by Abby Craton (Teacher Candidate – University of Manitoba)
Put simply, technology has revolutionized society. From the way we communicate with others, to the ways we can learn and access information, smartphones and other personal devices have entirely altered the way we, as humans, live. Though this comes with a multitude of obvious benefits for the economy, medicine, agriculture, business, education, and our social lives, there are many unintended consequences from the use of these tiny devices. Students need to understand the environmental, ethical, and social ramifications of their smartphones and personal devices, in order to be responsible citizens in the classroom, and in today’s world.
In the past decade, owning a smartphone has turned from an anomaly to a standard. Since 2007, when the first iPhone was released, over 7.1 billion smartphones have been produced and sold – a number almost as large as the population of the entire planet (Greenpeace International, 2017). By 2020, it is estimated that approximately 70% of the global population will have their own smartphone. However, the average individual only uses their smartphone for about two years, due to diminished battery life, unexpected damage, or social pressures to update to a newer model (Greenpeace International). This is having a massive impact on the planet, both in the energy required to continuously produce massive numbers of smartphones, and with the resulting waste that comes from their lack of reuse. Much of electronic waste, or e-waste, consists of metals and chemicals that are extremely damaging to the environment, and are having an effect on microscopic, plant, and animal life across the planet (Pulcu, 2015). According to a recent study by Mission-Blue, a charitable organization for ocean preservation, the number of dead zones in the ocean has increased 500-fold in the past 40 years, largely due to the presence of toxic chemicals from mobile industries’ waste (Pulcu, 2015). Combatting this issue is difficult, due to the huge social status that comes with having the latest smartphone.
The ethical implications of the billion-dollar smartphone industry are not immediately obvious. Giants of the mobile industry have one main goal: cut costs and maximize profit (Pulcu, 2015). Unfortunately, the biggest way to cut costs is to outsource production to countries where wages are significantly lower than in North America. If we discuss Apple, for example, the sleek and stylish devices are designed in California, but assembled across the world, in China, where production is much cheaper, and wages and working conditions are lower and less regulated.
Another topic regarding the ethics of smartphone production revolves around “conflict minerals”. This refers to the mining of minerals that come from regions of high conflict, around the world (Pulcu, 2015). The biggest minerals in this issue are gold and coltan, both key in smartphone production and function, which come from the most conflict-ridden regions of Africa. The appeal of mining in these regions is clear: labour costs are extremely low in Africa and regions controlled by illegal organizations provide mining supplies at incredibly low rates (Pulcu, 2015). To make matters worse, the working conditions of the mining industry in Africa are extremely hazardous and incredibly grueling.
Finally, the social implications of smartphone use are perhaps the most well-known, especially in the classroom. From what I have seen, and admittedly, what I know from my own smartphone addiction, students are on their phones all the time. Smartphone use has satisfied our desire for immediate feedback and satisfaction, and has, in turn, contributed to making students more prone to boredom, with shorter attention spans (Smartphone addiction, 2017). Smartphone addiction and the prevalence of social media can develop an unhealthy mental view of themselves and others, and leads to a compulsive need to continually check and update the presence of others and oneself, respectively, on social media (Smartphone addiction, 2017). With smartphone addiction also comes other dangerous effects, like depression and social anxiety, low self-esteem, and social isolation, as well as shyness and impulsivity, with females being more likely to exhibit these signs (Smartphone addiction, 2017). Students seem to use their technology to escape their present lives, including personal problems and mental health issues, and constantly check their phones, even when it doesn’t notify them of anything. I’ve witnessed students panic when they don’t have their phones with them, even if they aren’t allowed to use them during class time. Many students favour what’s happening on social media, instead of paying attention to what’s happening in class, or talking with the friends they have around them. Smartphones can be a detriment to social behaviour in the classroom, and serve as a massive distraction to students.
I propose two ways to make students aware of these issues, and take steps to solve them. I believe that redirecting students’ use of technology in the classroom can help to reinvent the way they use their personal devices. By using smartphones and other devices for purely educational purposes, perhaps students can start to see their phones as educational tools, rather than solely for social media surfing and distraction from real life. I hope that, if I can create a healthy, purposeful view of smartphones in my classroom, that students will develop healthier habits when using their devices, and can start to unlock the incredible educational potential of them.
Secondly, I think a way to help students understand the true impact of their phones, and to become responsible citizens in regard to their use, would be to let them discover it, themselves. In the frame of reference of a science classroom, there are many opportunities within the curriculum for students to focus on the environmental impact of smartphone production, use, and waste. For example, in my last practicum, I taught grade 11 chemistry, and facilitated an inquiry project on climate change and greenhouse gases. One of my students focused on e-waste, and focused on ways to minimize its production, and encourage recycling. He created a large infographic, filled with his research and proposed solutions, which he shared with the class. As another example, in Grade 10 Science, Cluster 1: Dynamics of Ecosystems, students have the opportunity to discuss how human action affects ecosystems. This would be another fantastic way to delve into the environmental consequences and possible solutions to smartphone use and disuse. Though my courses lend themselves to a focus on the environmental consequences of smartphone production and waste, I believe that inquiry projects are an excellent way for students to learn about, propose solutions to, and create positive change around all aspects of smartphone use, in many different subjects.
In conclusion, there are many issues that arise from the incredible tools that are smartphones. Students can develop concerning habits in regard to phone use, and there are mental health and social consequences that can come from these habits. The massive production and waste of smartphones and personal devices leads to cascading environmental issues, and the industry, as a whole, is steeped in questionable ethical practices. By encouraging students to use their technology in a positive, educational way, I hope to teach them to be responsible and productive with their phone use. In addition, structuring inquiry projects around phone production and use, and the resulting consequences, increases student awareness of these issues, and allows them to collaborate to create ways of solving these issues, and to move forward, together.
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