‘I Asked My Students To Turn In Their Cellphones and Write About Living Without Them’
Rog Srigley, writer who teaches at Humber College and Laurentian University, offered his students extra credit if they would give him their phones for nine days and write about living without them. “What they wrote was remarkable, and remarkably consistent,” he writes. “These university students, given the chance to say what they felt, didn’t gracefully submit to the tech industry and its devices.”
“Believe it or not, I had to walk up to a stranger and ask what time it was. It honestly took me a lot of guts and confidence to ask someone,” Janet wrote. (Her name, like the others here, is a pseudonym.) She describes the attitude she was up against: “Why do you need to ask me the time? Everyone has a cell phone. You must be weird or something.”
Emily went even further. Simply walking by strangers “in the hallway or when I passed them on the street” caused almost all of them to take out a phone “right before I could gain eye contact with them.”
To these young people, direct, unmediated human contact was experienced as ill-mannered at best and strange at worst.
James: “One of the worst and most common things people do nowadays is pull out their cell phone and use it while in a face-to-face conversation. This action is very rude and unacceptable, but yet again, I find myself guilty of this sometimes because it is the norm.” Emily noticed that “a lot of people used their cell phones when they felt they were in an awkward situation, for an example [sic] being at a party while no one was speaking to them.” The price of this protection from awkward moments is the loss of human relationships, a consequence that almost all the students identified and lamented. Without his phone, James said, he found himself forced to look others in the eye and engage in conversation. Stewart put a moral spin on it. “Being forced to have [real relations with people] obviously made me a better person because each time it happened I learned how to deal with the situation better, other than sticking my face in a phone.” Ten of the 12 students said their phones were compromising their ability to have such relationships.
Peter: “I have to admit, it was pretty nice without the phone all week. Didn’t have to hear the fucking thing ring or vibrate once, and didn’t feel bad not answering phone calls because there were none to ignore.” “It felt so free without one and it was nice knowing no one could bother me when I didn’t want to be bothered,” wrote William.
Emily said that she found herself “sleeping more peacefully after the first two nights of attempting to sleep right away when the lights got shut off.”
Stewart: “Actually I got things done much quicker without the cell because instead of waiting for a response from someone (that you don’t even know if they read your message or not) you just called them [from a land line], either got an answer or didn’t, and moved on to the next thing.”
“My students’ experience of cell phones and the social-media platforms they support may not be exhaustive, or statistically representative. But it is clear that these gadgets made them feel less alive, less connected to other people and to the world, and less productive. They also made many tasks more difficult and encouraged students to act in ways they considered unworthy of themselves. In other words, phones didn’t help them. They harmed them.”
Tina’s concluding remarks described it well: “Without cell phones life would be simple and real but we may not be able to cope with the world and our society. After a few days I felt alright without the phone as I got used to it. But I guess it is only fine if it is for a short period of time. One cannot hope to compete efficiently in life without a convenient source of communication that is our phones.” Compare this admission with the reaction of Peter, who a few months after the course in 2014 tossed his smartphone into a river.
“I think my students are being entirely rational when they “distract” themselves in my class with their phones. They understand the world they are being prepared to enter much better than I do. In that world, I’m the distraction, not their phones or their social-media profiles or their networking. Yet for what I’m supposed to be doing—educating and cultivating young hearts and minds—the consequences are pretty dark.”