Zombie-Like Cellphone Usage Across Colleges in America

This article summarizes the problem of addictive cell phone usage that college students across the country are facing. It covers the issues with obsessive cell phone addiction, reasons why this is happening, and what we can do to solve this problem.

College students across the country walk to and from their classes with blank expressions on their faces, heads down, and phones out, while occasionally glancing up to not bump into anything. From personal experience as a freshman, I observed this zombie-like phenomenon within my first week of college. After the initial phase of meeting new people was over, it felt utterly awkward to approach anyone engulfed on their phone.

Why do students have to be on their hand-held devices around the clock, whether it be while walking to class, waiting in line, eating in a dining hall, or during a class? Students on campus are constantly using their phones to live up to the expectations of others in order to be accepted.

Cell phone use in college can be defined as the addiction that students have to their smartphones. The majority of students own an iPhone or Android device. According to a Pearson Mobile Device Survey in 2015, 85% of college students own a smartphone (Pearson). If they are not walking looking down at it while in-between classes, they are always holding it. The cell phone almost acts as a safety blanket for students, as they have to have it on them constantly.

From performing an observation in a busy area of my college for twenty minutes at noon time, I observed about 65 people out of 105 students walk past either on their phone, holding it, or listening to headphones with it in their pocket. This raises many questions, such as why do students feel the urge to always stay connected to people who are not currently with them?

Students choose to spend so much time on their cell phones to keep in touch with those not right by their sides when they could be meeting new friends. Why do students feel strange to initiate conversation with strangers, so they act busy on their cell phones? Not only is it easy to miss out on meeting new people, but also students feel the urge to stare down at this screen without paying attention to their surroundings.


It is important for this analysis to take place so that students can be aware of how it is negatively affecting their lives. Other age groups experience this phenomenon as well; however, it is extremely important to analyze college students since it is taking away from their college education and experiences. Cell phones are not a bad thing; however, their addictive features are what make them detrimental. Cellular devices did not appear quickly, but this phenomenon has gradually spiralled out of control.

The telephone was originated by Alexander Graham Bell on March 10, 1876. From this date on, the phone evolved into the modern-day smartphone. The candlestick became popular in the 1890’s, and then the rotary phone took over in 1904. Eventually, the car phone was invented in 1946.

In the following years came the push button, the answering machine, the portable home phone, and then the first commercially available cell phone, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, for $3,995 in 1984! The Nokia 5110 soon followed, along with caller ID, as well as the Motorola Star TAC, the first successful flip phone. In 2003, the Sanyo SCP-5300 was released and was one of the first phones to include a camera. Some other cell phones were released before the iPhone and Android in 2007, such as the Palm Treo, Motorola RAZR, and BlackBerry. Ultimately, iPhone and Android smartphones have taken over the market and there are not many college students without one of these devices (Zigterman).


First off, college students are constantly holding their phones just in case they receive a notification. In today’s society, it is considered “rude” if a response is not received right away. This cultural revelation evolved in the same way in which the smartphone did. In the beginning stages of the telephone, it was common for people not to answer their landlines since they were not available. With answering machines in the 1960’s, people could leave a message and then their call would be returned. Then, voicemail on cell phones allowed a relatively quick response. With the advent of texting on smartphones, it is extremely easy to make contact with others right away and makes no sense if someone does not respond right away since cell phones are always attached to people.

With this ease of communication, society believes that it is easy to answer and has grown used to receiving a response immediately. It has grown to a point where society has created “read receipts,” which show which time the message was seen. It is culturally unacceptable to leave someone on reading, and people become curious when someone does not have their read on and are not answering. In addition, students are excited if someone reaches out to them and need to know right away. If a notification is received, the brain releases a rush of dopamine and serotonin, causing students to constantly hold their devices just in case someone contacts them (Callahan).


Next, since Penn State students are separated from their friends and family from home, they feel the urge to share everything online. Society considers it strange to do something and not post it on the internet for the world to see. This leads to students always holding onto their cell phones just in case something appears which they need to document online. Society sometimes feels there is nothing worth doing unless it is shared. This leads to problems when people care more about the picture than their safety.

For example, on June 7, 2016, a man from New Jersey fell 40 feet to his death at Maine’s Acadia National Park while trying to take a picture of a sunset, and in 2007 at this same park, another woman fell and drowned while trying to accomplish the same thing (Callahan). In addition, Alan Hilibrand, vice chairman of orthopaedic surgery at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, has seen “digital dead walkers” on city-centre streets. “We’ve had people come into the emergency room who were hit by cars. They’re looking at their phone and not paying attention to the fact that a vehicle is making a turn,” he says (Halsey). People are willing to go to the extreme just to make sure they are able to share what is going on in their everyday lives.

The fear of missing out is another reason students’ phones are always secured in their hands.

Without constantly holding a device and updating Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, etc., students may feel left out if they miss a post from a friend from back home. In fact, the opposite may be true. Andrew Lepp, Ph. D., a researcher from Kent State’s College of Education, conducted a survey and found, “the students in the study who tended to use their cell phones compulsively and at inappropriate times felt less socially connected to parents and peers than other students” (Anderson).

Or, if they post something, they feel like they must constantly make sure they know who likes their post or if they receive any comments. This is why students need to regularly unlock their phones to make sure they are still in the loop of their social world. They are worried that this social world will not accept them if they miss something, and by doing so, they are missing the new reality surrounding them. In a study by Larry D. Rosen Ph. D., 216 undergraduate students were asked to try an app called Instant Quantifies Self which tallied the number of times students unlocked their phones. The results were approximately 60 times a day, each time for about 3 to 4 minutes, resulting in four hours per day!

If college students spend about eight months per year in school, about 250 days, this would be the equivalent to 1,000 hours or almost 42 days spent on the cell phone (Rosen). Think about the opportunity cost of this: meeting other students, getting homework done, participation in different clubs, etc.

Finally, since there is a large population of unknown peers in college, it is evident that a majority will not get to know one another extremely well. Therefore, everywhere students go, they are around others who they do not know. Everyone avoids talking by trying to fit in and avoid awkward eye contact as well as conversation by using their cell phones.

For example, in my college experience, while waiting for the library to open, a group of twenty students who did not know each other gathered in front of the door. From observation, I noticed that 18 out of these 20 students were on their phones! If someone sparked a conversation with another stranger, it would not have been considered a societal norm.

Students would rather interact with familiar friends than open up to meet new people due to the fear of not being accepted. Even if it is evident that a student is having an awful day, other college students can form judgements based on the present reality of this person. To combat this, students can feel better about themselves and their days by posting online to make it appear that their day is just the opposite. Students are on their own made up fantasy worlds on their cell phones looking at others’ worlds and do not want others to face their true reality sometimes.


So why is this problematic? Obviously, students are not improving their social interaction with one another. However, there are even more issues which college students need to fix before this gets out of hand. For example, concentration levels are decreasing, and students need this concentration to succeed in college. With the thought of, “what if,” there is a notification on the phone, students constantly pick their phones up while doing homework, studying, or even in class.

This distraction takes away from the learning experience as well as students’ focus levels. A study from the Journal of Media Education reported that students spend a fifth of the time in the classroom on their devices. Associate Professor Barney McCoy from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln says that students may be distracted for two-thirds of the school year. According to his studies, 63% of respondents said that they use their phones in class to both stay connected and fight boredom (Schaffhauser). In addition, students can develop anxiety from being detached from their phones or if they are on their phone for too long (Banducci), and the addiction has led to a decrease in the hours of sleep students are receiving (Scary Ways).

By understanding what motivates college students to be addicted to their phones and the effects of this addictive cell phone use, society can come up with better ways to address this problem. Cell phones provide many benefits, such as the ability to keep in touch with those far away, however, when they start to take away from the present reality, they can become problematic. Laws, such as those preventing texting while driving, can help prevent cell phone related distractions, however, they are not the most effective way of stopping this issue.

If college students understand the reasons behind addictive cell phone use and open their eyes to their unknown peers who are turning into zombies, they will become more aware of their actions and will be more inclined to resort to their cell phones less. Halloween will not last all year at universities across the country if students can begin to face their present reality and put down their cellular devices.

Works Cited

Anderson, Kristin. "Can Cell Phones Make You Feel Less Connected to Your Friends and Family?" Kent State University, 16 Aug. 2016, www.kent.edu/kent/news/can-cell-phones-make-you-feel-less-connected-your-friends-and-family. Accessed 1 Nov. 2017.

Banducci, Sarah. "Study Links Mobile Device Addiction to Depression and Anxiety." Illinois News Bureau, 2 Mar. 2016, news.illinois.edu/blog/view/6367/334240. Accessed 10 Nov. 2017.

Callahan, Maureen. "Our Cellphones Are Killing Us." New York Post, NYP Holdings, 18 June 2016, nypost.com/2016/06/18/our-cellphones-are-killing-us/. Accessed 1 Nov. 2017.

Halsey III, Ashley. "Eyes Down, Minds Elsewhere, ‘Deadwalkers’ Are Among Us." The Washington Post, 27 Sept. 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/eyes-down-minds-elsewhere-deadwalkers-are-among-us/2015/09/27/a3ad1da2-51bb-11e5-8c19-0b6825aa4a3a_story.html?utm_term=.385173c2b4ac. Accessed 1 Nov. 2017.

"Pearson, Harris Poll Mobile Device Study Reveals College Students Reliant on Laptops Even with Rise in Tablet Ownership." LearnEd, Pearson PLC, 23 Sept. 2015, www.pearsonlearningnews.com/press_release/test-press-release/. Accessed 10 Nov. 2017.

Rosen, Larry D. "Are We All Becoming Pavlov’s Dogs?" Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 11 June 2016, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/rewired-the-psychology-technology/201606/are-we-all-becoming-pavlov-s-dogs. Accessed 10 Nov. 2017.

"Scary Ways Technology Affects Your Sleep." Sleep.org, sleep.org/articles/ways-technology-affects-sleep/.

Schaffhauser, Dian. "Research: College Students More Distracted Than Ever." Campus Technology, 1105 Media, 20 Jan. 2016, campustechnology.com/articles/2016/01/20/research-college-students-more-distracted-than-ever.aspx. Accessed 1 Nov. 2017.

Zigterman, Ben. "How We Stopped Communicating like Animals." BGR, BGR Media, 13 Dec. 2013, bgr.com/2013/12/13/telephone-timeline-a-brief-history-of-the-phone/. Accessed 10 Nov. 2017.


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