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Student presenters Perla Munguia, left, Hannah Blas, Donald Borner and Gianna Rodrigo shared their insights about social impacts and cultural changes evolving from our love affair with cell phones and social media at FRC’s ‘Student Research Symposium.’ Photo by Angelina Wilson

FRC students explore technology

Cell phones: blessing or bane of evolving society?

Are cell phones and social media the blessings of a new age? Or are they destroying a generation? Those were some of the provocative ideas that Feather River College (FRC) students explored recently when the college held its Student Research Symposium.

Hosting one of 30 student-led panels at the event, FRC Instructor Joe Willis introduced four presenters for a fascinating look at “Technology and Everyday Life.”

Do cell phones control our lives?

Gianna Rodrigo talked about ways that cell phones control people’s lives.

“I was 14 when I got my first cell phone,” Rodrigo said. “I was excited and I was always on it. We’d just gotten rid of our landline. Today, people are controlled by their cell phones (to such an extent) that they can’t put them down because they’re afraid they’ll miss something.”

The student said her research and personal experience had shown her that mobile devices are affecting people’s social skills.

“This is how we lose our social skills,” Rodrigo said. “No one talks to anyone; we’re just on our phones.”

One member of the audience commented that they’d seen people sitting in restaurants together at the same table, yet everyone was on their phone and no one was talking to each other. Rodrigo said it was likely this kind of situation would become more common, not less.

Loneliness, sleep deprivation

Donald Borner also discussed cell phones and social media use for his topic on technology and social behavior. Focusing on the increase in numbers of adults and teens who have and use mobile devices, he reported on a 2017 survey of 5,000 teens that found three out of four owned cell phones.

“Depression is increasing,” Borner said. “Get-togethers with friends are declining in our society. Preferences for texting are increasing over talking to each other in person. And between 27 percent of teen boys and 48 percent of teen girls are reporting feeling lonely or left out socially.”

In some ways, he added, technology eliminates barriers in society and boosts people’s confidence about reaching out to others.

“Our culture is changing,” Borner said. “You’re more likely to interact with someone online digitally — at least initially — than you are interpersonally.”

However, he added, meeting people in person lets you read their expressions and see their body language, nonverbal communication methods that are important in knowing and understanding others.

Citing research by the Human Kinetics blog, he said, “Society is likely on the cusp of a social revolution, during which it will be important to redefine socially appropriate and acceptable behaviors,” with regard to digital or virtual interactions.

Of particular interest to Borner were statistics from two national surveys that indicate an increase in sleep deprivation for 28 percent of people who spend three or more hours a day on their electronics and similar outcomes for 19 percent of people who spend time on social media.

His research also supported the conclusion that technology and social media offer positive benefits, such as improving the ability to stay connected with family and old friends; helping people make new friends in like-minded communities and overcoming isolation; and making it easier to follow favorite celebrities or form romantic relationships.

“So cell phones put you in contact with people who are far away from you,” Borner said, illustrating the point on his slide with a cartoon drawing. “But ironically, they can distance you from people who are right nearby.”

Concluding his presentation with an upbeat outlook, the student told his listeners it’s important to look at all the ways technology does bring people closer together.

“Cell phones and social media help you stay connected with your friends after you move away, people we would have lost touch with in years past,” Borner said.

He cited Jean Twenge who has written about smart phones and society for The Atlantic.

“She says we shouldn’t ‘succumb to nostalgia for the way things used to be,’” Borner observed. “Twenge said it’s important to understand how they are now and she points out that ‘some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both.’ So there are benefits to technology, it depends on how you use it. For instance, I had a sleepless night just preparing for this presentation!”

The audience laughed with appreciation and Instructor Willis chimed in, “So did I! I received several late emails from students working on their projects and it was good that I could help them, so you just can’t win!”

Problems of online free speech

Hannah Blas posed a question asking whether Internet content should be more restrictive?

“Many countries, not just China, limit what their citizens can see on the Internet,” Blas told the audience, mentioning widespread problems that come with the privileges of free speech on the web.

“Cyber-sexual harassment is a huge thing online,” she said. “Homophobic language is such a problem that it has given rise to the creation of tools to both identify it and remove it. And social media contains many examples of cyber-racism.”

Listener questions were wide ranging and one person asked Blas what she thought solutions might look like. Blas didn’t recommend censorship on social media platforms. Instead, she favored preserving both access to technology and freedom of speech while giving users more autonomy to remove hate speech and negative or bullying comments from the platforms.

Better teams, more distractions

Perla Munguia took a broad look at technology and society, saying tech use offers important advantages to children and students. They develop skills that help them in school and in the workforce, including learning the value of teamwork. Early introduction to technology also fosters innovation, the student researcher explained.

But it’s important to consider the potential disadvantages posed by using technology, too. For example, she said we are 23 times more likely to get into an accident if we text while driving.

Agreeing with her fellow presenters that heavy consumption of social media, the kind fostered by strong attachments to cell phones, is leading to heightened feelings of isolation and reduced peer interactions, Munguia cited a prevalence of inaccurate information available online and upswings in both cyber-bullying and peer pressure.

“With so many social media apps and platforms available now, you can meet people without ever leaving your home,” Munguia said, leaving it to the audience to decide whether that was a good thing or not.

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