Community Voices

Beyond the Classroom: Do smartphones make us lazy?

I remember my years of doing organ transplants without a cell phone. As impossible as it may sound, there were none. So I did what anyone else would do — carried around a lot of quarters and memorized all the payphones on my Interstate 95 route.

One day in 1987, the hospital distributed phones to the transplant team, they were humongous — like the phones commandos carry around at the front lines, but who cared? It was amazing. It wasn’t a smartphone, it didn’t have Siri or GPS navigation, but it was to become a tool I could never do without. And I was forever changed. Oh how I mourned the days when no one could “find” me. I now had a 24/7 electronic leash.

Cellular and digital technology came crashing into our lives without warning. Version after version, each device offered more services, which meant we had to do or remember less. They were so efficient at doing everything, they became known as “smartphones.” But smart as they are, those smartphones are making us lazy and superficial thinkers. Tasks like calculating simple math and finding an address were once part of our cerebral functions. We used our brains to do the math and maps to find the addresses. But the more we depend on these smart devices, the more we relinquish the thinking skills that make us human.

Most people wouldn’t last a day without their phone. In his article “Are Smartphones Making Us Lazy Thinkers?,” NBC’s Keith Wagstaff asks whether the ability to get info at our fingertips is helping us or hurting us. We look up everything from phone numbers to random trivia. He shares a Canadian study that says there is a connection between reliance on smartphones and the loss of deep thought and ability to solve problems. You may get an answer on the Internet, but unless you are able to analyze it logically, you don’t really know if it is correct. The more you rely on instinct rather than analysis, the more you depend on your smartphone. And while it broadens the amount of available information, it may compromise long term memory storage. And as they say, “if you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Nicholas Carr, who has written several books on how the Internet changes the way we think, says that what we have created with smartphones is an environment of constant distraction and interruption. He says “It’s only when we are attentive, when we can focus on a train of thought, that we tap into the deepest forms of thought — conceptual and critical thinking don’t happen if you’re constantly distracted. What we are finding is that student’s brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing.”

Here are some pros and cons of routine smartphone use as it pertains to academics:


▪ Smartphones in the classroom offer unique opportunities. Smartphones give students a wealth of creative options to enhance the classroom experience, including: access to the internet for research and referencing, the ability to snap a picture of the day’s homework assignment or take a short video of a key lecture moment, or the ability to access to Apps like ResponseWare that convert smartphones into classroom “response clickers” that can answer interactive activity questions.

In some schools smartphones are actually given to students, but without messaging or calling capabilities. They’re used to access the internet, schedule homework, and send e-mails to teachers and fellow students regarding assignments. Results are encouraging, which tangible improvement in students’ overall math and science scores.

Qualcomm is working with Southwest High School in North Carolina to improve student test scores using smartphones. Called Project K-Nect, Qualcomm has distributed smartphones in select courses, and teachers hope the devices will introduce high-tech applications to students who don’t have access to the Internet at home.

Teachers say that if students are actively engaged in class, they’re much less apt to search for other things on their phones. Also, if you designate a time when kids can text, they’re disinclined to conduct “pocket or sweatshirt texting” during class time.

▪ Smartphones can record lectures and provide useful apps. Some students use their smartphones for recording lectures. With built-in programs such Voice Memo on iPhones and third-party hands-free note-taking apps, students can turn the microphone on while writing down notes. Whether it’s a digital metronome for music students or an interactive periodic table for chemistry students, there are all sorts of apps.

▪ QR codes, the dot filled square that acts like a bar code on a grocery item, can store data and quickly access needed URLs in one click.

▪ Email may seem passé but it with its instant access on smartphones, kids don’t need to have web access (or even a computer) at home anymore, and those kids who are shuttling back and forth between parents’ houses can still check their school email regularly.


▪ Remote communication can be more compelling than present moment engagement. It is very disconcerting when someone you are with breaks off to attend to their smartphone. How many times do I see couples and families sitting at a restaurant table and everyone is on their phones? A big complaint is when a partner or friend is focused on a phone communication rather than the interaction between them. Not to mention the ongoing battle between parents who complain that their children are constantly answering texts instead of holding a conversation and kids who say their parents interrupt conversations with them in order to check an incoming text, email or call.

The constant “looking down” prevents people from interacting in their environment. On the extreme side, it causes horrific accidents. On a lesser note, people miss sunsets and rainbows, they miss out on life itself.

▪ Too much screen time. Juana Summers in her article “Kids and Screen Time: What does the Research Say?” states that kids are spending more time than ever in front of screens and that may be inhibiting their ability to recognize emotions.

While these devices may offer great learning opportunities, their use must be balanced with an equal amount of face-to-face social interaction.

When kids spend more time texting friends rather than getting together, there is a problem. Face-to-face interaction is a human need that begins in infancy and never goes away.

The AAP recommendation for entertainment screen time should be limited to two hours a day for children ages 3-18. And, for 2-year-olds and younger, none at all. In addition to social and behavioral issues, research suggests that excessive daily screen time can also promote childhood obesity as well as irregular sleep patterns.

▪ Mary Lamia, Ph.D. says that smartphones carry an emotional cost. When you know someone received your text or call but they didn’t respond, it may cause shame. In situations with a partner, jealousy can be easily evoked in a person who expects an immediate response to a text but doesn’t get it. Some people sleep with their phones in the fear of “missing out” on a call or text. The endless pings and beeps ultimately affects the quality of sleep.

▪ Texting and cyberslang have crept into students’ more formal writing. Cyber slang is a term used to describe shortcuts or symbols used to send messages when texting. The limits of digital media (the number of characters that can be used at a time) have forced students to become creative. The problem is, is that they don’t always make the linguistic distinction between texting their friends and writing a formal essay for History class and it is damaging their writing acumen.

Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.