January 18

Bruce Wydick

NexThought Monday: Would You Give Up Your Cellphone to Save a Child?

What is the most precious personal possession of a college student today? Clearly for millennials, one of the things they would hate to part with most is their cell phone. A recent study published in Forbes indicated that nearly 40 percent of college students would actually rather part with their car than their phone. So what does this have to do with global poverty?

At the end of last fall semester, I did a noon presentation where I teach at the University of San Francisco in our Student-Faculty Faith Forum (SF3) about things an ordinary college student could do to make a difference regarding global poverty. To introduce the talk, I began with a modified example of the dilemma made famous by Princeton ethicist Peter Singer. I posed to the room: “Suppose you were walking by a pond on the way to school,” I asked them (even though there are not very many ponds in San Francisco), “and you saw a child drowning in the pond. You have your cell phone in your pocket, and you cannot leave it on the bank (let’s say there are sketchy people nearby who you believe would steal it). Would you dive in the water, ruining your cell phone in order to save the child?” There were about 30 people in the room, mostly students ranging from freshmen to grad students, and a handful of USF faculty and staff. Every hand went up in the room indicating they would eagerly lay waste to the circuits in their cell phone to save the drowning child.

But they didn’t know that this was a set-up.

I continued on with my talk about 10 different things an ordinary college student could do to make a positive impact on reducing global poverty. But I focused on one. “Did you know that by transferring cash to the ultra-poor through an organization like GiveDirectly, a rigorous randomized controlled trial indicates you can reduce by 42 percent the number of days children go without food?” I presented some other impressive statistics from the Hoshofer-Shapiro GiveDirectly study.

“So if everybody in this room were to donate $50, we could significantly reduce hunger for a desperately poor Ugandan child, perhaps even saving a life.” A mild sense of unease began to envelop the room. I continued, “In fact, a donor has pledged $50 to GiveDirectly for every one of you who is willing to part with your cell phone for two weeks.” The sense of unease steadily grew in both breadth and intensity. Within moments the engaged smiles degenerated into expressions of profound anxiety. They reminded me of a face I once saw on a student who had forgotten to study for a game theory midterm that I was beginning to pass out in class.

I held out a straw basket to collect the phones, and put my smart phone in it. “I’m first,” I began. “One of the characteristics of the desperately poor is that they feel disconnected from the rest of society. In choosing to disconnect you stand in solidarity with them – and do something that will genuinely help them at the same time.” The excuses began to flow. Some of them were really, really good ones, like the nursing student who needed her phone to receive calls from doctors on her work shift. No one was under any compulsion. One student said nothing, and just lowered his head and shook it slowly. Like the others, he had put up his hand at the beginning of the talk. Yet in the end, almost half – 14 in the room – put their phones in the basket to be locked in a file cabinet in the Department of Economics for two weeks. I was actually pretty impressed.

The next day one of the students appeared at my office. “Prof, I feel like I’m kind of going nuts.” I studied his face for a moment. He was smiling, but it was an odd smile, and it did look like he was going a little nuts. “Please … do you think I could I have my phone back?” But in the end, only this one student asked for his phone back, and over the course of the two weeks, I had students email me with their thoughts about parting with their phone so that another person could eat. Here are some of their comments:

“My friends and I talked about how you can use your phone as a social buffer when you’re in an awkward situation, so not having a phone doesn’t allow you to do that, which I really like. I find myself much more engaged in conversation and even more aware of what’s going on around me (i.e. in the park today).”

“Thanks for the challenge. I found not having my phone to be a challenge because having a phone makes communication much easier with friends and family. Nevertheless, I was able to use my iPad for emails. Not having a phone felt liberating since I usually check my work email on my phone. Lastly, accepting the challenge made me realize my privilege and how little actions (giving up my privilege) can have on other people.”

“Without a phone I feel like I operated in ‘real time’ because without my phone  I realized how little I have to wait for things because of my cell phone. I never have to be bored, I can easily check social media or listen to music or whatever, but without my phone I just had to sit and wait for things to happen like my food being ready or for class to start. I felt distance because for the first time in a long time I wasn’t connected with everyone. If someone wanted to communicate with me, I would have to be in a very specific place at a very specific time and vice-versa. Things I considered simple before, like being able to facetime my mom or being able to order delivery, were put into perspective and I understood why they are such extreme privileges I have in my first world setting.”

“I bounced back and forth between feeling totally naked/lost, and liberated. You forget how deeply smartphones have become ingrained in our lives: as alarm clocks, cameras, GPS systems, and planners.”

“Low points: I over-slept twice until I was able to find a viable alarm clock alternative. My most isolated moment came at a bus stop, late one night over Thanksgiving. I’d missed my bus and had to call my Dad (who was picking me up at the other end). With nobody around, and no change, I was forced to make a collect call using a pay phone. For those unaware (as I was), a collect call costs $25. Talk about a poverty trap!

High points: I felt fewer distractions, and as a result my time felt less cluttered. While I don’t feel like my time was all that more productive, I definitely benefitted from having more time to think without having my face buried in my phone. It’s amazing how many important thoughts/ideas come to you while walking from place to place. I also felt like I had more mental energy as my mind was unoccupied for more time each day.”

“The less stuff I have (especially cell phone) the more I need to depend on others. Sometimes it feels like an inconvenience, but it’s an opportunity to cherish community and generosity.”

“It made me think about doing more for the disadvantaged who are truly disconnected from resources.”

I too felt a little disconnected from things without my mobile device. And I ended up in a major SF traffic jam that made me an hour late for dinner, something I would have been able to avoid with access to Google Maps on my smartphone. However, it was freeing at the same time. And the thought constantly ran through my mind that it was a small price to pay for a little more freedom from distractions, a little more time for people, a little more time for solitude, especially with the benefit that it brought somebody we would never see, but whom we could be confident was better off (thanks to the study) than if the 13 of us hadn’t taken the phone-less plunge.

This post was originally published on Bruce Wydick’s blog “Across Two Worlds.” It is republished with permission.
Bruce Wydick is a professor of economics and international studies at the University of San Francisco.
academia, cash transfers, poverty alleviation