Viewpoints: Are we, like Trump, too dependent on our phones?

By Dwight DeWerth-Pallmeyer

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Donald Trump’s ability to rally his supporters and capture headlines with 140 characters or less clearly benefited his presidential campaign. And, since his election, he has continued to use Twitter — day and night — to set policy, report breaking news (some factual, some not) and to pick fights.

If these past few weeks are any indication of how often President Trump will use Twitter, then he will likely drive society further in a direction where attention spans are fleeting, facts and context don’t always matter, and critical thinking is nonexistent.

Why make such a dire statement? Because the new leader of the free world is choosing to deliver the majority of his messaging via social media, often unannounced and at obscure times. In doing so, he is promoting the trend of using social media as our primary — and possibly only — news source, and prompting us to keep our smartphones always within reach.

Generations growing up in the cellular age already get the bulk of their news via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The president-elect’s use of Twitter now pushes the rest of us in that direction. But, when we get news in 140 characters or less or through our Twitter feed, we not only miss the bulk and context of the story, but we don’t even read enough to decipher legitimate news sources from fake ones.

Clearly our dependency on smartphones has led to this evolution of news delivery, and vice versa. That constant chirp or vibration in our pockets increasingly interrupts genuine chances for introspection and deeper thought.

While filming the documentary “Cellular Aftershocks,” I’ve witnessed firsthand how young and old alike are becoming so reliant on cellphones that it borders on addiction. The studies by James Roberts of Baylor University find that college-aged individuals check their cellphone 50 times each day. His research estimates that female college students are on their phones 10 hours a day and males eight. Despite these hours spent staring at the screen, most are not reading full news articles. Most don’t even take the time to read a blog posting. And adults tell me they no longer have the attention span to finish novels.

Our dependency on cellphones has other unintended consequences. Neuroscientists believe the fast dopamine rush that results from a cellphone vibration is leading to changing synapse paths in the brain. The result is often muddled thinking and scattered thoughts. Neurologist Adam Gazzaley at the University of California’s Medical School refers to this as a “performance cost that degrades our performance on any one task.”

Jeff Nalin, founder of the adolescent treatment center Paradigm Malibu, has found that our cellphones also make genuine introspection and interpersonal communication more difficult. True interpersonal communication involves reading each other’s tone of voice and making or not making eye contact. It usually involves a slow process of self-disclosure — virtually everything that Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram are simply not designed to accomplish.

I see the effects in my own classroom, and these deficiencies often set the stage for ineffective collaborations or failure to collaborate.

This smartphone fixation is particularly vexing for adolescents who have grown up knowing no other world. As teens spend more time in their bedrooms gazing at their smartphones, they are ironically becoming more isolated and lonely.

These “side effects” of excessive cellphone usage alone make the case that we need to live in conjunction with our technology, not be entirely dependent upon it. Yet Trump’s Twitter usage may push him — and us — toward dependency. This is unfortunate, not only because of his scope of influence, but also because the side effects all point to a larger issue. It’s what I consider a technological dumbing down of our knowledge base, where critical thinking is all but lost. U.S. psychiatrist Benjamin Bloom’s widely used Model of Critical Thinking would suggest we need to move from knowledge, to comprehension, to application, to analysis, to synthesis, and, finally, to evaluation.

Therein lies the concern, not only about our future, but also about our next president, who regularly takes to Twitter at all hours, but rarely composes a Tweet that even passes Bloom’s first component of critical thought: knowledge. Yet, how could he with only 140 characters at his disposal?

As Trump takes office, he should curb his fascination with Twitter and aim to communicate in more depth. Perhaps this would allow him — and all of us — much-needed time away from our phones so that we don’t lose sight of the value of knowledge, the value of connecting and constructively working with people who may have different perspectives, and ultimately, the value of critical thinking. I doubt we can accomplish much otherwise.

Dwight DeWerth-Pallmeyer is an associate professor of communication studies at Widener University and producer, director and writer of the forthcoming documentary “Cellular Aftershocks.” Email him at ddpallmeyer@widener.edu.

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