Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

As I sit, I am listening to electronic pings from the iPad of one of the children I babysit as he switches back and forth from a YouTube video with a catchy, upbeat theme song to a Barbie movie back to YouTube for a new video. I am babysitting three children, each between the ages of 3 and 13. Each child has their own respective device out in front of them, whether it be a laptop, iPhone, or iPad.

They all sit on the same couch, but are fully engrossed in entirely different stimuli — and each child quickly switches to a new source of entertainment as soon as they lose interest in the last.

I begin to think — how may this constant influx of new information, and lack of processing time, be affecting the human race’s creative aptitude and ability to think deeply. Not only does advanced technology allow individuals to intake information at rapid speeds, but the way in which we learn and process information has entirely changed.

The 3-year-old stares with his eyes glossed over at a YouTube series where humans play with dolls, giving them voices, personalities, and backstories.

Although I am considered part of the same generation as him, much has changed since when I was growing up. When I was young I played with dolls; I was the one to give them names and backstories. I had the freedom and creativity to make up my own stories because without a smartphone or an iPad, my free time was truly mine.

I tell the little boy it is time for bed and I take the iPad from him. He begins to cry and pushes me away. Technology seems to be limiting our innovation, and our patience as well.

As our minds hop from one practically mindless distraction to the next, one must beg the question: is it possible to learn and problem-solve with the same efficacy in the incessant presence of technology? 

The Research

Dr. Fiona Kerr, founder of the NeuroTech Institute, developed an incredibly interesting research report (which I recommend checking out for more information) titled “The Art & Science of Looking Up.”

This report explores the detrimental effect of filling our in-between moments, moments when we are waiting in line for coffee—when we have no active or pressing task—with the distraction of technology.

Dr. Kerr’s research stresses the importance of utilizing in-between moments to develop connections with people, such as starting up a conversation with someone we may not know, or just to daydream.

Each of these options yields great benefits that resorting to the distraction of technology can not provide. When conversing with a new person, this new connection causes the release of a combination of many “happy” chemicals within our bodies that make us feel more connected to the world and people around us.

Daydreaming provides its own unique benefits. Kerr describes the concept of “abstraction” which occurs during daydreaming, or lack of intentionally purposeful thought. Abstraction allows the brain to form connections, resulting in insight or the “aha! moment,” when everything seems to come together.

Insight and problem-solving occur when we are not trying to force our brains into any specific task, such as distracting ourselves on our phones. Through abstraction, not only do we learn and create meaningful links about problems existing in the world around us, but we also learn more about ourselves through increased self-awareness. 

Technology affects both our innovation and deeper thinking, but also greatly affects our social skills and relationships.

While babysitting, I often had to repeat the questions I asked  multiple times to get a response or capture that split-second of the kids’ attention for my presence to even be processed. It was overwhelmingly silent other than the noises coming from their devices.

How may our use of technology as an unyielding distraction affect our interpersonal relationships?

I have one sibling. She is four years younger than me. Growing up, we spent our free time playing together, talking, arguing some, but always learning from one another.

While children today may be learning some about relationships with their peers and siblings from television, YouTube, etc., it is well known that unobstructed hands-on learning is often most effective.

According to Dr. Kerr, overuse of technology can create a social disconnect. Every time you put another person on hold for something you are doing on a device, you re-assert that whatever you are doing on your device is more important than the physical person in front of you. Kerr notes that this social disconnect has actually been proven to reduce feelings of self-worth.

Ways “Look Up” from Technology and Get More Out of Every Day

The reasons why we are so enamored with technology are simpler than you may think.

We are excited by notifications and the beautiful colors on our phones, which triggers the release of dopamine, a chemical that plays a significant role in addiction.

The New York Times describes the increasing frequency of tech-users that have switched their devices to grayscale. What switching a device to grayscale does is reintroduce choice. Without bright colors stimulating our brains, we experience less manipulation to click, and in turn, spend less time using technology.

Humans are fundamentally social beings that thrive off of building community, whether it be in the lunch line, on the bus, or at the grocery store.

Take the steps to feeling happier and more connected just by saying hello to someone you don’t know. Get your eyes off of the screen and look out at the world around you. Not only will you discover more about others, but yourself as well. Look up.

For more information on Dr. Kerr and her research check out her TED Talk.

Subscribe here for all the latest news on how you can keep Thriving.

More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis


  • Emma Craig

    Thrive Global Campus Editor-at-Large from UNC Chapel Hill

    Thrive Global

    Emma is a sophomore at University of North Carolina where she studies Biology and French. Outside of the classroom, Emma enjoys traveling, beach trips, trying new foods, and writing and singing her original songs. Emma strongly believes that happiness defines true success and is very excited to be working with Thrive to help people improve their lives!