Smartphone Use Among College Students Concerns Some Professors

Ryan Lytle

Pam Walsh does not own a smartphone. Walsh, a senior at Bryant University in Rhode Island, is a commuter student and says she uses the money that would go toward phone payments for gas instead. But, she notes, there have been situations when a smartphone, with its Internet capabilities, would have been useful.

"As a commuter student, there's always a chance that weather will be poor and classes will be canceled because of it, but I may not find out about it until I'm on campus," she says. "The professor might have canceled right before class through an E-mail. If I had a smartphone, I would have gotten the E-mail and I wouldn't have had to drive to class in horrible conditions."

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For Walsh, who has never owned a smartphone, the constant urge to stay connected to the world via phone is not an issue. "I don't really go through it," she says. "As long as I'm not waiting on a phone call or a text message from someone, I can just leave [the phone] aside."

But for some college students, leaving a phone behind may cause feelings of anxiety and panic, which has brought one phobia to the forefront: nomophobia--the fear of being without your cellphone. According to a recent survey by SecurEnvoy, a company that specializes in digital passwords, which surveyed 1,000 people in the United Kingdom, 66 percent of respondents noted they fear losing or being without their phone.

Not surprisingly, people between the ages of 18 and 24 are the most nomophobic, with 77 percent of respondents among the age group noting this fear. "I definitely don't want to be like that," Walsh says. "I see how distracted people are--they just sit there on their phones."

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The rise of nomophobia among college-aged people has undoubtedly been triggered by the meteoric rise of smartphones on college campuses. A February survey of students at Ball State University in Indiana noted this growth, with smartphone ownership on campus more than doubling in three years--from 27 percent in 2009 to 69 percent in 2012.

While the rise of smartphone ownership paired with the obvious distractions of being connected at all times are worrisome to many college professors, some are finding ways to use them for added engagement.

Aria Finger, a business professor at New York University and the COO of, a nonprofit organization geared toward teens and social change, allows the use of phones in her courses. Smartphones have enabled her classes to have stronger debates because it has allowed students to use their phones for real-time research tools, Finger notes. Calling smartphones an "immediate fact check," she says students have become more engaged in the classroom.

Although Finger notes positive experiences with smartphones in the classroom, she says that there are professors who will face difficulties. "If you have 150 kids in a class, there will be some kids zoning out," she acknowledges. "You don't want an entire class of faces down, students looking in their laps [at their phones]."

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This is a fear of Vassilis Dalakas, a marketing professor at California State University--San Marcos, who used to allow smartphones in the classroom but has restricted them because of the distractions they have caused.

"I used to think that [the students] are adults and they can make their own choices," Dalakas says. "But it got to the point of being distracting, not only to the person using it but to multiple people in the classroom."

Dalakas concedes that there are benefits of using the technology but he is skeptical of the advantages in the academic arena. "My guess is a professor would have to be very creative in a way that integrates the technology in the classroom."

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NYU professor Finger notes that there may be some struggles among professors to accept the use of smartphones in the classroom, but advises educators to embrace the cultural change.

"As with any new technology, there are good and bad sides," Finger says. "It's not all bad--young people's connectivity means they are more likely to engage with professors. [We should] use these technologies [with students] for good instead of yelling at them because it isn't going to work."

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