Student identity connected to mobile devices, study finds

Friday, September 30, 2005
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You think your college-age son or daughter wouldn't be able to survive without a cell phone?

You may be right, according to a study conducted by the University of North Texas.

In fact cell phones, instant messaging and e-mail are so much a part of their lives, college students experience anxiety when that technology is taken away from them, according to the UNT research.

Graduate anthropology students 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. They conducted the study at the request of Microsoft, who wanted to better understand how people personalize their devices and use them collaboratively.

Cell phones were both carried and used constantly by those students being studied, says David Howard, a 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. 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," Howard 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."

Other findings in the study: the laptop won't surpass pen and paper for taking notes because students believe they're too big and bulky to bring to class. And 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 another researcher, 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. They no longer recall the actual telephone numbers of their contacts, and lost and broken phones almost always result in the cell phone owner having to rebuild a contact list from scratch.

The study also revealed mobile devices can become an extension of the physical body for students.

"Forgetting to bring them along can be like forg etting to wear clothes," one researcher noted. "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."

Two of the students observed in the study made sure their cell phones were within earshot of them at all times. In addition, one of them literally checked her e-mail account 100 times a day and became visibly disturbed on an occasion when the server was down.

One unexpected bonus: the large number of phone numbers programmed into cell phones results in students living away from home 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," says a UNT researcher. "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, UNT researchers say.

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," says one of the study's authors.

Almost all of the students said they were distracted 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.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108