Toughest college test: No cell phone, no Facebook

Jenna Ross

MINNEAPOLIS — Heather LaMarre calls her students “the wired generation.” The University of Minnesota professor sees that they don’t listen to an iPod, talk on a cell phone or surf on a laptop — they do all three at once. She reads articles about their numbness to technology and knows that if one e-mails her at 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday and she doesn’t write back by 11:30, he’ll freak out.

So she did something about it.

A recent class assignment: Five days without media or gadgets that didn’t exist before 1984.

Sophomore Lucy Knopff lasted half an hour before she accidentally flicked on her iPod. “You don’t even think about it,” she moaned. “It’s just a habit for me.”

LaMarre didn’t realize she’s part of a trend: A growing group of instructors around the country are prescribing their highly wired students a kind of shock treatment. Go without media for 48 hours. Turn off your phone for a day. Block Facebook for a week.

“Honestly, most of my students are oblivious to the huge role mass communication and the Internet play in their lives,” said Amy Kristin Sanders, a media law professor at the U who has forced students into 24-hour media fasts. “They really think about access to the Internet as one of life’s necessities.”

Students are finding the fasts anywhere from impossible to freeing — and sometimes, over time, both.

David Parry, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, is in his 30s and began teaching digital literacy less than a decade ago. But even he has seen a dramatic change.

“These 18-year-olds don’t know a world without Google, YouTube or text messaging,” he said. “I’ve found that my job is to make it unfamiliar to them.”

This semester — to a chorus of gasps and groans — he assigned the students in his introduction to electronic and digital communications class to quit Facebook for a week.

Olivia Myles quickly found that to stay off Facebook, she’d have to abandon Twitter and LinkedIn as well. They were too intertwined. To stay in touch with her family and friends — most of whom live in California, where she’s from — she couldn’t poke them, post on their walls or comment on their photos.

She had to call them.

“Even though I talked to my cousin every day, I hadn’t heard her voice forever,” said the 26-year-old junior. “It was weird. We were like, ‘We should do this more often.’ “

Still, Myles signed onto Facebook when the assignment ended. “Who has time to call all these people?” she joked and, on her blog, confessed: “I miss being nosy.”

A break from social networking sites can help people ask important questions about their purpose, said Sherry Turkle, director of the Initiative on Technology and Self at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Do you see your friends more often? Do you have telephone calls where you really can reach better understandings of what the other person is thinking and feeling?

“Breaking the circuit, for me, is not about breaking an ‘addiction,’ ” said Turkle, whose coming book, “Alone Together,” looks at young people who voluntarily sign off Facebook and other sites. “We have to learn to live with these technologies. But a break can help us use technology to open a conversation.”

The media fasts vary in how long, how serious and what’s banned. Most require the undergrads to journal or blog along the way.

LaMarre’s five-day assignment within the U public relations course allowed students to use computers for work and homework, while freshmen taking a fall course at Augsburg College in Minneapolis could not use a long list of electronic media — including cell phones, computers, televisions, video games and radio — for 12 hours.

“Make a plan for what you’ll do INSTEAD of using media,” the description of that assignment advised. “You could hang out with your friends at a coffee shop and just talk. … You could play board games like chess or Scrabble.”

A daylong or even weeklong fast isn’t enough for John Kim, a new media professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. For a class he’s planning, called “Immedia,” he hopes to take students out of the city and off the grid for two weeks.

He expects that without cords and wireless, the students would realize just how much they rely on both and, upon returning, would experience “a kind of bewilderment,” he said. “I imagine a lot of them have never done something like that, never gone on an extended hiking trip. It would be eye-opening.”

Like other professors assigning media-abstention, Kim is no Luddite. He used to work for Internet start-ups as a programmer and designer. Sanders says her Blackberry “never leaves my side.” Parry is known for his use of Twitter in the classroom.

But all believe that colleges and even high schools need to do a better job developing students’ digital literacy. Students know how to use Facebook, but they don’t think often enough about what using Facebook means.

By Day 5 of LaMarre’s assignment, her University of Minnesota classroom was filled with evidence of failure. In the students’ bags? Laptops. In their hands? iPhones. In their ears? Earbuds.

Of the 43 students in the public relations course, just a handful made it even three days without new technology. Those who didn’t had their reasons:

“I had 225 missed e-mails,” said Emma Casey, a public relations and Spanish major who lasted longer than many of her classmates. “It made me very, very anxious.”

“I don’t have very good self-control,” a student admitted. Then, from the middle of the room: “My mother thought I died.”

LaMarre, an assistant professor of strategic communication, pointed out that many of the people they hope to work for don’t use technology as they do, and “it’s not because we’re not capable,” she said.

“But the more and more we are linked in, the less and less freedom we have, in a way.”

Several students, who seemed to have forgotten about the cell phones and laptops sitting beside them, nodded their heads at that one.


(c) 2010, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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