Separation Anxiety? Taking Cell Phones From Teens

What happens when you separate teenagers from their cell phones? That's the question high school senior Michelle Abi Hackman set out to answer — and her research has won second place in the Intel Science Talent Search. Hackman, who has been blind since age eight, explains her results to NPR's Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Teenagers have become as devoted to cell phones as they can be to gum snapping or Lady Gaga. They text, talk and leap at the bleeble of any possible message from a friend, a parent - or Miley Cyrus. So we were intrigued to learn about a high school senior named Michelle Hackman, who won second place in a national science competition. She conducted a study to see what happens when a teenager is deprived of his or her phone.

She joins us on a phone from John L. Miller Great Neck North High School on Long Island.

thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. MICHELLE ABI HACKMAN (Winner, Society for Science & the Public, Intel Science Talent Search): Thank you so much.

SIMON: And what'd you do - just take cell phones out of your friends' hands and start studying them?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HACKMAN: Yeah, I was basing my research off of a market research study that basically, made the claim that the reason we can't separate from our phones is that we become anxious. And so I wanted to see whether, if I were to do that experimentally - if I were to take votes away from kids, if I would see that sort of jitteriness.

SIMON: And?

Ms. HACKMAN: And I actually found something a little bit different, but I think almost as intuitive. I found addictive tendencies in my subjects. They almost went through withdrawal symptoms. And the way that I like to explain that is that cell phones and other sorts of technology are very inherently stimulating. And so when you take them away, a kid becomes understimulated, and almost doesn't know how to entertain himself.

SIMON: Oh. How did you observe?

Ms. HACKMAN: I used the biofeedback meter. I basically observed levels of stimulation. And I literally saw that subjects who had phones taken away from them experienced decreases in their stimulation.

SIMON: Now, I have been told you're blind.

Ms. HACKMAN: Yes.

SIMON: How does that affect your feelings for cell phones, or how you conducted the study?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HACKMAN: I think that the one way that it really did play in, is that I couldn't actually conduct the study myself because a lot of the readings on the biofeedback meter, I couldn't take myself. And so I actually gathered a team of other students to administer the study for me.

When we talk about science on a high school level, the most important thing is independence. So you've done the research yourself. But when you actually look at professional scientists, they're coming up with experiments. But then they spend most of their time writing grants and then they hand the actual experiments off to their - pretty much their grad students and their post-docs. And so scientists need to be able to work well with a team. And I'm lucky that I've had that experience.

SIMON: You won $75,000?

Ms. HACKMAN: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Oh, mercy. Now you just can't take that and have a whole big party, right?

Ms. HACKMAN: No, the Intel Science Talent Search sends it straight off to college.

SIMON: Yes. So what are you going to do? What are your plans?

Ms. HACKMAN: I'm going to go to Yale in the fall to study psychology, and I'm hoping to bring the cell phone research with me.

SIMON: Well, Ms. Hackman, all sorts of good luck to you. Thanks very much.

Ms. HACKMAN: Thank you so much.

SIMON: Michelle Hackman, high school senior in Long Island.

This is NPR News.

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