How would you feel if you had to give up your smartphone for nine days? This might be a thought experiment for you, but for students of philosophy professor and writer Ron Srigley, it was a very real proposition. In 2014, and again in 2018, Srigley offered extra credit to those who would give him custody of their phones for nine days and write about the experience.

In both cases, Srigley made his offer because his students were underperforming and he believed mobile technology was the source of the problem. That makes this a very unscientific experiment, since both the researcher and his subjects knew what result he hoped to find. Still, the students' experiences say a lot about both how smartphone use affects us, and how dependent on these devices we have become.

The first time around, in 2014, his entire class had done very badly on a test. When he asked them why, the students reluctantly explained that they had read but couldn't understand the books he had assigned to them. On the spur of the moment, Srigley came up with the idea of offering them extra credit for a smartphone "fast." Twelve students, about a third of the class, took him up on it. If you think about it, the entire class was in danger of getting bad grades, so the fact that only a third of the students were willing to even try living without their devices is telling in itself.

For those twelve, "What they wrote was remarkable, and remarkably consistent," Srigley wrote. At first, all the students felt disoriented and frustrated. But after a few days without smartphones, they began to notice other things too.

1. They paid more attention to the people around them.

For one thing, they observed for the first time how much other people were using their phones, for example in the middle of a face-to-face conversation. "This action is very rude and unacceptable, but yet again, I find myself guilty of this sometimes because it is the norm," one student wrote. Another noted that as she walked by other people, they tended to pull out their phones "right before I could gain eye contact with them." That comment made me wonder if I've ever unconsciously done this to avoid interacting with a stranger. Have you?

2. They had better face-to-face conversations with family.

Two of the students were accustomed to using their phones to constantly message with their family members throughout the day, and they felt deprived of this contact. But when the students spent in-person time with their parents, the parents were mostly pleased because they suddenly had their children's undivided attention.

3. They were more afraid.

Some of the students reported that they were fearful of having no phones, wondering what they would do if they were kidnapped or attacked, or had to call an ambulance for some reason. But in the case of an accident or sudden illness, it's likely someone else nearby would have a mobile phone and could call for help. As for being attacked, it's not always possible to pull out a phone and dial 911.

Besides, Srigley noted, "What's revealing is that this student and others perceived the world to be a very dangerous place. Cell phones were seen as necessary to combat that danger. The city in which these students lived has one of the lowest crime rates in the world and almost no violent crime of any kind, yet they experienced a pervasive, undefined fear." It seems to me that this is because smartphones allow us to avoid interacting with strangers which forces us to connect, if only briefly, with people we don't know. Without those brief connections, people we don't know have become more and more frightening. If I'm right, then that's a truly sad consequence of widespread smartphone use.

4. They were much more productive.

We think of smartphones and internet access as a productivity tool, but the students reported the opposite was true, at least for their academic work. Not surprisingly, some reported paying more attention in class. Others said not having a phone helped them complete the papers they had to write. "Because I was able to give it 100 percent of my attention, not only was the final product better than it would have been, I was also able to complete it much quicker," one wrote.

Although many of us think of smartphones as a communications aid, one student reported the opposite was true. If he needed to make plans or get information from someone, instead of sending a text or social media message and then waiting for a response, he simply picked up a (landline) phone and called the other person. "Actually, I got things done much quicker without the cell," he wrote.

5. They loved having fewer interruptions.

When experts discuss the drawbacks of smartphones, they don't often focus on the way these devices constantly interrupt our conversations or quiet musings, hijacking us away from whatever we were thinking about a moment before. The unending stream of notifications--texts, social media posts, event invitations, emails, traffic advisories, Google requests for a review of wherever you happen to be, and on and on--is the proximate cause of today's famously short attention spans. The smartphone becomes a whiny two-year-old, constantly demanding that you stop whatever you were doing and pay attention to me! And like the sleep-deprived parents of a toddler, the students reported getting a better night's sleep when they didn't have their devices. 

"Didn't have to hear the [expletive] thing ring or vibrate once, and didn't feel bad not answering phone calls because there were none to ignore," one student wrote. He found the return to constant distraction so distressing that a few months after the experiment ended he threw his mobile phone into a river.

But no one can live without a smartphone anymore.  

Srigley repeated the experiment in 2018 at a different, more urban college where he now works. This time it was not because the students had performed poorly on a test but because of their everyday behavior. He goes out of his way to say that he doesn't mean to single his students out and that he likes them all very much as people. But, he continues, "On any given day, 70 percent of them are sitting before me shopping, texting, completing assignments, watching videos, or otherwise occupying themselves. Even the 'good' students do this. No one's even trying to conceal the activity, the way students did before. This is just what they do."

The students who gave up their smartphones reported the same benefits that the 2014 students had. But they also were almost completely helpless without them. "Even the simplest activities -- getting on the bus or train, ordering dinner, getting up in the morning, even knowing where they were -- required their cell phones," Srigley reports. 

Thus, one of his 2018 students wrote, "Without cell phones life would be simple and real but we may not be able to cope with the world and our society." After a few days, she felt OK without her phone, she wrote. "But I guess it is only fine if it is for a short period of time." 

That's probably truer for all of us than we would like to admit.

Published on: Dec 29, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.