College students dependent on cell phones, e-mail

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

While it's sometimes overwhelming for college students to keep up with those they stay connected to primarily through cell phones, instant messaging and e-mail, the students feel anxious when that technology is taken away from them, according to a University of North Texas study.

Ten students in the Design Anthropology class taught by Dr. Christina Wasson, UNT assistant professor of anthropology, observed and interviewed 18- to 24-year-olds at UNT, Southern Methodist University, Texas Christian University, Texas Woman's University and the University of Texas at Arlington to discover how college students use mobile devices -- cell phones and laptop computers -- during daily activities. The UNT students conducted the research at the request of representatives from Microsoft, who wanted to better understand the ways in which people personalize their devices and use them collaboratively.

Wasson says the students discovered that personalization goes far beyond simple device features, such as ring tones.

"The more interesting and important personalizations have to do with users' practices involving their mobile devices," she says.

For example, cell phones were carried constantly and used constantly by the students in the study, says David Howard, UNT graduate student in anthropology and one of the researchers.

"They're as common as sets of keys, and since they're cheap, students use them a lot for both calls and text messaging," he says.

Laptop computers were used less frequently by the students in the study than cell phones. Howard says most of the students used them the same way people use desktop computers -- the laptops are stationary.

"The idea is that if a college student has a laptop, he or she will use all of its functions, such as using it to take notes in class," he says. "But high school students don't miraculously become college students when they go to college. The laptops tend to stay in the residence halls and aren't used any differently than desktops."

On college campuses, "the laptop won't surpass pen and paper for taking notes because they're too big and bulky to bring to class," says Ethan McGaffey, another student researcher.

The few students who do bring laptops to class use them for other functions, such as checking e-mail, he says.

"The professor usually didn't catch what was going on," says McGaffey, who also observed text messaging and e-mail use during class lectures as a graduate teaching assistant. "A laptop is the perfect cover because the professor thinks you're taking notes."

When students don't have access to their mobile devices, they become anxious -- especially since they may have programmed as many as 300 phone numbers into their cell phones, says graduate student researcher Gene Luster.

"A common characteristic of the large contact list on our subjects' cell phones is that they no longer have any idea of the actual telephone numbers of their contacts," he says. "Lost and broken phones almost always result in the subject losing all contacts and having to rebuild the contact list from scratch."

McGaffey says mobile devices can become an extension of the physical body for students.

"Forgetting to bring them along can be like forgetting to wear clothes," he says. "One student said he has had his cell phone on a belt clip for so long that he notices a difference in the way he walks if he accidentally leaves his cell phone behind."

Luster says two of the students he observed made sure their cell phones were within earshot of them all of the time. In addition, one of them literally checked her e-mail account 100 times a day, and was visibly disturbed when the server was down one day, he says.    

McGaffey explains that the large number of phone numbers programmed into cell phones result in students keeping more connected to friends from high school or their hometowns.

"They will call just to leave a message, or to chat for a few minutes while they're walking to their next class. They will go down their cell phone list just to hear someone's voice," he says. "They seem to have switched their dependence on their families to the families they have created on their cell phone directories."

In other findings:

·        The students reported feeling embarrassed when they must use cell phones or laptops that were previously owned by someone else in their families. This shows that students link these devices to their identities, McGaffey says.

·        Students' social awareness -- awareness of activity around them -- decreases tremendously when they use cell phones. "They presume they're in a zone of silence, but others can hear their conversations," Howard says.

·        Almost all of the students said they were distraction by the "play" functions of their devices, which resulted in them browsing the Internet, text messaging or playing games when they needed to work on classroom assignments.

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