Are Students Trapped in the Net?

Jason Fertig

I’ve often wondered whether students are addicted to the internet.  Whenever I teach, I try to get to class at least 10 minutes early to talk with students.  As the semesters have passed by, I have noticed a change in students’ behavior before class.  When I first started teaching, the students who arrived at class early would talk to each other or actually look at their class material.  But recently when I entered my classroom, six out of the seven students in the room were face down in their phones, clicking away at texts or surfing the web.  Some of these students did not even look up until it was time to start class, even as other students arrived in the room.

The idea that texting and social networking decreases face-to-face contact with others is old news.  From my vantage point, the more serious threat is internet behavior’s potential to be addictive.  Even if these students realized that they were spending too much time online, could they easily stop themselves if they wanted?

Viktor Frankl was renowned for using his concentration camp travails to stress that humans differ from other animals in their ability to decide how to respond to a given stimulus, rather than unconditionally reacting to it.  In terms of stimulus-response behavior, without a conscious plan for online behavior, a great deal of people may spend more time on the internet than they originally intended.  For instance, when students of mine get the urge to text a friend 10 minutes before class, 10 minutes later I will likely have to wake them out of their electronic stupor because that one text has transformed into a barrage of conversations, Facebooking, and surfing.  Could these students simply send the text and put the phone down? Only if they learn to develop the self-control that they have not realized is lost.

This notion of an internet addiction is not simply speculation on my part.  Dr. Kimberly Young runs a center for internet addiction and (ironically) hosts a site on the topic at  Her initial book Caught in the Net: How to Recognize the Signs of Internet Addiction--and a Winning Strategy for Recovery was published 13 years ago, when her main worry was chat rooms.  Today, access to the web is much more convenient through smartphones and Wi-Fi, yet very few people seem to question whether there is a budding problem.  Studies show that unhappy people watch more television.  Is that the case with the internet? Why is internet behavior not looked at more closely?

As a professor, my concern over student internet use is largely due to its effects on student learning.  Intellectual curiosity is on a downward spiral.  Arum and Roska’s Academically Adrift reported that a large portion of today’s students read less than forty pages per week and write less than 20 pages for a whole semester.  While a portion of that falls on the shoulders of professors who are focused on research and tenure, it is also a misguided reaction to decreasing student attention spans.  Many modern media trends have done more harm than good for viewers’ concentration abilities.  Music videos and action movies feature dizzying amounts of rapid cuts and changes in camera angles that only require a few seconds of focus at most before the new image arrives. 

But perhaps I am making too big of a deal about internet behavior.  After all, part of my concern with internet addiction is rooted in my own personal battle with YouTube procrastination.  Additionally, much of the time that students spend online (not on YouTube) is spent reading something.  Anything that gets them reading must be a plus, right?  Yet, is online reading truly “reading” or is it just skimming due to the abundance of information pushed at students?  Even reputable news sites are adorned with related links all over the page that make it challenging for anyone, let alone a student with a decreased attention span, to focus on reading one thing at a time without the urge to click on a new link.

I don’t advocate an off the grid lifestyle.  Last year, I published an essay in favor of eReaders.  I find online bill-paying indispensable.  I’m a big fan of Pandora Radio. And I teach parts of my courses online. My aim, rather, is to call attention to a topic that deserves a louder voice for research and practice.  For example, I urge my colleagues to strongly consider having a “no cell phone" policy in class.  I also recommend introducing such a policy with a sanitized discussion of shortened attention spans and internet addiction in order to convey the rule in a positive light instead of a punitive one.

In the end, as with most vices, I want to promote moderation of internet use.  I’d be a hypocrite to say anything else – if you are reading this essay you are online. In fact, some of you are probably reading this instead of doing something more productive.   I’ll continue using controlled doses of “modern technology” in the classroom.  Slide carousels and acetate transparencies should remain in museums.  But I am also going to continue to advocate a weekly Sabbath from online activity.  The act of listening to an urge to check something online and not responding to it is actually quite liberating. 

Advances in technology are only going make more information available to us more instantaneously.  If there is indeed a detrimental effect of too much internet, we should talk to our students about voluntarily capping their time online and trading that time in for a good book or a conversation with a live person. 

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