Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Key to that "Peaceful Easy Feeling"

As reported in a Wall Street Journal essay by author Nicholas Carr, if you have a smart phone, you'll likely be "consulting the glossy little rectangle nearly 30,000 times over the coming year."[1]  Most of us seem to think that is not a problem at all, at least based on our actions.

That’s certainty true of me.  I depend on my smart phone, nearly all of the time.  It’s with me everywhere.  To be honest, it’s not just a telephone to me.  It’s my mailbox, my knowledge bank, my social facilitator and companion, my navigator, my weather channel, my bookshelf, my news outlet, my alarm clock, and my entertainer, just to name a few of the wonderful conveniences of this remarkable handheld technology. 

But, here’s the rub. As outlined by Mr. Carr, there are numerous research studies indicating that smart phones, while often times beneficial to us, can also at times be harmful to our intellectual life, our communication and interpersonal skills, and perhaps even our own emotional and bodily health.[2] 

First, Mr. Carr cites to a California study that suggests that the mere physical presence of smart phones hampers our intellectual problem-solving abilities.[3] In the study of 520 undergraduate students, researchers analyzed student problem-solving abilities based on smart phone proximity. The researchers divided students into three classroom settings based on phone proximity while watching a lecture and then taking an exam.  In one classroom, students placed their phones in front of them during the lecture and the subsequent exam.  In another classroom, students stowed their phones in purses and backpacks, etc., so that students were prevented from having immediate phone access during both the lecture and the subsequent exam (i.e., sort of an "out-of-sight-out-of-mind" approach).  In the last classroom, students were required to leave their phones in a different room from the lecture classroom.  Interestingly, nearly all students reported that the proximity of their phones did not compromise their attention, learning, or exam performance.  But, test results indicated otherwise.  The researchers found that exam performance was inversely correlated with smart phone proximity.  Students with phones on their desks performed the worst while students with phones in another room performance the best. Surprisingly, however, just having a smart phone stowed nearby detracted from exam performance too.  Apparently, just the knowledge that our smart phones are readily available negatively impacts our problem-solving abilities. In other words, to perform our intellectual best as lawyers and law students, smart phones need to be - not just out of sight - but well beyond our grasps whenever we are engaged in intellectual tasks on behalf of our clients because problem-solving appears to be compromised just by the presence of our smart phones.

Second, Mr. Carr cites to a study where researchers found that smart phone proximity is harmful to face-to-face communication and interpersonal skills.[4] In this United Kingdom study, researches divided people into pairs and asked them to have a 10-minute conversation.  Some pairs of conversationalists were placed into a room in which there was a phone present.  The other pairs were placed in rooms in which there were no phones present.  The participants were then given tests to measure the depth of the conversation experienced based on measures of affinity, trust, and empathy.  Researchers found that the mere presence of cellphones in the conversational setting harmed human relationships and interpersonal skills such as empathy, closeness, and trust, and the results were most harmful when the topics discussed were personally meaningful.  In sum, smart phone proximity can negatively impact our interpersonal social communication skills, important skills for law students and attorneys to attend to and strengthen in order to better serve our clients and the public.

Third, Mr. Carr references a study substanting that smart phones can negatively impact our emotional and physical well-being.[5]  In this study out of large US university, researchers evaluated the impact of the presence of smart phones in self-identity, cognitive abilities, emotional anxiety, and physiology by having participants work on word puzzles while measuring blood pressure and pulse correlated with self-reported survey results on anxiety levels and emotional well-being based on a state of pleasantness. While solving word puzzles, researchers at times would remove phones from the presence of the subjects while on other occasions researchers would ring the phones of the subjects.  The results are startling.  Blood pressure rises, pulse quickens, anxiety increases, sense of unpleasantness increases while cognitive abilities decline both when participants are removed from their phones and when they receive phone calls. In other words, we identify ourselves with our phones.  They have become extensions of ourselves, to such a large degree, that to be deprived of access to our phones or the use of our phones negatively impacts our well-being as human beings.  In short, we have allowed our phones to become part of us, to share in our feelings, such that we feel detached from ourselves when we are detached from our phones. In my own words, we feel alone (and indeed unalive) without our smart phones by oursides and in control of our lives. Or, to put it more simply, we can’t seem to live without our smart phones, and we can’t live with them too.

Plainly, that's a lot to think about.  And, with all of the conversations swirling around with respect to the beneficial and detrimental impacts of technology on our cognitive, emotional, and physiological beings, there is still much that is yet to be known.  But, I leave you with this thought. 

Recently, I had one of my best weekend ever.  But, it didn’t start out grand at all.  In fact, the weekend begain like most of my weekends, busy, so busy that I neglected to check my pockets before washing my jeans.  In my haste, I washed my smart phone too.  Now horribly drenched, my phone was lifeless.  Comletely dead.  Stlll. At first, I was speechless. But, oh what I weekend I then experienced.  Freed from my smart phone, I slowly began to relax. I started to connect to real people in real relationships and with real things. No phone calls and no buzzing emails or texts to interpret life’s relationships. I have to admit; it was one of the most best days of my life.  Because of that experience, I now try to take one day per week free from my smart phone.  Life can indeed be sweet to our souls, bodies, and minds without the constant intervention of our phones.  And, better yet, life can be even sweeter for those around us too.  So, feel free to join me in taking meaningful smart phone respites.  The more the better.  (Scott Johns)

[1]Nicholas Carr, How Smart Phones Hijack Our Brains, Wall Street Journal, Oct 7, 2017.

[2]Mr. Carr references numerous research articles, several of which are discussed in this article.

[3]Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos, Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity, Journal of the Association for Consumer Research 2, no. 2 (April 2017): 140-154, https://doi.org/10.1086/691462.

[4]Andrew K. Przybylski, and Netta Weinstein, Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (2012), https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407512453827.

[5]Russell B. Clayton, Glenn Leshner, Anthony Almond; The Extended iSelf: The Impact of iPhone Separation on Cognition, Emotion, and Physiology, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Volume 20, Issue 2 (2015), 119-135, https://doi.org/10.1111/jcc4.12109.

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