The Hijacking of Students’ Brains: The Power of Smartphones

By Danielle Oliveria, Staff Writer

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An iPhone 4S (left) and iPhone 7 (right) leaning against an iPhone box.
Danielle Oliveria | The Montclarion

If you sit anywhere on campus and wait just a few seconds, you will notice almost everyone is on their smartphone or has one in their hand. Although this phenomenon has evolved into a mundane part of life, studies suggest that it is anything but ordinary and has more serious repercussions than we could have ever anticipated.

No one can deny the practicality and usefulness of smartphones. We can email, text and remain updated on current events with just one click of a button. All in all, smartphones have knit us closer together as a community while helping us with everyday tasks.

However, just how dependent have we become on these devices? And more importantly, how does increasing dependence impact us and our society?

According to Apple data, the average owner utilizes their device approximately 80 times a day. That means your eyes dart across the glossy screen nearly 30,000 times throughout the year.

Angelina Samarelli, a senior gender sexuality and women studies major, spotted near the Business School, phone in hand, even though she isn’t using it.
Danielle Oliveria | The Montclarion

To put it simply, we have cultivated a strong dependency on these devices as a society. It’s a dependency which could be classified as a form of addiction.

“I’m on my phone all day every day,” said Angelina Samarelli, a senior gender sexuality and women studies major. “If I don’t have it, I get anxious.”

Besides Samarelli, other Montclair State University students additionally noticed compulsive tendencies toward their smartphone devices.

Jess Petronzi, an undeclared freshman caught outside of University Hall, on her phone.
Danielle Oliveria | The Montclarion

“Recently, I had to delete Instagram because I was on it all the time,” said Jess Petronzi, an undeclared freshman. “Social media is toxic.”

Ryan Patterson, a senior English major, could not agree more.

“Whenever I’m bored I’ll go on social media when I could be doing something else. That’s why I’ll try to only use my phone for work,” Patterson said. “But even then, it’s hard. If my phone is in my pocket I’ll check it for no reason. Or I’ll feel more compelled to check it if it buzzes.”

According to an article published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, Dr. Adrian Ward, a cognitive psychologist and marketing professor at the University of Texas at Austin, suspected that “our attachment to our phones has grown so intense that their mere presence might diminish our intelligence.”

In a research study he conducted, Ward recruited 520 undergraduate students at the University of California San Diego and distributed tests. Although the tests remained the same, Ward asked some of the students to either place their phones in front of them, in their pockets or in an entirely different room.

“As the phone’s proximity increased, brainpower decreased,” Ward wrote in his article.

Meaning, the students whose phones were in plain view received the worst scores, while those whose phones were located in a different room received better scores. Students whose phones were concealed in their pockets received median scores.

“Smartphones produce a welter of distractions that make it harder to concentrate on a difficult problem or job,” Ward further elaborated in his article. “The division of attention impedes reasoning and performance.”

Aside from Ward, others further assert these findings, like Joseph Abramson, a research analyst for a New York hedge fund.

“A 2015 study conducted by the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that when people’s phones beep or buzz while they’re in the middle of a challenging task, their focus wavers, and their work gets sloppier—whether they check the phone or not,” Abramson reported in his article.

Although smartphones are negatively impacting our brains by simulating addiction and decreasing our reasoning skills, they’re also hindering our communication abilities.

“The whole point of communication is to make sure that we mutually understand one another,” said Dr. Meredyth Krych Appelbaum, a cognitive psychologist and Montclair State professor who studies the psychology of language and human interaction.

“The concern is that if people are spending so much time on the phone and are not as attuned to certain social cues, that it might end up harming the ability to communicate effectively in face-to-face situations,” Appelbaum said.

Appelbaum went on to describe something called “Theory of Mind,” which explores people who spend disproportionate quantities of time focusing on non-interactive things and how that affects their performance in social tests.

“So, if someone spends too much time on Facebook reading about interactions and not enough time actually interacting with other people, you could imagine over time with less practice they’ll get less adept at being socially competent,” Appelbaum said.

Therefore, people’s ability to effectively communicate in face-to-face situations decreases. This is something that college students, like Petronzi, notice as well.

“Whenever I go out to lunch, all of my friends are always on their phones,” Petronzi said. “It really ruins our communication.”

However, social competency is not the only aspect of communication which is at stake here. Smartphone dependency additionally raises concerns of communicative misinterpretation.

“Think about all that you miss with texting, instant messaging, or comments,” Appelbaum said. “You strip out the tone of voice. Tone of voice is really important because it gives you the intention.”

For instance, one friend who is excited can send a text with an exclamation point. But, the other friend who is receiving the text can interpret the exclamation point as anger or frustration.

Ultimately, you could have two good friends who could get into an argument simply because one misinterpreted what the exclamation point meant. If they heard the voice and saw their friend’s social cues, like their face and hand gestures, they would have understood more of what the intention was.

“Whenever you’re communicating more substantive issues through the phone, that’s when you could have more room for miscommunication,” Appelbaum said. “This could have huge ramifications, especially if you’re misinterpreted.”

The birth of the smartphone has embedded its own highs and lows into everyday society. But ask yourself, “How far has my dependency gone and how is it impacting me on a day-to-day basis?”

As Appelbaum said, “any distractions related to the phone is secondary.”

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