Reliance on smartphones trivializes leisure time

The Chinese term for mobile phone directly translates as “hand machine,” a fair moniker for a tool that has optimized nearly every corner of our daily lives. With the integration of smartphones in our work, study and leisure time, however, our hand machines have indefinitely prolonged our school lives and reduced our unprovoked leisure time.

Though smartphone use during school is nothing unfamiliar to us, the development of mobile learning and educational apps undermines the complexity of personhood by extending the school day beyond its designated hours.

Take, for instance, the rise of online classrooms such as Google Classroom, Turnitin or Canvas, which enable teachers to assign homework that is due outside of the class period, oftentimes during the afternoon or night before the day of the class. While this might pose as a convenient paperless alternative, it coerces students to produce work in a limited span of their schedules. The issue is not the times themselves – rather, the potential for deadlines at any time of the day erases the crucial barrier between school and leisure times. According to a survey of 339 WHS students, 65.2% dedicate one or more hours per day to using their phones for school-related activities. While coursework could previously be turned in and accomplished within the class time, online classrooms force students to schedule around the restrictive demands of school instead of their other priorities.

Our hand machines operate in a noticeably similar pattern in extracurricular activities. For example, 81.7% of WHS students are part of at least one club or organization on campus that employs social media including Instagram, Facebook or Discord to communicate with members. If you have ever been an officer in any school club or organization, you might be familiar with the demanding responsibilities that arise hours before a deadline and the damning consequences of them falling through. That one must be connected at all times to the digital communication architecture in order to succeed serves as evidence of the new standards of connectivity that come with massive modifications to the way we work.

The development of instant communication also affects teachers as it compels them to be constantly available, whether to attend to students’ questions, work-related emails or other tasks that require their attention. With additional responsibilities like grading assignments and preparing lesson plans, their workloads are undoubtedly bordering on unmanageable. Some teachers even have implemented a “curfew” in which they stop responding to or receiving messages after a certain time at night, say, 9 p.m. Even so, this requires them to be readily accessible for work-related matters for 16 hours, or two-thirds, of a day.

A year in online learning has already shown us the effects of blurring the line between our school and personal lives. Without the environmental distinction to separate work and leisure, our school lives infiltrated our leisurely spaces, and a feeling of unending working plagued students and teachers alike regardless of what we were doing – whether we were waiting for work texts or to be accepted into meeting calls, we were equipped with our phones to entertain us in the meantime. Our perpetually online status resulted in burnout as it denied us any time to truly reflect on and digest the external chaos.

Despite our return to in-person learning, the effect of technology-mediated classrooms remains: 87.3% of WHS students have teachers who allow the use of smartphones in their classrooms and curriculum, whereas only 47.5% did before schools shut down in March 2020. The bottom line is that people deserve to exist outside of their roles as students, teachers or educators; however, smartphones make it increasingly difficult for either to disconnect at the end of the school day. So how can we reconcile hand machines and the importance of our leisure time, if it is even possible?

We must first reestablish boundaries of work and play and refine our definitions of such in order to celebrate the multi-faceted lives of other people. Only by fostering a healthy outlook on productivity, however, can we truly combat overburdening ourselves and others.

By Emily Cao, Opinion editor
Editorial cartoon by Remy Wong