Guest Submission: Observations from a student without a smartphone

I feel like the weirdest kid at McDaniel. As a student without a phone, I definitely don’t fit the norm. Am I the only one without a phone? Probably not, but we’re statistically rare. By the age of fourteen, 91% of US teens have a smartphone, according to the 2021 Common Sense Media report. I have access to a shared family smartphone when needed, but that does not regularly include school. As a result, I end up observing interactions of others and their electronic devices daily. There are some interesting patterns I’ve noticed throughout my daily routines.

As a whole, it’s hard to not run into someone on their phone in the halls in some fashion. During passing periods and right after school, students tend to be more socially active off a device. However, once class starts, the pull is intense. Often there is at least one student on their phone during class, but more commonly there are four or more during regular class time, spending more time on their phones than engaged in instruction or on an assignment. From my own experience, the draw of the device makes focusing difficult. When students talk to each other, it’s often about something on social media they wanted to share, seeking a form of connection in person through the virtual world. This increases distraction and draws them back to their phones. 

The daily struggle doesn’t just affect the students; it affects the teachers and faculty too. Teachers have to work hard to teach while balancing the attention span of their class. Technology breaks are built in an attempt to compete with the pull of the devices. Ironically, there is now an expectation that teens will have phones, so teachers try to use it as a helpful tool in the classroom. For someone like me, that becomes a barrier. 

I’ve personally witnessed hate messages, students ignoring people and activities they care about, and increased stress and anxiety related to social media at school and home. Smartphones have affected the ways peers interact, from sharing memes to passive aggressive posts about others. Social media has ruined some friendships for me and I’ve seen my friends distressed about texts and social media.

The rise of smartphones happened at the same time as an increase of teen mental health issues. This is why the US Surgeon General has warned that 13 years old is too young to be on social media and recommends 16-18 as the minimum age for social media access. This is also why a Seattle School District is suing 5 different social media platforms.
When the COVID lockdown was initiated, the self-medicating appeal of social media was obvious; it was the perfect way to stay in touch with loved ones you couldn’t see in person anymore. Over two years later, we’re dealing with the effects of living a large part of our lives online. Constant access to a personal device has been normalized, resulting in a loss of physical connection and activity. Instead of fading into the background, phones dominate at school, sporting events, and other settings. They’re a distraction and barrier to learning and more importantly, relating.

So, to recap: I am a weird person due to my lack of a smartphone as almost all of the students in my classes check their phone during class, and research says that smartphone use has increased dramatically in recent years along with teen mental illness. I’m surrounded by over 1,500 students on a daily basis and oftentimes, I somehow find myself feeling alone as the faces around me are pulled into their phones.