Szuhaj: Social Networks, Social World

by Ben Szuhaj | 1/14/16 7:00pm

I visited my old high school over break and found that some changes had been made. Most notably, the administration had recently enacted a rule banning all cellphones from school, not only during class time but also during free periods and off-hours. Some teachers were so eager to enforce this rule that one even tried to take mine from me while I was on campus. I politely informed her that I was an adult with all the accompanying privileges. Still, she seemed wary and eyed me with suspicion, which got me thinking: Is banning cellphones a productive policy?

The first question that came to mind was whether or not the school had the right to do this in the first place. I looked into it, and, as it turns out, private organizations, like my high school, have the right to determine which objects are “legal” within their boundaries. With the growing trend of “E-absorption,”— there have been countless news stories featuring people walking into mall fountains and off of cliffs while looking at their phones— it is no wonder a school might feel the need to take action.

Others may argue that technology makes us less social and its availability should be limited. This argument does not hold under scrutiny. As some people are quick to point out, humans have always found ways to avoid “real” interaction. People read books on trains or newspapers at the breakfast table. Have you ever spent a little too long looking over a restaurant menu because you didn’t want to begin a conversation? Social anxiety is not a good feeling, so it stands to reason that a person would prefer to occupy himself needlessly in order to avoid it.

Many people defend technology and social media, saying that they connect people like never before. They believe these connections to be important and real, with instrinsic value. Otehrs disagree, saying that these connections are intangible bits of code stored on some distant Facebook server. I tend to fall into the first camp, though I acknowledge the limitations of technologically-assisted relationships. FaceTime is nice, but it can’t fully replace face time.

Even with these benefits, it is hard to deny that we are living in a tech-heavy age plagued with distractions. How many times have you checked your phone since you began reading this article? With so many Youtube videos, snaps, tweets and “10-shocking-celebrity-misshaps-number-8-will-haunt-you’s” vying for our attention, it has become altogether too easy to click away, to say, “I’ll come back later,” or, “Just for a second.” Of course, the argument that we are missing out on “real” life because of our “e-lives” assumes that our real life is something that we shouldn’t want to miss out on in the first place.

This should not be taken as a given. A 2013 study conducted by the America Psychological Association found that over one-third of American adults feel stressed, as do a similar number of American teenagers.The researchers found that during the school year, teenagers reported a stress level greater than that of the adult participants. That is to say, high schoolers perceive themselves as more stressed than full-time, working adults.

There could be a few reasons for this. Perhaps teenagers that are more absorbed in technology are more overwhelmed, stressed by scrolling through Instagram feeds and constantly refreshing Facebook. Or maybe our school system, as it currently stands, places too high of an importance on grades, too much stock in college admissions. Colleges, after all, have the magical ability to demarcate the last applicant accepted from the first applicant denied, to seemingly change the course of lives for reasons forever left unknown to the applicant.

I do not believe distraction is the cause of our stress. Rather, our absorbtion in technology, as far as I can see, is the result of our stress. It is much easier to check Twitter than it is to sit quietly and confront the thoughts that fill the silence. Instead of critiquing technologically-assisted distraction, we must learn to investigate our society more deeply. Perhaps then we can properly identify the underlying problems, rather than conflating cause and effect.