Andrew Lepp has been teaching for more than 10 years and has watched as students have started to spend more time texting during class.
The Kent State University professor started informally tracking the progress of the students who couldn't put down their phones and realized they weren't doing as well in his courses.
Meanwhile, Lepp's colleague, Jacob Barkley, had been completing a study about cellphones and exercise behavior, when students began indicating the pressure to use their cellphones to remain constantly in touch with their friends was stressful.
Lepp and Barkley's observations led to a study that's gained international attention since it was released in December.
KSU researchers found students who reported spending hours a day on their cellphones had lower GPAs and higher anxiety than students who used their cellphones less. Their results are published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.
"We're programmed to get those little bits of reinforcement the phone provides," Barkley said, "and I think it can be very distracting."
WHAT THEY FOUND
Lepp and Barkley, along with Kent State professor Aryn Karpinski, surveyed about 500 students across all years and 82 majors about how often they used their cellphones and how happy they were. Researchers also accessed the students' university GPAs and measured their anxiety levels using a clinical test.
The research had two main outcomes: It established that cellphone use and GPA had a negative relationship — meaning as use went up, GPA went down — and that cellphone use and anxiety had a positive relationship — meaning as cellphone use went up, anxiety went up, too.
Barkley said the GPA distinction was particularly significant, since students designated high users collectively had a GPA below the 3.0 mark, which is often the cutoff for honor rolls and graduate school admission.
WHAT THEY DON'T KNOW
But does using a cellphone frequently make a student's GPA go down? Or is it that students who aren't as academically inclined just tend to seek out more distractions from their work? Researchers don't know.
The Kent State study found relationships exist between cellphone use and GPA and anxiety, but it didn't determine whether cellphone use is the cause of the lower grades and increased stress.
The professors would like to be able to conduct an experiment to test causality, but the research is tricky — to do it, a group of students would have to agree to give up their cellphones. Plus, it would be helpful if the researchers were able to pay the cellphone bills of a different group of students so they could use their phones as much as they wanted.
Lepp said the study would require funding, and the researchers have applied for a grant through the federal department of education that would allow them to investigate the links between cellphones and anxiety and cellphones and GPA further.
Page 2 of 3 - RECOMMENDATIONS
Margot Kessler, a clinical psychologist with a practice in Hartville, said she's heard from her clients that texting can be troublesome, either because of misinterpretation of the message or because the instantaneous nature of texting leads to people not filtering their thoughts.
It's nice to be able to communicate with people in 10 different ways, Kessler said, but a cellphone can also become a problem when a person ignores human interaction — such as not turning it off while at dinner with his or her family.
"In another way, like everything, if you don't put your own limits on it, that, I think, is when it really becomes a stresser to you," she said.
Her comments mirror the researchers' recommendations, too.
Barkley said if a phone is a source of anxiety, it might be a relief for people to walk away from it for an hour or two.
Lepp suggested that just as parents shouldn't park their kids in front of a TV for hours, they shouldn't let their kids use cellphones at all times, either. The device doesn't need to be present when children are doing homework or going to bed.
For college students, Lepp said, taking a break from the cellphone might require more discipline. He recommended downloading an app that sends a polite away message to people who email or text them while they've set their phones down to study or hang out with friends.
"I think people are under the impression that when they unplug everyone thinks they fell off the face of the earth," Lepp said.
And for people older than college students, Lepp said, he sees them using cellphones to take their work home with them — they keep their office in their pockets, and they feel an obligation to respond to email and other messages immediately.
"That must add stress to a person's life," he said.
Barkley said phones offer multiple benefits — it's just that overuse can be unhealthy.
"The cellphone is not evil," Barkley said. "We're not trying to say that."
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CELLPHONE USE AND GPA at KSU
To get a better idea of how much time college students spend on their cellphones, researchers divided the sample of more than 500 students into three equal groups based on their cellphone usage to figure out what was considered low and high use.
Spend zero minutes to 2 hours and 30 minutes per day.
Average GPA: 3.15
Spend two hours and 31 minutes to five hours per day.
Average GPA: 3.06
Page 3 of 3 - High use
Spend five hours or more on phone per day.
Average GPA: 2.84
Source: Andrew Lepp, researcher
WHAT THEY MEASURED
• Calls made
• Texts sent and received
• Total use (including Internet usage, excluding only listening to music)
Note: A student didn't have to have a smartphone to participate, but most had Internet connectivity.
Source: Jacob Barkley, researcher