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Cell Phone Criticism


Despite cell phones’ ubiquity, however, the literacies we have developed in coordination with them have caused a fair amount of hand-wringing. Perhaps most significant among the many concerns educators and pundits have about cell phones in schools (whether K–12 or postsecondary) is how their widespread use in face-to-face classes can facilitate distraction and cheating. Because of these fears, instructor reaction has emerged in some surprisingly aggressive ways, and online videos show instructors at all levels confiscating cell phones from students only to smash them in a fit of anger. Most of the videos depicting this behavior are, perhaps ironically, shot with cell phones. I will abstain from linking to them here, but instead offer this parody of such videos, which unfortunately reifies a similar anti-cell phone sentiment.

In order to avoid these ugly confrontations, some schools have banned cell phones, leading to a quandary for students who feel the need to be connected and parents who want to ensure they can communicate with their children in an emergency. The innovative, if problematic, business of cell phone storage trucks has emerged as a response to this administrative problem. These trucks are able to park outside of schools and keep students’ cell phones safe during class for the fee of roughly $1/day (Pan, 2012). Certainly, businesses like these function as an awkward stopgap in how cell phones have disrupted a structured educational institution and the habits built into such systems.

Educators have also commented on the supposed encroachment of texting language in academic writing, or at least standard written English. PEW studies from 2008 have documented K-12 students’ activities in incorporating texting vocabulary, spelling, and grammar in writing they perform for more formal school situations. Sixty-four percent of teens reported using informal text-based communication styles in school writing, 38% claimed to have used shortcuts, like “LOL,” and 25% reported using emoticons (Lenhart, Arefeh, Smith & Macgill, 2009). For some, these statistics are sobering reminders that the casual use of technology for efficient communication will have deleterious effects upon more thoughtful, long-form academic prose.

Much of the discussion over the effects of cell phone use has occurred in public forums, too. Naomi Baron, observing texting language over a decade ago, worried that “much of American society has become sloppy or laissez faire about the mechanics of writing” (Associated Press, 2003). For Baron, this slippage signaled potential problems, as writers could be more prone to mistake the formality of their intended audience. While there is no simple consensus on whether or not texting directly helps or hinders students’ writing, public opinion appears to weigh against the benefits. Edutopia’s recent survey asking “Does text messaging harm students’ writing skills?” garnered 53% “Yes,” 18% “Maybe” and 25% “No” (“Does Text,” n.d.).