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Zombie Apocalypse Hits Campus: Find the Cure Here

By Gary Beemer

Imagine that your grades are slipping. You’re feeling disconnected from those around you and your ability to concentrate is flagging. As you look around the campus you see other students with similar symptoms. They walk with their heads down, blankly staring into the palms of their hands. They sit at full tables in the cafeteria and other gathering places but speak to no one. They are lethargic, sullen and devoid of human interaction.

Just when you fear that you’ve warped into an apocalyptic nightmare resembling an episode of The Walking Dead, you decide to get checked out at the UT Health Center. The waiting room is packed, but strangely quiet and motionless. Some students are coughing, but many sit silently while staring into their laps. It’s finally your turn to be seen, and you walk to the exam room with trepidation. The symptoms are explained and the cause is revealed… you have cellphonitis! The cure? Turn off your smart phone and put it away if you plan to rejoin the human race.

This may be more difficult than it seems for a generation who has grown up with a communication device nearly sprouting from their hands since birth. It’s a double-edged addiction with benefits and drawbacks as smart phones can put the world at our fingertips, or they can distract and disrupt our lives. They can help us be the most informed person in the room, or the apparent dunce mindlessly scrolling through personal news feeds and tweets that tend to disengage us from intelligent face-to-face conversations with truly interesting people; or your boss who has just asked your opinion of what the person next to you just said. Awkward!

How pervasive are our cell phones? The average smartphone user glances at their phone 150-200 times per day, according to Forrester Research. A recent study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that cell phones can interfere with human relationships, especially when discussing personally meaningful topics. You know the kind when you’re sitting face-to-face with someone and trying to shut out the rest of the world but your phone is vibrating toward the edge of the table or tickling your thigh. Unfortunately, cell phones – even in silent mode – provide a continual sense of connection to the wider social world that disengages us from the human being sitting right in front of us. The result is more superficial conversations that do little to foster closeness and trust in relationships. I’ve been told by students that if they want to meet someone interesting in class that they rarely go up and speak to them in person, but instead try to connect electronically. How very… virtual. Try that the next time you are hungry and decide to eat a picture of a chicken sandwich instead of going to Chick-fil-A for the real thing.

If you are concerned about your cell phone’s relationship to your grades, then a study in Social Psychology may be just what the doctor ordered. According to the study, the mere presence of a cell phone in your pocket or on your desk – even when it is not being used – influences your performance on complex mental tasks, like taking tests and remembering important facts. The study revealed that cognitive performance can be decreased by as much as 20 percent when a cell phone is present. Wow, smart phones can make us more disconnected and less informed than ever–who knew?

I’m not completely dissing cell phones as they can be a great asset in many ways. We can communicate with others and educate ourselves, and they are often the dominant way for companies to reach their customers with goods and services that they need and want. In the Marketing Profession these 150-200 daily “glances” are called Mobile Minutes. They are critical opportunities for businesses to acquire, engage and retain customers who live in the digital world. One in five adults has a smartphone globally (Forrester), which adds up to 30 billion Mobile Minutes a day. When The Sports Authority sends me a text based flash sale message (SMS) on my favorite sneakers I’m grateful to save the 25 percent. If it’s a Facebook post of the dog who thought his back leg was another dog trying to steal his chew toy and he snarls at his own leg, or it’s an advertisement for something I have no interest in, I’m not so grateful. Smart marketers respect our time and their ad budgets by knowing our preferences well enough to send only relevant and meaningful content that helps them meet our needs and wants. In the end, we have to manage what content is worthy of our limited time instead of having the seemingly limitless amount of content manage us.

Can’t go cold turkey on your phone addiction altogether? No problem. You can still have plenty of mobile minutes to say hi, stream video or music, reply to a post or laugh at that crazy dog who thinks his leg is going to steal his chew toy. But consider “glancing” at your smartphone only 100 times a day instead of 200. That should free up a good hour or more to sit and relax by the river in Plant Park, soak up the sun and strike up a cell-phone-free conversation with an existing or new friend about what’s important to you. Now imagine that.

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