Columbia University, sensing that its campus had grown too introverted, in part due to the increased use of mobile devices, this week has tried to encourage casual interactions among students with a game, called “The Social Experiment,” aimed at getting campus strangers to talk to each other. While the results may be mixed, it does illustrate the growing trend of ignoring those around us for those we are connected to via a mobile device.
Sophisticated mobile devices are becoming ubiquitous on college campuses. According to recent data from the Educause Center for Applied Research, about 63 percent of students own Internet-enabled mobile devices, and another 11 percent plan to purchase one within the year. While some have touted the devices as a potential boon for field research and a vehicle for all sorts of useful, campus-based apps for students, a number of professors have fretted about trying to teach perpetually distracted students — especially when their ability to connect to the Internet cannot be shut off by network administrators.
Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University, which shares an urban setting with Columbia, says that the sight of students traversing campus glued to their mobile devices rather than offering hearty salutations to other walkers is not the symptom of social illness. Text-messaging with a friend, he says, is likely to be a more meaningful social experience than exchanging pleasantries with a stranger.
Social media and text-messaging has increased pressure on students to respond hastily to messages from friends, and meeting those expectations is likely to trump saying “hi” to strangers, says Steve Jones, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago. If anything, students who are texting while walking around campus probably have as much of a social life as they can handle. “If you’re already juggling that many social relationships,” he says, “do you really want to talk to strangers and potentially add another friend?”
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