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Warning: Cell Phone Dependence Can Negate the Value of Engaged Learning

Director, ITLC Lilly Conferences &

Associate Professor UNC-Chapel Hill

Key Statement: Decreased social interaction due to a focus on devices is challenging personally, academically, and professionally.

Keywords: Phubbing, Social, Focus

Smartphones have immense value. We can see distant family members in real time, check world news anywhere, and post minute-by-minute photos of our vacation for friends to see. There is a plethora of opportunities afforded to us by a small handheld device and a highspeed internet connection. Unfortunately, this device’s greatest draw is also its biggest liability.

Image from Unsplash.

Social or Snubbed?

The programs we use on our smart devices drive our behavior more than we realize. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and other forms of social media use the same algorithms that casinos developed decades ago to hold our attention as long as possible, keeping us scrolling long after we promised ourselves “just a few more minutes.” In one of the most impactful studies I have ever read, Olds and Milner (1954) implanted a pleasure-giving electrode in a specific region of a rat’s brain that could be stimulated with the press of a lever. Rats pressed that lever as many as 7,000 times per hour. Amazingly, when given a choice of the pleasure lever and a food lever, they’d pick the pleasure lever, even when very hungry. Think of that the next time you are scrolling through your phone and realize you are thirsty or hungry, after being on your device for a longer period than intended.

In commanding our attention, smartphones cause us to disengage with others, snubbing friends and family in search of the next amazing 10-second video clip or meme. Phone snubbing is so pervasive that it now has a name: phubbing (Myers, 2022). Ranie and Zickuhr (2015) noted in a survey that nearly everyone admitted to using a smartphone during their most recent social activity. What is wrong with that, we might ask? During a conversation, your phone vibrates, you see it is a text from a friend, give it a quick virtual “thumbs up,” and then your attention is right back on the person speaking with you. Harmless, right?

Maybe not: Chotpitayasunondh and Douglas (2018) found that even a few quick glances at a phone during a short conversation negatively impacted feelings of belongingness and had negative communication outcomes. In another study, Chotpitayasunondh and Douglas (2016) demonstrated that attending to a phone instead of a social interaction creates a vicious cycle. As one person turns their attention from a conversation to the phone, so does the other person in the conversation. This you may well have seen (or experienced) when two people begin a casual conversation and then, little by little, each looks at their phone. Before long, each is completely engaged with their phone and essentially ignoring each other.

Academic and Emotional Impact

According to a CDC (2023) report, from 2011 to 2021, high school students have demonstrated a steady increase in persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness and steadily reduced interaction with peers. Yes, COVID (2020–2021) is included in this trend of decreasing sociability; however, the decrease from 2017 to 2019 was even larger than the average annual decrease in sociability, suggesting that COVID is not the only, or perhaps even the primary, factor for these self-reports of sadness, hopelessness, and reduced social interaction. Interestingly, teen interaction with friends was steady until around 2012, when it began to plummet. In just 7 years, from 2012 to 2020, the average number of minutes interacting with peers dropped from over 2 hours daily to fewer than 45 minutes. While the amount of social interaction, mental health, and connectedness has been steadily declining, the prevalence of smartphone use has been increasing. And it isn’t only teens. Although teens showed the impact first, every age group has shown declining interaction with others, even prior to COVID (Kannan & Veazie, 2023). Individuals of all ages increasingly sit in public spaces and even walk through parks scrolling through their phones rather than talking to one another or enjoying the surroundings.

The disengagement and mental health trends that began in 2012 and continue today are problematic for classroom engagement. As social media replaces social interaction, spontaneous engagement with one another in college classrooms can be expected to fall off. Individuals are even increasingly using their phones to pretend to be deeply engrossed to avoid interaction with others. With less social interaction, the confidence to speak to a stranger also drops off. This means the seemingly innocuous suggestion that a student turn to a neighbor and discuss a topic becomes increasingly challenging. Students can easily be phubbed in the classroom when asked to “talk to your neighbor” and even start the reciprocal behavior of phubbing one another until conversations screech to a halt.

Increasing Structure of

Engaged Learning Strategies

Engaged learning strategies in the classroom have been consistently shown to enhance learning (Freeman et al., 2014). However, this disengagement trend is creating a roadblock to engaged learning. I have heard from many faculty that it is becoming increasingly challenging to engage students in the classroom. Incessant phone use is changing how we interact with one another, outside the classroom and within. Increasing structure in the classroom has been shown to help students learn (Eddy & Hogan, 2014). It may be time to consider increasing the structure of engaged learning strategies. To assist with interaction, provide relatively straightforward collaborative tasks that result in a quick win. Get students used to pushing the level of engagement in a way they find rewarding. Request that students put phones away during activities to reduce the cycle of isolation that happens when one student phubs their classmate during a pair-share, resulting in that second student retreating to their phone.

It is also time that we model good social interaction. When speaking with students and colleagues, ignore your device and focus on the conversation at hand. If the person you are speaking with looks at their phone, pause and ask them if everything is okay. Drawing attention, in a polite way, to their behavior of looking at their phone may well prompt them to focus on their conversation with you. I was once speaking with a student and my phone vibrated. He heard it as I reached into my pocket to silence the device. He asked, “Are you going to get that?” I said, “No, I will get it in a minute when we finish talking.” He then replied, “What if it is an emergency?” I said, then the person should call 911. He looked very uncomfortable and insisted, “I think you should at least look at your phone to check to be sure everything is okay.” He was getting quite anxious at what might be occurring. To model sustained attention and interaction with the person before you, I asked if it would make him feel better if I looked to see that all was okay, to which he nodded. I glanced at the phone and reassured him all was fine. But is it?

Discussion Questions

  1. What differences are you noticing in your courses with respect to students’ attention to their devices?

  2. What strategies might you employ to encourage students to put their smartphones away during an engaged learning exercise?

  3. Discuss with students how they feel about interacting with peers who are focused on smartphones. Although this is common behavior, ask students to consider the long-term impact of attention being paid to social media and casual content on the phone versus speaking with other individuals. What issues surface?


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023). Youth risk behavior survey:

Data summary and trends report. 2011–2021. Author.


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becomes the norm: The antecedents and consequences of

snubbing via smartphone. Computers in Human Behavior, 63,

Chotpitayasunondh, V., & Douglas, K. M. (2018). The effects of

“phubbing” on social interaction. Journal of Applied Social

Psychology, 48(6), 304–316.

Eddy, S. L., & Hogan, K. A. (2014). Getting under the hood: How and

for whom does increasing course structure work? CBE Life

Sciences Education, 13(3).

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N.,

Jordt, H., & Pat, M. (2014). Active learning increases student

performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. PNAS,

Kannan, V. D., & Veazie, P. J. (2023). US trends in social isolation,

social engagement, and companionship- nationally and by

age, sex, race/ethnicity, family income, and work hours, 2003-

2020. SSM Population Health, 21, 101331.

Myers, D. G. (2022). How do we know ourselves? Curiosities and

marvels of the human mind. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Olds, J., & Milner, P. (1954). Positive reinforcement produced by

electrical stimulation of septal area and other regions of rat

brain. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology,

Ranie, L., & Zickuhr, K. (2015). Americans’ views on mobile etiquette.

Pew Research Center.

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1 Comment

Howard Aldrich
Howard Aldrich
Jun 03, 2023

After ignoring the problem for several years, I've decided I need to do something. In my next semester, I'm going to ban smart phones. They must be switched off during class. In fact, I'm think of requiring that students turn off & put away their phones when they enter the room. Students used to spend the minutes before class started to talk with their peers. Now, they'll all on their phones. And that intellectual passivity carries over into the class vibe, I believe. We'll soon see! Todd, I'll let you know if it makes a difference!

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