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Digital Detox

NEWS 2 GT1543Cabrillo students reflect on their media fast

I have been teaching at Cabrillo since 1996, before cell phones were popular and texting became ubiquitous. One thing I’ve noticed is that before cell phones, students talked to each other more before and after class. Now, half the students I see are bent over their phones. Many have already been on several devices by the time they arrive at 9 a.m., and will continue to be plugged in until bedtime.

Participating in today’s digital existence is like subjecting ourselves to a large-scale social experiment with no control group. We know ubiquitous mobile devices are rapidly changing the way we relate to each other. But I wanted to find out how much. So I assigned my Mass Communication students a four-hour “fast” from all media: books, magazines, radio, video games, Internet, and their smartphones.

By the time they were finished, over half of my 29 students likened the urge to use media to an addiction, and most of them missed their phones and computers the most. Here are a few excerpts from the journals they kept during the “fast”:

“The anxiety had become somewhat oppressive and my skin started to itch. At a point in my adolescence I experimented and became severely addicted to a number of seemingly harmless drugs, mainly cocaine. That uncertain sense you feel, that you are in an untethered free fall, while minor in comparison to the inevitable terror of hard-drug withdrawal, was not all that different in nature.” –Cassius Grenot, 22

“Without a cellphone, I felt disconnected from the world and had a sense of loneliness. Looking back, I found this feeling I was experiencing to be pretty pathetic.” –Elliot Ames, 23

“I felt restless and kept finding myself in front of my computer, just staring at my wallpaper. I found myself smoking more than usual. Without music, the silence in my room quickly became oppressive.” –Erik Braken, 20

One student wrote that he spent time cooking dinner with his parents, something he hadn’t done in weeks. Others felt sad because their parents and siblings were all on separate devices at home.

The brain is a giant filter. Evolution has programmed us to pay attention to shiny objects in our peripheral vision, and when bombarded with texts, social media posts, emails, bank statements, photos, and silly cat videos, our filters get clogged. Our brains get “decision fatigue” from making hundreds of small decisions and switching tasks rapidly for hours at a time.

Recent research at Stanford and MIT found that students who thought they were great multi-taskers were actually really bad at it, and test performance went down every time their brains had to switch between tasks. Even more worrisome, the effects lingered even after they stopped multi-tasking.

Humans are extremely social creatures, and face-to-face connection is vital to our survival. Conversation is how we build trust, social cohesion and mend misunderstandings. Attention is a way we show love. The research done by Dr. Sherry Turkle at MIT suggests that our emotional literacy, the ability to read others’ feelings through facial expressions and respond appropriately, is declining. In the competition between our 3-D friends or the 2-D world in our palm, the latter often wins.

Turkle blames this on “the magic of the always available elsewhere.” My students say they are uncomfortable telling their friends to hang up and pay attention to them. A 2015 Pew Research Center study revealed that 89 percent of cellphone users said they had used phones in social gatherings, and 82 percent said they felt bad about it. It appears that guilt, the enforcer of social norms, isn’t strong enough to override the curiosity of who just texted us.

The good news is that focus and attention are things that can be regained by unplugging, if only for one night a week, or four hours. Some students found calm by getting on nature’s time.

“I was able to shut my eyes and listen to the seagulls, the currents flowing through the waves, the dogs barking as they caught the frisbee. I was able to observe life through the lenses of my own two eyes rather than through my iPhone lens. I realized in that short period of time that all my recent life events have been wasted “capturing” the moment on my phone.” –Bella Cisneros, 20

After the fast, students reported a greater awareness of the dominance of devices in their lives, and some have cut back on screen time. Perhaps digital detox needs to be part of the college curriculum.

These days I am leading more mindfulness exercises in class. We do more small group activities. We learn each other’s names and backgrounds. We talk about the role of media in our lives.

It is possible to help students reclaim the calm, focus and rich complexity of conversation and relationships that belong to us as a species. But first, we have to hang up and listen.


SCREEN TIME Face-to-face connections, complexity of conversation, emotional literacy, and maybe even potential relationships are a few things we may be sacrificing for texts.

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