Ben Charlson: In defense of my phone

Monday, November 27, 2017 - 1:14pm

Thanksgiving tends to bring out the best and worst in my family. Between the highs of food and football and the lows of long car rides and uncomfortable sleeping arrangements, we get in our fair share of arguments during the holiday.

Yet out of all our bickering, the most frequent debate is over cellphone usage — a conversation that typically results in my parents yelling at me for my phone obsession and me defending my behavior, an effort that proves futile nearly every time.

I’m addicted to my phone. I will always be the first to admit it, and those around me often know it’s true. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat — you name it, I’ve probably checked it within the past five minutes. I’m also aware there are places and times when being on the phone is not appropriate; the classroom and the dinner table are two where I restrict my otherwise impulsive desire to refresh every form of social media possible.

But I also believe that for college kids like myself, going through an instrumental and challenging time in our lives, the cellphone holds more value to us than those from older generations might imagine. And parental criticism of our phone usage, during a time when technology is at the forefront of education, science and communication, is a generational conflict with no easy solution.

My parents, much like many others, scold my phone obsession as if it is analogous to nicotine addiction. In some ways, they are right — my phone is the first thing I check when I wake up and the last thing I see before I go to sleep, like cigarette smokers who need their final drag before they can call it a day. My Snapchat streaks are imperative to my well-being, and no email or text can go unread for more than a minute after I receive it. The joy I get from a Facebook notification parallels that of receiving a good exam grade or a call from my parents — and don’t get me started on Twitter.

Exaggerations? Maybe. But the truth of the matter is that social media is an addicting platform, especially for millennials who grew up during the heart of the world’s technology revolution. The instant gratification supplied by notifications and texts, piling up constantly through different media outlets, is a biological desire backed by the dopamine receptors in our brains. We crave the euphoria of an Instagram “like” or a retweet on Twitter, so we check back again and again to see if we have another.

But apart from our biological tendencies toward phone addiction, which the same could be said for computers, video games or gambling, I argue that the cellphone is an important internal stabilizer for many kids like myself who see college as an uneasy and complicated time.

When I traveled from Chicago to Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving last week, I felt the urge the check my phone more often than normal. With work to do over the break (thank you University of Michigan professors), home friends being together without me and a decision over whether I should return to school early looming in the back of my mind, general stress felt like a rain cloud above me during an otherwise enjoyable week.

So, I turned to my phone. I’ve found that communication during times of high stress can be key to relieving that underlying anxiety. Though some people would call my desire to talk to those not physically present “FOMO” (fear of missing out), I think that interpretation undermines the benefits of long distance, immediate communication.

There is comfort to be found in friendships where contact is constant and quick — our phones happen to supply a vessel through which we can strengthen these bonds, especially important when they provide an outlet for stress relief.

Research shows that 1 in 6 college students have been clinically diagnosed with anxiety. However, there is no doubt that the other 5 in 6 students are struggling with some form of social or academic stress, though they might not report it to a doctor. When we are away from home, grappling with a homework problem or simply in a mental funk and anxieties are running high, a Snapchat from a close friend can go a long way. Late night FaceTimes are common among my friends — to see a friendly face in a difficult time can make all the difference.

Given all these benefits, why are our parents so critical?

Though there is no singular answer, I think a clear culprit lies in the generational and technological divide that separates college kids from their elders.

“When I was a kid, we didn’t have cellphones,” is a phrase I hear from my mom frequently. Judging our phone usage from an outsider’s perspective is frustrating and frankly unfair. I’m more than happy to accept criticism from a friend who thinks I’ve been on my phone too much recently. But I find it much harder to accept from my mom or dad, who didn’t experience the power a cellphone can have during the uncertainty of young adulthood.

Who is to say that our parents’ generation wouldn’t care about group chats or Snap Stories given the opportunity? In fact, I’ve seen an increasing number of parental Instagram accounts since entering college — a possible sign that the generational gap might be closing.

When I return home for Winter Break, I’m sure that the debate over phone usage will continue. To my parents’ enjoyment, I’ve made strides to quit my phone obsession — a suggestion from a close friend to change my screen to black and white made checking social media a lot less appetizing. Vibrate and ringer are now always off, and group chats are generally muted.

But there are more times than not where I will defend my addiction and the genuine benefits I get out of my iPhone. Staying in touch through cellphones is now more important than ever — a prospect that may take some time for older generations to grasp.

Ben Charlson can be reached at