Students Give Up Technology to Understand Their Place Within It

Just how hard is it for today’s college student to give up their mobile phones, to disconnect from their social media universe and to not be able to text their family and friends? For St. Lawrence University students taking the First-Year Seminar course, “Identity in the Internet Age,” well, it really depends on who you ask.

Emotions ranged from anxiety to relief in a recent class meeting, where students had pledged a week earlier to cut themselves off from their digital realities for nearly two full weeks. One week in, however, some students already had taken back their cellphones, while others were committed to remaining offline for another week.

“I’m no longer thinking about the things I’m missing because I’m enjoying doing so many other things,” said Emma Morrissey ’17 of Queensbury, N.Y. “When you’re online, it feels like you’re trying to be in two places at once. Now I can just enjoy the moment. Even when I do get my phone back, I think I might put it on ‘Do Not Disturb’ from now on.”

Jennifer MacGregor, lecturer for First-Year Programs and Gender and Sexuality Studies, said the goal of this experiment was to get students to understand their personal and emotional attachment to technology and more specifically social media.

“Many students are telling me it has been a relief not to be on call 24/7 and that they are realizing they don’t have to be up-to-date on everything every second of every day,” she said. “They tell me they now have the freedom to do other activities, like reading a book for pleasure, working out more, or playing a game of pick-up hockey. They feel more on top of their lives and are saying ‘wow, I’m not missing anything just because I’m not online.’”

As part of the FYS course’s research component, students collected observational data during their own cellphone abstinence by watching the texting and phone-checking patterns of other students across campus. They will recorded their observations and will use the data in their final research project. Students also had to interview five people whose jobs depend on face-to-face communication, such as professors and musicians.

Danielle Clifford ’17 of Esperance, N.Y., has already begun her interviews and said she has noticed herself enjoying the conversations that she’s been having with her subjects and others.

“I find having in-person, face-to-face conversations more meaningful than the ones you have on Facebook or texting,” she said. “Because I don’t have a phone, I have to go knock on peoples doors, which is weird to do without texting them first. But people seem happy when I do, like they’re surprised to see me.”

Meanwhile, Hayley Ahouse ’17 of Woodbury, Conn., and Alec Dietsch ’17 of Clarence, N.Y., asked for their cellphones after week one. Hayley said she wanted her phone for safety and security reasons, while Alec, a member of the football team, said he needed to keep up to date on his team’s practice and workout schedules. However, both said they believed they would use social media less than before — even with their cellphones.

“I don’t think I’m going to tell people I have my phone,” Hayley said. “And I don’t think I’m going to use it as much as I did before. I see now that Facebook, Instagram and those things are really pointless. I used to check my phone all the time. Now I can’t, and I don’t really care either.”

MacGregor says it’s important for students to disconnect from computer-mediated communication technology, such as texting and social media outlets like Facebook, in order for them to be able to look at themselves from the outside.

“Obviously, there are advantages and disadvantages to having a society so driven by computer-mediated communication. A huge part of our world is now online social media, and that’s the primary focus of this course — how our selfhood and experience of self changes as we spend more time on social media,” MacGregor said. “This is what we will research all semester. But first, I wanted the students to understand what it’s like not being connected before they begin doing their own research about the interaction between humans and computers.”

MacGregor, who also went social-media free, last asked students to unplug in 2010. This time, 15 of the 16 students in her FYS turned in their cellphones voluntarily, and nine of the students made it without for the full 12 days. During the process, students were required to keep a journal, and if they cheated — with or without their personal gadgets— they were required to write it down.

“That’s when I’ll know if they’ve been cheating or not,” she said. “I know I’ve had to, mostly to answer work emails.”

During a break in the class, students got up from their seats and spilled into the second-floor hall. The din of their conversations overtook the relative silence of Valentine Hall.

“Do you hear that?” MacGregor asked. “They’re all talking. That’s something you don’t normally hear because usually they just sit here in silence and check their phones."

Read about St. Lawrence University's Digital Identity Week.

Also, listen to North Country Public Radio's piece on McGregor's class.