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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Kicking A Digital Addiction: What Happens When Students Must Unplug

When I explained the assignment, the classroom erupted in cries and groans. Students in my sophomore “The Individual and Society” course were to spend 48 hours, from 7:00 p.m. Friday to 7:00 p.m. Sunday, without electronic media. The course examines the relationship between the individual and society in three modes: politics, economics, and culture. This was an assignment during the third mode, and we were exploring how electronic media shape an individual’s relation to the larger culture.

For 48 hours, they could use a phone for making calls, but they could not text or use any other functions of a smartphone. They could not use a computer except to do assigned homework. They could not watch movies or TV or listen to the radio or recorded music.

On the following Monday, they signed an honor code-like pledge that they had followed the assignment with any exceptions then noted in writing. Their transgressions were minor and few. They were given the class period to write, describing their experience and reflecting on what they had learned about the effect of media on their own lives and the lives of others.

When I read their papers, I saw that for the majority, their weekends followed a pattern: frustration and boredom at first, then the discovery of other activities, followed by positive feelings. Friday evening was the most difficult period, and Sunday the best. The “tipping point” often occurred Saturday.

Breaking the Digital Cycle

A number of students responded to their initial boredom or anxiety by finding other things to do. I read several accounts of students cleaning their rooms. (I imaged my stock rising with parents for this assignment.) A couple baked cookies, one wrote poetry, one drew, and another painted, activities they said they would have not done if their computers had been available to them.

One student found that the absence of media changed the nature of her entire weekend, and she concluded that her “new experiences -- getting more sleep, being outdoors, finishing tasks ahead of time, eating healthier, and interacting more with others -- all without the use of technology, made me feel healthy, refreshed, and liberated in a way that I had not felt for a long time.”

With regard to homework, almost all of them reported being more productive. Though they knew media diminishes productivity before, the degree of their increased productivity during the weekend surprised even them. A number confessed that when homework requires the use of the computer, they have other windows open on the screen, especially Twitter and Facebook, and they work in multitask mode. They found that single-tasking was more efficient and productive. One student took a study break by playing the piano and found it left her more refreshed and focused than her usual Facebook study break. A few surprised themselves by finishing their weekend homework on Saturday.

Opinion was divided, however, about listening to music. Though several reported being more productive without music, others found studying more difficult, and they remain convinced that music helps them concentrate. Some found the lack of music to be the most difficult aspect of the weekend. One student wrote, “not being allowed to listen to music made my skin itch.”

Other Student Reactions: No-Media Party

It was heartening to read that some of the students organized a no-media party on Saturday night. The host worried that without media, it might be that most terrible of teenage terrors -- awkward.

One student who helped her spread the word felt uncomfortable calling classmates on the landline, wishing that she could have texted them instead. A number of students wrote about the party, and they were unanimous in their verdict: a great success. They played card and board games, talked more than usual, and laughed more than they had in a long time.

One wrote, “I realized how much fun I could have with no media and just other people.” Another wrote, “Whenever my friends and I go out to dinner, everyone has her phone out, snapping pictures or texting or showing people next to them the things on their phones. I can’t tell you how cool it was to have everyone’s attention really there, in the moment, on our trivia game.”

For a minority, however, the weekend was a negative experience. Their initial frustration and boredom never lifted. One found the entire weekend “stressful and anxiety-producing,” and another concluded, “I was actually less productive, tense, and in a constant search for distractions. I felt trapped in my own head, painfully aware of thoughts I usually try to avoid thinking about and not knowing what to do with myself.” Several reported eating more, presumably out of boredom. One said she felt like she was on the verge of a meltdown, and another called it “one of the hardest, most frustrating weekends I can remember.”

Coming to Terms with Digital 'Obssession'

The prompt for the reflective writing students did on Monday asked them what they had learned. Realization of their dependence on media topped the list. There was a confessional tone to some of those reflections, and a number of students used the term “addicted” or “obsessive” to describe their relation to media, especially social media.

One said, “I realized that the Internet is like a drug.” During the weekend they felt anxious about being “disconnected,” and several said they worried about what they were missing out on. One student was more specific: “I was worried because if there was a rumor going around about me, I would have no way to stop it.” Another said, “Without my phone glued to my hand, I felt incomplete.”

Another common realization was that their use of media diminishes the quality of their relations with other people. Disconnected from their own media devices, they became more aware of the media-obsessed actions of others. One student described watching a table of teenage girls at a restaurant celebrating a birthday. Instead of interacting with each other, each was using her iPhone, occasionally showing a photo or a text message to the others. Another student described adults seated at a dinner table, each having laid down a phone as if it were another piece of silverware, an act “that belies our irrational sense that to be disconnected from media, even marginally, is to be disconnected from life.”

Life -- that was a word they used a lot in their reflections, and they had a sense that the world of media, for all the power it exerts over them, is something other than “real life.” Real life is the outdoors, talking and laughing with their friends, thinking their own thoughts, producing rather than consuming. Media time takes away from those things in ways that makes them feel more guilty than victimized; after all, it is they who flip the on switch. One student observed other family members who went about their weekends -- walking, folding laundry, doing homework -- all the while plugged in. “I felt more alive,” she wrote, “as if everyone else were in a state of hypnosis.” Another concluded, “Facebook is absurd. People spend their time looking at other people’s lives instead of appreciating their own.”

Technology as a Tool Within A Lifestyle

In spite of the sense of guilt, the students’ use of the metaphor of addiction reflects their sense that their use of electronic media is not freely chosen. As the March Hare said to Alice, I like what I get is not the same as I get what I like. Over that weekend some students caught glimpses of things they like but do not get, or get enough of, in the lives they live. When one student realized that media “should be a tool within a lifestyle, not a lifestyle itself,” she was envisioning, I believe, a state in which people make their culture more than they are made by it.

After reading my students’ reflections, I felt a mixture of sadness and pride. I was proud that they took the assignment seriously and wrote about it honestly, perceptively, and with such soulfulness and depth. But I felt sad that, by their own admission, their soulfulness and their capacity for human connection are limited by their media-obsessed way of life. The power of the computers for learning and for work is obvious, but I am afraid that the ubiquity of digital devices in everyday life is to the heart and soul what junk food is to the body, an impediment to healthy growth. I do not have a blueprint for change, but the results of their forty-eight hours without media leads me to believe that we, as parents and educators, need to create one.

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