Every semester I ask my students to unplug from social media and then write 500 words about the experience. Over the years, the assignment has become more dreaded as social media has become more ingrained in daily life. The student essayists used to wax on about how calm they felt during their unplugged sessions and how revitalized they were by the brief respite from their devices. Now, they compare the four, cell free hours to heroin withdrawal. This semester, my class of college students seemed to take the assignment in stride. They reviewed Katie Roiphe’s essay about the Freedom App and viewed, TED Talk’s Sherry Turkle and came to their own conclusions. Some were confounded by unexpected consequences of relying on a cell phone for everything from telling time to predicting the weather. Most didn’t even attempt to set up a social engagement requiring pre-planning. “Nobody plans ahead for anything,” they say. One common thread was how conscious they were of being out of step with everyone else, including their mothers and grandmothers. “It’s like the Walking Dead, everyone’s brains are disconnected from their body and connected to a digital device,” says one bemused student. A few report the “phantom limb” syndrome where they felt non-existent vibrations in their pocket. Many report the unfounded but dreaded, Fear of Missing Out, more commonly known as FOMO. Unfounded because the actual missing out is greatly exaggerated while the fear of it is most likely underestimated. All of them were relieved to have the assignment behind them.
I allow them to vote on keeping or ditching the assignment for next semester. They unanimously vote to pay it forward. I don’t know if it’s because they want the next class to grow or to suffer.
My goal is not to diminish the intrinsic value of social media or beat the same dead horse about how overly connected we are. I’m no Luddite and I take pains to steer them from crafting their story to fit a preconceived notion of what I’m looking for. Rather, the mission is to immerse them in an experience that’s uncomfortable enough to give plenty of fodder for thought. Joan Didion said, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”
Mostly, I want them to live consciously rather than be controlled by constant distraction. “It’s the most fun they’ll never have,” wrote one student last semester when he voted for this semester’s no cell hell.