Turning Off, Tuning In
Students accustomed to communicating with their cell phones relearned how to connect in person after a classroom experiment demonstrated the grip technology has on their lives.
Last spring two instructors in the Credo honors program asked their 14 students to go without technology for five days. That meant no cell phones, Internet, television or video games from Wednesday to Monday. As a result, students couldn't access popular social networking tools like Facebook. Students could only use e-mail for other classes.
"We simply challenged them to try going without technology for a few days and see what happens," says Dr. Lisa Sethre-Hofstad, associate professor of psychology, who taught the class with Dr. Stephanie Ahlfeldt, assistant professor of communication studies and theatre art.
It was hardest for the students to give up their cell phones.
"It was frightening," says Samantha Hausmann '11, Alexandria, Minn. "I felt completely disconnected from my family and friends."
For Mackenzie Kane '10, Fargo, N.D., the experiment was an eye-opener.
"Initially, I felt a sense of freedom from ‘cell phone' anxiety, knowing that if a phone was going off in class, it certainly wasn't mine," she says. "But the liberation I felt on Wednesday turned into discomfort by Thursday. I felt disconnected from my friends and family and constantly wondered if I was missing out on something or if someone needed me. By Saturday I was beginning to feel forgotten."
News of the students' deprivation quickly spread and became the talk of the campus.
Interest in the experiment was so high that students in Credo 226, "Cell Phones and Cyberspace," discussed their cell-less experiences during the fall Faith, Reason and World Affairs Symposium that explored the broader topic "Where is the We in an iWorld? Technology and Learning in the 21st Century."
"For students, using technology is an all the time constant," says Ahlfeldt.
Students often use their phones as last-minute tools, a way to put off a decision as long as possible, says Sethre-Hofstad. Some even avoid people by pretending to talk on their phones. As the cell-less days wore on, other students encouraged the Credo 226 classmates to just lie about not using their phones.
"It was the ‘you're not guilty unless you're caught' syndrome," says Ahlfeldt. "Cell phones are a source of self-esteem for students, and some say they feel socially depressed without their phones."
Kane discovered the landline in her residence hall room after relatives had unsuccessfully tried reaching her all weekend.
"My roommates and I had never used the landline. We'd never turned the ringer on," she says. "After that, I felt a lot better about myself once I found out my friends and family really did want to talk to me."
Hausmann says she stretched the rules and relied on e-mails more than ever during the experiment.
"My mom and I would write e-mails back and forth as if we were instant messaging," she says.
The hold technology has on their lives was soon apparent to the students.
"I discovered that technology actually interfered with communicating with my friends," says Hausmann. "We were in the habit of texting while eating breakfast. Because I was without my cell phone, I realized they were only half listening to what I was saying and I got annoyed by their constant texting."
Kaia Sievert '10, New Ulm, Minn., says she was bothered by not being able to call someone on a whim.
"I was accustomed to making spur-of-the-moment plans," she says. "Without the instant communication of my cell phone, I had to relearn to plan activities in advance."
Students learned several lessons during those five days, including taking control of technology rather than letting it control them. They talked of trying to shake their calling and texting addictions and becoming more thoughtful of others.
"After I started using my cell phone again, I was more careful not to text while eating with my friends because I'd experienced just how rude it is," says Hausmann.
"I was reminded that relationships with others are not based on the number of text messages exchanged, but on the quality of our conversations and commitments," says Sievert.
Kane gained a fresh appreciation for the beauty of the campus.
"I used to try to get a few calls in on my way to class," she says. "But now I enjoy the walk. I've learned to be more considerate of other people. Going without my cell phone forced me to make plans and stick to them. It served as a good reminder to be more mindful of other people's time."
Sethre-Hofstad believes the experiment tapped into the human experience by generating serious conversations among students about their use of technology and the potential it has for controlling their lives.
"As a class, we decided we want our use of technology to be thoughtful and informed, not just random, stream of consciousness, mindless stuff," she says. "We want to be in control of our lives rather than being robotically controlled by technology."
Story / Photos: Sheldon Green