Cell phones disrupt our learning experience, make us lonelier

Patrick Lee

From its tradition of abandoning its elderly in nursing homes to the spiritual sterility of its suburbs, America is a nation that worships the individual and devalues the collective. It’s no surprise that nearly half of Americans report feeling sometimes or always lonely. 

When loneliness is systematically widespread, society is failing its inhabitants, as loneliness of this magnitude is not a natural human condition. However, it is rather normal to want to be alone sometimes. This feeling can be understood not as loneliness, but solitude. Loneliness is the perpetual longing for connectivity we feel in the absence of others — in other words, failed solitude.

Solitude represents a natural human condition. According to Jodi Dean, political science professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, we experience it when we remove ourselves from the social network of everlasting connectivity and gather our thoughts, reflect, mature, write and rejuvenate social energy. Solitude and loneliness both indicate an absence of others — one, a desirable opportunity for self-creation, and the other a destructive alienating force. 

So when alone, why do people feel loneliness instead of solitude? The reasons may vary, but an irrefutable consequence of introducing new technologies like the smartphone in a society governed by capitalist relations is that people experience intensifying pressures to stay connected and socially integrated at all times. 

The consequences are especially present in the classroom, where attentiveness and focus are necessary ingredients of learning. 

Noah De Lissovoy, UT Education Department of Curriculum and Instruction associate professor, believes the social consequences of these pressures are profound. De Lissovoy said we replace the risk of real relationships with more fleeting, momentary and immediately seizable circuits of communication like social media. 

“We lose the value of things like quietness, awkwardness, space or downtime — ­we want to fill everything up with activity and talk, and that’s very much connected to technologies,” De Lissovoy said. 

In this sense, the phone embodies loneliness in object form. Phones promise perpetual connectivity — you are never truly alone, always connected to social networks. They replace friendships with networks, solitude with loneliness. 

“The phone enables people to be potentially everywhere,” De Lissovoy said. “(The phone) reconstructs the kind of self one has, one that is fragmented and one you must persistently verify.” 

It’s the kind of self you must verify by promising unceasing connection and depriving the individual of the ability to summon oneself by oneself.

The phone, by proliferating loneliness and mortifying solitude with noise, distractions and unbounded presence, has catastrophic consequences for both individual and collective learning. 

Having a phone in hand means you aren’t expending the mental energy and time necessary for understanding to occur. Phones preclude the kind of deep engagement with and application of knowledge that learning demands. Meaningful learning, the sort that deeply recalibrates the way one understands the world, cannot coexist with passively listening and scrolling through Instagram.  

More importantly, the classroom is a collective space. Classrooms are unique spaces where we can assert our collectivity and learn together. Thinking in the classroom is collective — it requires concentrated dialogue, attentive learning, active engagement. In other words, you must be fully present. Our phones wage conquest against this collectivity, replacing the unity of the crowd with the pathological individual fixated on staying perpetually connected with the infinitely available others. 

“The obsessive attachment to cell phones in classrooms becomes the most apparent symptom of disinterest in subject matter,” chemistry senior Subbu Iyer said. “It generates an unhealthy culture where stimulation is necessary at all times and learning turns into a troublesome distraction.”

The effect is disruptive. 

“This incessant connectivity works against more genuine forms of collectivity,” De Lossovoy said. “It alienates people from themselves and others. The kind of being together in teaching, in classrooms, is most important and very different from the kind of connection people find on their phones.” 

Phones unravel the condition for authentic learning. Learning, reading, writing and composition occurs in solitude and collectivity. When we forget how to feel solitude, it is devastating for the learner. Displaced by loneliness, we fear being alone and desire endless connectivity — an impossible burden that implodes under its own weight. Don’t resort to the phone. Divest from the unending harassment of social circuitry. 

Lee is a sociology senior from Houston.