It’s a cheerful, sunny morning. You are making your way to your classes on the other side of campus, when you feel it. Or rather, you don’t feel it. Your cellphone, the lifeline of modern life, is back at your dorm. You begin to panic as a rush of fear washes over you at the prospect of going throughout your day without your phone. In this moment, you are suffering from nomophobia, the fear of not being with your cellphone. About two-thirds of adults are afflicted with this phobia, and research shows that nomophobia and cellphone addiction are at least this severe in college students.
Unfortunately, you are now subjected to the long trek to class without the benefit of technology that eases the passage for a multitude of Wildcats. Along the way, you notice your peers, who are immersed in their phones.
Freshman Isabella Vavra is no stranger to this behavior at Northwestern. “When I walk down Sheridan Road, I don’t necessarily see people on their phones, but most people have their headphones in and are tuned out to the world,” she said.
On average, Americans spend five hours per day on their phones. This statistic is drastically worse for college students; a Baylor University study found that female college students spend 10 hours per day on their phones and male students spend eight. With this many hours devoted to phone usage, the consequences are significant, especially for the brain.
One of the primary problems with phone use is that the brain treats cellphones like significant others. This is a bizarre – yet fitting – way to realize how powerful phones are to the psyche. If a romantic partner is missing, it is common to experience a sense of loss, perhaps grief. Replace that significant other with your phone and the reaction wouldn’t be much different if you were to watch it shatter on the floor.
In addition, our brains work very hard and need rest; sleep is vital for maintaining optimal health. Yet cellphone use causes a significant deterioration in sleep quality. This is because the blue light emitted by cellphones affects melatonin, the hormone that causes sleep. When melatonin levels are impacted, the body’s circadian rhythm, its natural clock, is negatively affected. Research has shown that this can also affect the functionality of organs that depend on the circadian rhythm. In effect, damage to the circadian rhythm can have potentially devastating consequences on the body.
To counter the effects of late-night screen use on the circadian rhythm, Apple recently added a “Night Shift” feature on their devices to filter out blue light at night. While this innovation is meritorious in its efforts to improve the sleeping conditions of the populace, research shows that stimuli from interactions on electronics, including reading emails and texting, also prevent sleep. Effectively, even if “Night Shift” works, the act of interacting on one’s phone will likely disrupt sleep anyway.
With the aforementioned biological and psychological repercussions of phone use, it should not be a surprise that there is a significant correlation between poor mental health and college students. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “[m]ore than 80 percent of college students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the past year and 45 percent have felt things were hopeless.” In addition, about 10 percent of students are diagnosed with or treated for anxiety and another 10 percent are diagnosed with or treated for depression. Overall, three-quarters of all mental health disorders begin by the age of 24.
What does this have to do with cel phone use? Those with poor mental health are more likely to engage in addictive cellphone behaviors. These include checking one’s phone constantly as a coping mechanism for stress as well as contacting others as a social distraction. Additionally, a rather strange symptom of phone addiction is phantom cellphone vibration syndrome, which is when one perceives that their phone has vibrated but actually has not.
Junior Ava Jordan Serra can attest to these behaviors. This school year, she reduced her daily phone use to one hour of active use like texting, with an additional four hours of passive use, such as listening to music. “I would just be sitting somewhere and my phone would vibrate, and I would check, and there would be no notifications,” Serra said. “I uninstalled a bunch of apps on my phone, and I’ve had my phone on 'Do Not Disturb' the whole quarter to stop being so available to people. People get mad when they notice that I’m on Messenger and I don’t respond to messages. It’s stressful.”
Studies show that students engage in habits involuntarily when they encounter negative feelings, including cellphone use. Such habits reduce negative feelings like worry and anxiety. Cruelly, the very electronic devices that contribute to poor mental health are also capable of being used as coping mechanisms to alleviate the symptoms of a poor state of mental health. There are relationships between cellphone addiction and depression as well as chronic stress, anxiety and somatization, the exhibition of physical symptoms caused by underlying psychological problems.
The psychological effects of cellphone use on college students have been the subject of expansive research. Yes, cellphones are an essential part of college life. But the most valuable part of the college student, the brain, needs a serious break, and it has been telling millions of students this for far too long.