It’s a typical classroom scene. Your professor is lecturing without the help of PowerPoint slides on a deep topic while you diligently take notes. He or she passes out your homework assignment, and you find the syllabus to check when it’s due. The date of the next exam is announced, so you open your calendar to add a reminder about it. You’re staying on top of everything — but the professor and your classmates still shoot you annoyed glances. Why? Because you’ve been on your phone the entire time.
There’s no doubt that smartphones have vastly affected the way we function every day. As of 2012, nearly half of all American adults use smartphones, and the share is even greater among college students — 54 percent. Their infiltration into our daily functions is apparent everywhere: people no longer carry notepads, planners, MP3 players, cameras and, with apps like Square, sometimes even cash and credit cards. However, even with (or perhaps because of) their convenience, there’s still a stigma associated with using phones in certain settings.
The advent and growth of texting over the past decade or so — for many of us, our entire teenage and college years — created immediate access to instant communication literally at our fingertips. But it was almost too good to be true, and it didn’t take long for texting to be prohibited in places like classrooms, offices and dinner tables. So, of course, we all mastered stealthily hiding phones under desks, looking down towards our fingers tapping away while also looking up occasionally, feigning interest in what we should have been doing — the classic looking-like-I’m-not-texting-even-though-I-really-am pose.
In college, using phones during class isn’t a punishable offense, but it’s still frowned upon. Even during casual social interactions, we get annoyed when our friends whip out their phones, choosing technology to supposedly communicate with friends who are elsewhere instead of talking to those physically present. But would we be as annoyed if they had instead pulled out a pen to scribble down an address, or asked someone what day of the week Halloween was this year? Phones are used for so much more than just calling or texting, but the social acceptance of phone usage hasn’t quite caught up.
Of course, people who are on their phones at perceived bad times might not actually be doing anything of use. After all, we’ve all seen people playing Angry Birds or Scramble with Friends during class. We’ve seen people hold lengthy text conversations while eating dinner instead of talking with those in front of them. Occasionally, we’ve even seen that girl in class who couldn’t keep herself from pulling out her phone to take a picture through the curtain of her hair of that guy wearing the weird shorts. The association of using phones with not paying attention or being rude is justified by real situations such as these. But it’s important to recognize that not all phone use is necessarily useless or unproductive — many times, it serves an important purpose.
For me, my iPhone is about more than just convenience — it’s also part of my personal sustainability goal for the year to use less paper and electricity. I’ve optimized my phone to handle many functions that formerly required paper — the Google Drive app is a godsend — and I use it every day not only in lieu of notebooks, but also, when possible, computers. In fact, even this column was written on my phone. The digital revolution has made it easier for everyone to take baby steps toward being more environmentally friendly, but our social norms might be preventing it from truly transforming our lives.
Our generation needn’t be pushed to take greater advantage of technology. We’re often already at the top of the curve when it comes to advancements, especially with smartphones. But while it’s important to be tasteful in what we use our smartphones for, it’s equally important to recognize that many others are also using their phones tastefully. To my professors: Maybe I am playing Temple Run during your lecture. But maybe I’m taking notes, looking up information I don’t understand, scheduling time for study sessions — things you would look favorably upon. And a message to everyone, give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to using smartphones. As cliché as it seems, there really is a world of information at our fingertips, and some of us just want to make the most of it.
Hema Karunakaram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.