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Smartphones are integrated into our lives—almost as much as toothbrushes, textbooks, and cat videos. By 2013, more than half of all Canadians used a smartphone, and the percentage is higher among university-aged young adults. In a 2014 study, 93 percent of people ages 18–34 in British Columbia owned one. “I know a [few] students that don’t have a smartphone, but that puts them in the minority,” says Rayna G., a recent graduate of the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

To get a sense of what this means for campus life, look around. We have our eyes and thumbs on our smartphones—in class, on the bus, even when socializing with friends. We’re checking, tweeting, posting, and uploading. Are our smartphones facilitating campus connections, or displacing them?

When smartphones get in our way

While we’re maintaining old relationships, our smartphones can cost us the chance to form new ones, says Dr. Fjola Helgadottir, a psychologist at Oxford University, UK. “Attending college [or university] can be a challenging time, especially for shy first-years. They are exposed to many new social situations and are expected to meet new people and develop new friendships”—often within within the first month, she says. If you’re living in the digital world instead of on campus, you could miss that key period of social opportunity.

“People automatically reach for their phones whenever they’re in a boring or uncomfortable situation,” says Chanelle B., a fourth-year student at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. “Even in a social environment, it can be difficult not to reach for our smartphones.”

Approximately one in fifteen students who responded to a recent Student Health 101 survey said their smartphone had been an obstacle to their participation in campus life. An additional one in five said their smartphone was useful but limiting at times.

Who’s most at risk?

Smartphones are a particular trap for shy or socially anxious students. “Some students use their smartphone as a way to cope with social situations,” says Dr. Helgadottir, who is co-founder of A1-Therapy, an online treatment program for overcoming social anxiety. “For example, by using a smartphone you may be trying to project the image, ‘I’m not shy, I’m just busy.’” But being engrossed in our phone tells our peers we’re not up for conversation, or that our boyfriend from home is still our priority.

“As a result of being on your smartphone in social situations, you miss out on an opportunity to confront your fear, which is the best way to improve,” Dr. Helgadottir says. “Also, when you are on your phone it may end up irritating other people, and this can cause them to judge you negatively—which is what you were trying to avoid in the first place.”

Too anxious to switch off

The constant need to feel connected has become an anxiety symptom in its own right—and the last thing we need at the start of the academic year is another reason to feel anxious. Nomophobia, the fear of being without your cell phone, and FoMO, the fear of missing out, are increasingly common among college and university students, according to recent research sponsored by SecurEnvoy, an internet security firm in the US.

Too tired to switch on—socially

Smartphones can mess with our campus lives in other ways too. “Smartphones emit a wavelength of light that disrupts melatonin secretion at a critical time in the evening, [which] affects an individual’s ability to fall asleep,” says Dr. Charles Samuels, Medical Director at the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary, Alberta. Late-night smartphone use is especially disruptive to sleep. Research suggests that a lack of sleep can affect your mood and helping behaviour, which may limit your desire to engage in campus life.

When our smartphone is our friend, we have good reason to love it. We can connect easily with others online and keep in contact with family and old friends at different schools. Some research suggests smartphones can help us study more effectively. Just be sure yours is working with you, not against you.

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