dana Rust (sophomore) said.
Many students here have their hands in a number of pies: club directors are also presidents of Greek organizations, Green Bean baristas are also Glee Club members, theater performers are also varsity athletes. In order to coordinate something as simple as a coffee date, smartphones seem to be a necessity. No longer do people only call their peers to make plans – they text, email, Facebook message or, in some cases, sync Google calendars.
This phenomena of assumed multiple identities makes being in constant contact a near necessity. And it affects the tenor of the campus environment.
“I never really see people on the Quad just sitting. You don’t really see people not doing anything,” Rust said.
The demands of academia and extracurriculars stretch themselves into every corner of a student’s life. Sitting in the Quad with a friend is no longer a moment of reprieve. It is a social interaction punctuated by emails, calendar reminders and phone calls, all reminding the individual about the things they should be doing.
Effect of phones on social interactions
When the participants in the study finally worked up the nerve to turn off their phones, most of them began to notice just how reliant their peers were on their mobile devices.
“The amount of people [who] are checking their phones seems unnecessary. Without having a phone, I realize how truly annoying it is that people check their phones for silly reasons when you are trying to have a conversation with them,” Urban and Environmental Studies (UEP) major Mary Richardson (sophomore) responded in the survey.
The quick glance at a phone mid-conversation has become so routine that many no longer notice it. The rhythm of conversation works its way around the compulsion to check texts, emails or Snapchats. Participants responded that it was not until they became phoneless that they were made aware of chronically interrupted social interactions.
More compelling, however, is the degree to which students use their phones as a source of comfort in moments of social anxiety.
“It’s definitely like a shield or protection against feeling uncomfortable,” Rust said.
Studio Art major Daisy Cortes (senior) echoed Rust’s comments.
“I turn to my phone in moments of social anxiety/awkwardness,” Cortes said.
Phones in this context become a mediator between one individual and another. They allow people to ignore feelings of discomfort, easily masking social awkwardness with a swift scroll through Instagram.
Ways in which phones are anxiety producing
Apart from the one participant who did not own a smartphone, every participant felt that their mobile device was a source of both comfort and anxiety.
“I would definitely say that my phone can be anxiety provoking, especially if I lose it or have a lot of people bombarding me with calls and messages,” Critical Theory and Social Justice major August Polstein (senior) responded.
Being constantly accessible may enable more efficient work, but it may also diminish a student’s ability to be in the present moment.
“Any moment of free time when I’m alone and don’t have anything to do, I automatically look at my phone,” Rust said. “I dont even think about what else I could be doing. What I really do is compulsively check my email, but email that I’m not going to answer right now, that I don’t have time to answer right now. But I’m just going to look and worry about answering later in the day.”
The various apps available on smartphones have replaced the moments in a student’s day when they could speak casually with friends, engage in an activity just for fun or even take a moment to sit and do nothing. If constant inundation of information causes such anxiety, it begs the question – are phones really enriching people’s lives, or are they stripping them of important moments of idleness?