Modern Day Zombies? The Effects of Smartphone Ownership at Denison

By The Darian of Harrington

The revolutionary device that is the Smartphone has pushed technological advancements decades into the future. But the accessibility to essentially unlimited information has turned Smartphone users into modern day zombies. Staying constantly connected can be good for building relationships and acquiring knowledge, but perhaps at the price of constantly worrying about what’s on our phone as opposed to what is happening in the real world. The consistent debate of Smartphone usage has inspired me to see how this technology affects Denisonians. Using data from the March 2019 survey (with 483 respondents), I am particularly concerned to investigate how phone use is linked to time management and social connectivity. Is phone use linked to wasting time and social isolation?

But, first, we should check out what’s hot on campus. The graph below paints a rather stark picture that the Denison student body has a proclivity for the iPhone over any other device — 87.8% have an iPhone. These results make sense as the Apple Brand was one of the first companies to successfully brand and market this type of technology to the general public. In addition, the ease of connectivity features such as facetime and iMessage with other iPhone and Apple users without the need of a data plan. No one surveyed said they didn’t have a phone.

The crux of the issue is how much time people spend on their phones. Everywhere you look, people have their heads down – missing traffic lights, not talking to others around them, not seeing the world. How much time do Denison students spend on their phones? The graph below shows the distribution of hours claimed on the phone (the question did not allow partial hours) and the times are eye-popping. Remember, this asked about the “typical day.” Ten percent spend 6 hours or more, 26 percent spend 4-5 hours, and 21 percent spend 1-2 hours. The average is just under 4 hours. That’s a lot of time.

The graph below shows average phone times by race and gender. Non-white women spend on the most amount of time on their Smartphones and white men spend the least amount of time on their phones. The only statistical differences between these demographics are between non-white and white women, though clearly non-whites are on their phones more than white students. Why? Oliver’s article about social support finds no differences by race, but that question never asked about how that support was delivered. Perhaps non-white students are on their phones more to keep connected with friends who are less often physically present.

But this just begs the question — are people on their phones to keep connected or to stay disconnected? To find out, I checked out how phone time is linked to the time spent on other activities, including time with friends. In the graph below, points to the left of the dashed line indicate negative effects – less time spent on the activity – while points on the right are linked to more time spent. Most activities, such as exercise, are not affected by how much time is spent on a Smartphone (confidence interval lines overlap with the dashed line at 0). However, there are four statistically significant relationships that occur. For every hour of time spent on a device, time spent with friends goes up by 20 minutes, time spent eating goes up by just over 10 minutes, and time spent in meetings is higher by just under 10 minutes. All of these links suggest that phones are, not surprisingly, social connectivity devices for continuing conversations and arranging meetups. Naturally, then, for every hour spent on a device, time spent sleeping goes down, though only by about 7 minutes. For the typical student, that’s about a half hour less sleep.

The results weigh in on the debate that people have regarding the positive and negative aspects of Smartphone usage. It is obvious that phones are deeply ingrained into our lives, but what is interesting is that the data shows that phone usage may not take away from time spent on other social activities. When it comes to homework, exercise, and going to class, spending time on ones’ phone does not take away time spent on those activities. Additionally, for every hour of time spent on a Smartphone, time spent in meetings, eating (presumably with friends), and time spent with friends goes up. For all the worry about alienation and misanthropy that technology has been thought to fuel, the evidence here suggests the opposite — phone use is linked to closer links between people.

Further research should be conducted regarding specifics on Smartphone usage. Do Denisonians typically research articles, look up fun facts, communicate, or just play games as the primary use of their device? What social media apps are most commonly used? One thing is certain when it comes to this topic: Smartphone technology has fundamentally changed the way that we see and access the world. Whether that is positive or negative still remains to be seen.

Darian Harrington is an amateur misanthrope who is simultaneously trying to save the world with his Political Science education. When he isn’t hermiting in his room, you can find him procrastinating in Knapp.

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