For many students, technology increases their online connections, but it makes them feel disconnected in real life. Credit: Pixland
Pick a campus, any campus. As you stroll around, chances are you’ll notice fewer students without a tech device than with them: All the more reason for Andrew Reiner, an English professor at Towson University, to teach his course, “The Search for Intimacy in the Age of Facebook.”
“As I started teaching at the college level, I was getting a vibe there was a lot of disconnect. Whether it was walking to dining halls, libraries or when I’d walk into class — there were endless amounts of phone activity and Facebooking.”
Reiner’s overall purpose was to help students find authenticity and develop more significant relationships with others. He wants his students to disengage online to re-engage offline. For instance, Reiner has given students a tech-free assignment based on an essay from a book called “The Sabbath.” Reiner realizes that he can’t deny students their technology, but he encourages them to become independent from it, taking a four-hour break from social media as part of the class.
“It’s really not that long, but to them it was a lifetime,” he explains. “They had to do something by themselves that did not involve homework or being plugged in and write a guided reflection. Reflections that came back spoke to a kind of disconnect from themselves.”
In another recent assignment, students sat alone in a crowded lunchroom. They weren’t allowed to use smartphones, laptops, do schoolwork, use social media or text. “The need to be in touch breeds hyper-conformity. You’re like a pariah if you’re not on Facebook for a day.”
Describing it as a “very deliberate and conscious way” to defy technology, Reiner’s goal is to teach students to be in control of technology and not the other way around.
“All it really requires is the willingness to impose some boundaries on the extent to which I get back to people and the speed at which I get back to [them],” he says.
Reiner fears that not setting boundaries for technology may have dire implications for society. “I’m scared for our culture, for the world that my 2-year-old is entering into,” he says. In order to set boundaries and reconnect with life offline — in addition to regular four-hour “sabbaths” — Reiner recommends writing monthly letters to tell someone something you have wanted to share for “a few days, months or even years.”
And make it meaningful, he recommends: “Tell them something that deeply matters to you, whether it’s resentment, hurt or gratitude. … Frame the truth in an honest, respectful tone. [It’s] about reconnecting with a deeper, personal authenticity and discovering that confrontation can be civil and productive without the stress.”
Students weigh in on letting go of technology
Leonard Randall Chisolm, sophomore, Harcum College: “Technology is great, it’s a great way to stay in touch. I think some people abuse it and at times I have abused it, but there are some times you have to control yourself and say, ‘Get me get back to the real world.’ I’ll go to the gym and leave my phone down for two or three hours and play basketball. I can be OK with it; there are one or two things you may miss, but I don’t think you’re missing the whole world. Maybe you want to be the first person to see a funny video, see a funny picture or a game score, but it’s the Internet so you’ll always be able to find it somewhere.”
Christina Madsen, senior, Barnard College: “If I had to go eat lunch by myself without a phone, I would definitely feel disconnected and judged. I catch myself constantly refreshing my Facebook newsfeed or texting people for no reason just so I feel less alone. When I notice myself doing this, I'll sometimes try to put down my phone and just eat by myself, but it never lasts very long.
“Being on your phone all the time makes you feel busy, important and in demand. Just the other night, I was watching TV with a couple of my friends and they were both texting other people. I was sitting in between them and suddenly I felt terrible about myself because no one was texting me. What was wrong with me that they were so popular and in demand? Why didn't anyone need to speak to me right this minute? Being in constant contact with other people makes you feel better than everyone else; it's sad but it's true. Even if you're in the middle of an in-person conversation, getting distracted by a text - while really rude - makes you feel just a little better about yourself, because someone else is demanding your attention.”
Grace Delmar, sophomore, Biola University: “I try not to use electronics like my phone when I am eating with friends, as I find it impolite and distracting from the present. However, if I am eating alone, it is a much different story. If I were sitting alone at lunch, I would be very uncomfortable without technology. I wouldn't really know what to do or look at.
“I think that's part of the fear of going without technology, though I also think it has to do with worrying about how others perceive you. Though some are comfortable eating alone, I am not, as I feel people might be judging me or feeling sorry for me. Though I'm sure this is not the case, I know many people at many different colleges who feel the same. Having a phone or computer out can be a distraction from this feeling, or it can make us feel more connected with friends and people who aren't there. Perhaps as a little self-esteem boost and a sense of comfort that we're not alone.”