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Battling Classroom Narcissism in the Age of Smartphones

We’ve probably all been at a restaurant and noticed at least one family at a table, no one is talking, and everyone is lost in their phones. More personally, have you ever been speaking to someone as they nonchalantly pretend to listen while scrolling through email? It’s easy to stop this type of behavior once we realize how rude it is to physically show someone what you are saying to me is not nearly as interesting as what I can find in my handy handheld device. That same feeling is multiplied if you are an educator in front of a classroom and you see students staring into their phone to locate the latest viral trend online. The million dollar question is how can we battle this behavior? The simple answer is education. The longer answer, however, requires us to develop how that education should play out.

Of course we can take the phones away or take points off when students are caught using them in class, however, that doesn’t actually teach them anything new. This truth of this constantly desired distraction can be found in what cultural critic Christopher Lasch wrote back in the 1970s. In his bestselling book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations, Lasch argued that “The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. People today hunger not for personal salvation…but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security.” Some things have not changed. The key word here is illusion, which is what students are enabling when using cell phones in class. In the Digital Age, constant smartphone connection is a narcissistic new normal.

This discussion is not new, of course, but the problems persist. In 2008, Emory University Professor Mark Bauerlein wrote The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. While today’s young generations are motivated, ambitious, and independent, Bauerlein argues that “the autonomy has a cost: the more they attend to themselves, the less they remember the past and envision the future.” Bauerlein is concerned because there is more access to information today than ever before but young generations are not benefitting from it. In addition, Bauerlein finds students largely uninterested in important issues because they are “sleeping through the movements of culture and events of history, preferring the company of peers to great books and powerful ideas and momentous happenings.” Citing study after study, Bauerlein shows how the ability to learn is diminishing in the younger generations. While Bauerlein’s research is a useful diagnosis, it still leaves us wanting for a solution.

Many students think they can multitask and are quite confident towards their ability to follow several lines of narrative at once (class lecture, twitter feed, Facebook feed, texts, email, etc.). However, these are often the same students who will approach me after class needing clarification regarding something covered during the period. Therefore, their self-centered desire for digital gratification was more important than whatever you were covering in class…until they need you to recap the lesson (something I do not do for the digitally dependent in class). The research has been done and is inarguable – multitasking during class time is not productive. Further, it distracts other students and sometimes even the professors. As educators, we need to be proactive in how we inform our students about the ripple effect of their distraction.

We know there is a dilemma of distraction, but understanding why can be found in Sherry Turkle’s new book, Reclaiming the Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, which should be read by every professor. Turkle argues that one of the problems with multitasking is that it generates an intense craving for more of the same (like a drug creating an illusion of productivity). As a Professor of Science and Technology at MIT, Turkle is concerned because what we think we gain from our technology is often in reality what we lose. Many people flee from conversation only to attempt connection online (note the family at dinner on their phones – together physically, but alone individually). A solution comes in the form of a call to action: We live in one reality, our technology in another, and we must educate our students as to how their technology is impacting them.

Harvard University’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning recently expressed concern over student cell phone use citing that on average students use their cell phones 11 times a day in class and that 92% of students text during class. These numbers cannot be ignored and justify the immediacy of action in the classroom. Turkle notes that cell phone use often occurs as part of a chain reaction – one person takes out their phone, then another, and another. The same flight from reality occurs in the classroom. Students depart into their world of texting and social media, according to Turkle, because of disconnection anxiety – the more we use social media the more we feel the need to maintain that pseudo connection to reality. Turkle points out the difference between face-to-face conversation and “mere connection.” Conversation helps us grow as individuals and communities while connection creates an illusion of togetherness. It is important for students to know this difference before they go out into the real world.

Though it can be difficult to teach when some students just want to stay disconnected through their illusion of connectivity, it is important that professors clarify to students why their smartphones are not always helpful. We live in an age dependent on technology so it is important to present our classrooms in a way that highlights the advantages and disadvantages of smartphones. A cell phone can be a great way to fact check something during a discussion, but will also hinder learning ability during a lecture. Only through education will the upcoming generations learn how to navigate a world of technology and information overload. Forcing students to put their phones away will teach them how to follow rules, however, convincing students about the negative impact of distraction will help them be more attentive citizens outside of class.

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