Changing the way we communicate

Kara Burrit

Students criss-cross the lush campus of Villanova University, rushing to a class or leisurely leaving one. Most walk alone, streaming out of the academic buildings together but scattering once they hit the grass. No one needs a walking companion; they all have cell phones.

A boy in a bright blue North Face fleece calls his roommate to triple-check lunch plans: “I’m done at 12:30, so I’ll meet you then.” A girl wearing a miniskirt and suede Uggs recounts her morning to her mother: “I had set my alarm for p.m. instead of a.m., so Ashley had to wake me up…” A guy taking a cigarette break has his cell phone to keep him company. A girl emerges from Career Services dressed in a business suit, and she’s already on the phone to update a friend about her interview. Even the students not talking on their phones still grasp their cell with one hand, checking text messages or the time or even pretending to do something so they don’t have to look alone.

While college campuses used to be the most social of social networks, today students opt to chat on cell phones rather than in person, which is transforming the way they communicate. Freshmen spend less time venturing out to meet new acquaintances because with the push of a button they have access to their friends and family from home. Common rooms in dorms are no longer crowded with guys horsing around; these boys are scattered throughout the hallways calling girlfriends and mothers. And the walk between classes, which would once force students to find something in common beyond their route, is no longer the start of many friendships because students can now ignore the person next to them without it being awkwardly obvious. The pervasiveness of cell phones in the lives of college students has given them the option of a social life removed from the face-to-face reality they should be embracing.

Today’s college population composes the first generation to grow up with cell phones as conventional, rather than exceptional, appliance in their homes. Especially at the University, where well-off parents can afford to supply their children with cell phones for safety or communication, wireless technology is part of everyday life.

The first thing senior Kristin Calderoni does upon leaving class is dig her cell phone out of her bag so she can check voice messages and call her relatives; she never leaves her apartment without her cell phone. To keep in touch with her family during peak cellular service hours, Kristin’s monthly minute allowance has crept up: “I started with 400 minutes, but it wasn’t enough. So I went to 900, and I was going over that.” Her current wireless plan allows her 1200 daytime minutes, and at $79.99 per month, the bill goes to her parents. For Kristin, like most University students, talking on the cell phone takes up a large portion of her time.

To keep up with this, the University has moved toward cutting every on-campus cord. The school used to supply in-room phone lines to each student but has changed its system so dorm phones can now only call within campus.

This reflects the nationwide trend: more than 10 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds in the United States have stopped landline service in favor of solely using cell phones, according to the Yankee Group’s 2003 Mobile User Young Adult Survey. The Yankee Group, a communications research company, reports that this is six percent more than adults over the age of 24. Freshman Sarah Blanchard admits that she only knows one first-year student who doesn’t own his own cell phone, “But I don’t even know him personally. I’ve just heard people talk about him.”

It is rare to find a Villanova student who doesn’t have his own cell phone. At this school, cell phones have evolved into status symbols. Andrew Palomo, 22, says, “If you have a camera phone, you’re cooler. If you have a video phone, it’s even better.”

Standard features of today’s cell phones range from calculators and high-tech games to digital cameras and mP3 players. But even more than what’s within, the external appearance determines the coolness of a cell phone. Dawn Villa, a Cingular Wireless employee at Villanova’s on-campus store, describes what students look for when buying a phone: “They don’t necessarily have to be camera phones. But flip phones-silver and flip-that’s what everyone wants.”

It’s nearly impossible to shop for a simple phone with basic features and a solid-background screen. National Public Radio reports that the worldwide market of downloading popular songs as ringtones is worth $3 billion. Even screen graphics can be downloaded for cell phones, an industry that targets college students with its offerings of university and Greek organization logos. Such factors allow students to personalize an otherwise common gadget.

Since these gadgets are so common on campus, students have been pushed to make their cell phones their primary lines. But what is the effect of encouraging social-by-nature students to equip themselves with a communication device that makes them accessible twenty-four hours a day?

Dr. Kermit Moore, an interpersonal communications expert at the University says this accessibility actually leads to a problematic isolation. “College is more than the classes; it’s an opportunity to learn by meeting people from diverse backgrounds,” he said.

“Talking on a cell phone connects you with people you know, which provides no challenge to your comfortable view of life.”

On campus, students often avoid meeting new people by connecting themselves to familiar ones via a cell phone if a potentially intimidating social circumstance looms. Moore calls this type of reliance on the cell phone “a defense mechanism” to avoid uncomfortable social situations. “Students walk through campus with a buffer zone around them, which basically cuts off human contact,” he said.

Senior Stephanie Giacone met her closest friend, Jackie, freshman year when they took the same route from French class back to the dorm three days a week. This gave them common ground, from which grew many conversation topics for the walks back. Eventually, they started to hang out together on the weekends. Giacone said, “I’m always amazed that I met my best friend, who I’ll know forever, on a five-minute routine walk from class.”

Moore points out, “This sort of socializing, and the ensuing friendships, is precluded when students choose their cell phones over other people.”

There are, however, benefits to the ease with which students can contact other people through cell phones. Keeping in touch with family and friends from home has become easier, which promotes deeper and longer-lasting associations with pre-college acquaintances. Andrew Huxsaw, 21, says that without a cell phone, his bi-weekly calls to his mother would happen “almost never. Maybe I’d e-mail her once in a while.” Huxsaw doesn’t talk to his friends on his cell phone unless the call is purpose-based, “Like to say where we’re meeting, or to tell my roommate to get something at the grocery store,” he said. According to him, things like picking up a household item at the store would be more complicated without cell phones, “Another one of us would have to make a separate trip there. Life would just be a little harder.”

But the overall effect of college students’ attachment to their cell phones is not facilitating life, but rather hampering socialization. When on campus, Villanova students feel “social pressure” to occupy themselves with a cell phone, says Giacone. “They don’t want to walk around and look like a loser not talking to someone on the phone.” Rather than walk the small campus alone, greeting acquaintances, students value the isolation of focusing on their cell phones.

Dr. Moore laments the loss of face-to-face communication. “Humans have needs that can only be satisfied through human contact,” he said. “We have to be there for each other physically and psychologically. We need that human moment.”

Of course college campuses will always be a place for new friendships to form. But Moore says that talking on a cell phone prevents students from gaining new ideas and experiences through meeting other students. “Human contact is better and richer than mediated contact,” he stresses.

As this first generation of college students who socialize through cell phones graduates, it will be interesting to see if their social networks have permanently moved away from face-to-face contact or if it was purely a collegiate phenomenon. Students like Kristin Calderoni don’t seem nostalgic for the days without cell phones. “I get excited when I come out of class and have a message,” she says. So she proceeds to check that message and immerse herself in listening to the voice of a familiar friend, rather than perhaps discovering self-assurance in getting to know the student walking next to her.