- - Wednesday, June 11, 2014


The use of mobile devices has changed the way people communicate with one another — not always for the better.

One of my students at Temple University nailed it in a discussion on the subject: “One of the greatest blessings and greatest curses is the invention of the smartphone,” he wrote. “We have the Internet in our pocket, and therefore, we have all of the knowledge in the world at our disposal 100 percent of the time. This is fantastic. However, people use it as a crutch. Instead of thinking and trying to reason, people simply look up answers.”

During the summer, I teach several online courses, including journalism research, communications law and history of the media. For the first time, I have students actually trying to take the courses, which include Web searches, Excel document work, legal research and a host of other applications, via mobile phones rather than a laptop or desktop computer.

Since most mobile devices, including tablets, still lack basic programs, such as Microsoft Office, I get material sent through a variety of software that makes it incredibly difficult to analyze and grade. The spelling and grammatical errors — generally not a strong suit for many students — have become amazingly common among those who use mobile phones. Even if more applications existed, I’m not certain that the work would be any better.

I didn’t notice this trend until earlier this year as students read presentations from their mobile devices rather than create an appealing project. The presentations demonstrated a lack of personal interaction and an inadequate understanding of the material. Simply put, the presentations became as dull as if the students stood before a class looking down at a written paper and reading it verbatim. I subsequently banned the use of mobile devices for student work.

The medium of the mobile device has indeed changed the way individuals communicate, create, learn and present knowledge to one another. The Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project has probably dug into the subject more than any other major organization, including a series of reports over the past three years. A January report found that 90 percent of all U.S. adults owned a mobile phone, including 58 percent who had a smartphone. More than 80 percent of these people used their devices for texting. Nearly half of all owners sleep with their phones by their bedsides so they won’t miss any calls, text messages or other updates during the night.

The medium has really become the message here, as the late communications guru Marshall McLuhan put it. Many people eschew communication in person.

Is that bad? The research has been mixed. Clearly, driving and texting raise important safety concerns about increased accidents in many states, which have passed laws against such practices. Sexting, the use of mobile devices for sexual conversation, has grown.

But it appears that even the relatively “normal” uses of mobile devices can create some potentially damaging effects on the brain. For example, the Pew research found a mixture of optimism and pessimism about the impact on young people by the year 2020 from the growing use of these devices.

“Millennials’ brains are being rewired to adapt to the new information-processing skills they will need to survive in this environment,” the study reported. “Young people accustomed to a diet of quick-fix information nuggets will be less likely to undertake deep, critical analysis of issues and challenging information. Shallow choices, an expectation of instant gratification, a lack of patience, are likely to be common results.”

I have no instant answers for this quandary. But sometimes it might be better to look up during a walk down the street rather than looking down to check messages on a mobile device. Looking up gives individuals a broader view of what’s really going on around them. That may be a start.

Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at the Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at [email protected] Twitter: @charper51.

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