Margot Besnard:Students should re-evaluate their smartphone usage

Within five minutes of waking up to my marimba ringtone alarm this morning, I’d already scrolled through the latest headlines and started reading an article about Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush. My groggy brain needed something more stimulating to stay awake, so I liked my friend’s latest Instagram photo from her semester in Paris and checked my email.

At GW, a smartphone is an essential tool for keeping up with class schedules and current events, all while coordinating a steady schedule of activities and taking pictures to show our friends and family how much fun we’re having.

But sometimes, being on our phones takes away from the quality of in-person interactions. It’s important that we balance the benefits of useful technology without sacrificing our ability to listen to and understand one another. We should all make a more conscious effort to look up from our smartphones when it matters by taking small steps every day to change the norm of non-stop connection.

I thought I’d found an easy solution when I watched Adele use a flip phone in her latest music video: “I’ll be retro and cool like Adele and go back to a flip phone!”

I realize now, though, that isn’t a realistic way to change the status quo. Some have suggested taking a technology break altogether, but smartphones are so useful and embedded in society that even if I managed to survive a day without mine, I’d likely go right back to the same routine.

Instead, we should pay more attention to our daily habits and establish rules about when to disconnect. If we each work on changing one or two smartphone habits, we can gradually reach a better balance between digital connection and a real-life presence. The habits I’m trying to change are looking at my phone during awkward moments and checking notifications during conversations with friends. I’m taking baby steps rather than quitting cold turkey – something we all can do.

Research about the impact of smartphone use has led scientists like Sherry Turkle, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Initiative on Technology and Self, to call attention to the importance of unplugging during conversations. Her concern is that when people are distracted by technology during face-to-face conversations, their capacity for empathy drops. She points to evidence from studies like a field experiment in D.C. coffee shops, which found that even the presence of an iPhone on a table can reduce the quality of a conversation.

Sometimes, technology prevents conversations from happening in the first place. The minute a lecture is over, my classmates and I look like passengers getting off an airplane who have cell service for the first time in seven hours. We file out of our rows, tapping and scrolling until we get to a crosswalk or to the next class. Often when I see my roommate around campus, I don’t bother calling her name because she’s wearing headphones. I’m also guilty of keeping my headphones in when she gets back to our room from class.

Turkle also says that digital life can take away from a person’s ability to self-reflect when he or she consistently turns to a screen to avoid boredom. I can think of many times in the past week alone that I used my phone in that way. When I had trouble sleeping, I reached for my phone. While I stood in line at Whole Foods, I adjusted the brightness of a photo I took on Halloween. And after I sat down to eat the lunch I’d just waited to buy, I glanced at my email while my friend told me about her weekend.

It’s funny and somewhat sad for me to imagine myself using my iPhone at different times in my life the way my friends and I use ours now: posting a Snapchat video during someone’s wedding or checking Facebook during a meeting at work. I try to imagine what it would have been like to sit down for dinner as a kid and see my mom set an iPhone next to her plate, or walk to school next to my brother with headphones in my ears.

In the future, there will always be news and work to catch up on, and smartphones are here to stay. That’s why it’s important to start gradually changing our habits now. It takes a conscious effort to change norms, but it’s an effort we should make in order to fully appreciate the people right in front of us.

Margot Besnard, a junior majoring in political science, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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