This semester I’m teaching a course called The Transition to Adulthood. It’s a senior level course that has evolved (partly as a result of research on emerging adulthood still focusing for the most part on the college experience) to be a class that examines the developmental experience of college students. For their written project, I decided to try something a little different, as much for my own benefit as their’s (nobody wants to grade research article summaries–if they say they do, you have my permission to slap them in their pompous face).
I assigned them Aziz Ansari’s and Eric Klinenberg’s new-ish book, Modern Romance, which provides a hilarious yet informative presentation of sociological data collected for the purposes of understanding the modern dating scene and, as proved inevitable, the ‘phone world’ Millennials (and many other people) live in now.
I just graded the first wave of essays, which required students to track 2 hours of phone usage for themselves or a willing friend during a time with heavy ‘social traffic’ and then write about patterns that emerged in the data. The next essay will ask them to connect those patterns back to the data in Modern Romance.
I can honestly say that, in my decade of college teaching, I have never enjoyed grading an assignment so much. These essays gave me insight into the lives of my students that a more standard research project would have never afforded. And, to my great delight, the observations my students made about the integration between their phones and their social lives were not just revealing, but totally endearing too. Here’s what I learned:
Lesson 1: College students LOVE Snapchat (and not just for sending d*** pics)! As a mother of teens who reads way too many articles about how social media might fuel depravity, I honestly thought Snapchat was used primarily for sending pics of particular body parts. What I discovered, instead, is that my students stay connected to friends back home or siblings via brief Snap videos or pictures that showcase how they look and feel that day. For busy young adults, these served as a way to affirm feelings for each other, support each other through difficult experiences, or just share a laugh.
Lesson 2: GroupMe is for Everyone. Back when I graduated high school, the idea of staying connected with friends back home while you were at college was something you said at the end of August during tearful goodbyes, and then forgot about until you were trying to decided to invite your high school bff to your wedding or not. Keeping high school friends was just too difficult, save for a few really special connections. In contrast, my students reported that they often have GroupMe set up with their friends back home, such that group text messages are sent to keep their friendship circle up-to-date with their life’s happenings. In fact, in my small (and admittedly non-representative) sample of more male students used GroupMe to stay in touch with their high school friends than female students. One young man wrote that his friends would text each other daily, just to stay informed about each other’s lives. A decidedly different approach from what I saw in both men and woman I graduated with back in the late ’90s.
Lesson 3: The Game is On. In almost every single time-log, there was a pattern where a romantic interest or significant other would not respond quickly enough to a text, to which my student would then delay their response even further, leading to another delay on the receiver’s end, and so on. While playing the waiting game, though, my students reported feeling anxious and constantly checking their phones to see if their object of interest had texted back yet, even though they played it cool in the timing of their actual replies. It struck me that so much power is embedded in the texting relationship for whomever was the receiver last, and that to be the last sender was a precarious and stressful position to find yourself in. No wonder my students literally whip their phones out even before I finish saying we’re done for the day!
Lesson 4: ‘Life’ Cycle. Most of my students reported circulating through their social media apps, e-mails, and texts in one fluid motion that never ended. They’d check Instagram, then Tinder, then Snapchat, then e-mail, then texts (or these would be on automatic push notifications already), and back to Insta. Their phone worlds were a constant vortex of activity in their efforts to stay updated and responsive to their friends. Some of my students noted that it was a little exhausting at times, but worth it for the amount of support and connectivity it afforded them.
So there you have it. College students might seem to fetish-ize their phone to the point of it being a second appendage, but it’s not for mindless reasons. We humans are social creatures–Millennials included or, perhaps, especially so.