CNM Instructor Challenges TEDxABQ to Put Cell Phones Away, at Least for an Hour

September 17, 2013 -- At the September TEDxABQ event, Sandia National Laboratories researcher and part-time CNM computing instructor Barbara Jennings issued a challenge to a Popejoy Hall audience of 2,000.
July 16, 2015

“I challenge you to be without your phone for an hour a day for the next two weeks,” she said. “Physically remove it from your presence. Give yourself an hour a day without the cell phone to think about something else. Focus on your surroundings, the people that you are with or even rest your mind by staring into our beautiful New Mexico skies.”

She was one of 17 people who gave brief and passionate presentations during the event on Sept. 7 that was held at Popejoy Hall. TEDx events, which have taken place in 1,200 cities and 133 countries, are off-shoots of the original TED events, which were born in Silicon Valley as a way to disseminate “ideas worth spreading,” TED’s slogan.

Jennings has many passions – computing and analyzing data for starters – but her most recent one has been dissecting how people are addicted to cell phones.

“I was a holdout – hanging on to the original freebie cell phone that I got with my phone plan,” she said. “No text, no pictures. It was a reliable practical phone and I normally kept it tucked in my purse.”

Then she got an iPhone. “I developed a strange dependence on this cell phone. No matter where I was or what I was doing, despite reminding myself that there was voicemail, I would respond immediately to answer the ring,” she said.

Her iPhone took on an even greater importance when she started texting. She said every time her phone would notify her of a new text, she would get really happy and exuberant. And when she didn’t find a text message, she would be incredibly down.

This dependence intrigued her, and she began an eight-month quest to determine the role of cell phones in people’s lives.

She started watching how people use smart phones and realized that compulsive checking for messages is not the addiction. It’s the reward to the brain for receiving a message – the dopamine release. Dopamine is responsible for their anticipation and compulsive checking for messages, calls and emails.

“I had always thought that dopamine was the ‘feel good’ chemical,” Jennings said. “This is not the case. Dopamine is actually the primary contributor to our seeking behavior.”


Dopamine -- the seek chemical– is released when we search for something. Once we have our find – in this case text messages – we get rewarded with instant gratification, and then we seek something else. This is what is referred to as the dopamine loop.

“Here’s another thought,” Jennings said. “How do you feel when you find that you are without your phone? When you realize that you have left it at home? Do you turn around to go get it no matter how late you are to anywhere?”

There is an increase of people reporting such anxiety, and it’s been medically classified as nomophobia – short for no-mobile-phone phobia. It’s the fear of being without one’s mobile phone.

So as for her challenge to the TEDxABQ audience, she said that at a reception following her talk she was approached by dozens of people who said they were going to take the challenge and be dopamine free. No word yet on whether they followed through.

See Jennings TEDxABQ talk and all the other presentations at this website

Interesting Experience

Barbara Jennings said the whole process for giving a TEDx talk was “a story in itself.”

“Some 270 people submitted ideas. Seventeen were selected,” she said. “We rehearsed and rewrote for eight weeks prior to delivery. It is very difficult to take something that you are passionate about and cull it down to a six-minute presentation. But it was still an experience that I will always be glad that I reached for.”

Jennings has been teaching at CNM off-and-on since 1986.