Some higher education professionals believe we must “get digital or get out of the way” and schools are jumping on the bandwagon to teach digital literacy and are incorporating the latest tech gadgets as educational tools (Edweek.org). Cell phones and other technology devices have the capacity to dramatically change our learning spaces. Yet there is a group of students who choose to intentionally unplug from their cell phones and we need to give them our attention.
These students who are on our college campuses create their own daily routines to access and use their phones when with others. These students are mindful and do not bring their phones with them to the dining hall or when they have plans to go out with their friends. These students make a point to leave their phones in their backpacks in an effort to give their undivided attention to their professor’s lecture. Some of these students even take the extreme option of not buying a smartphone and choose to have a simple flip-phone, even when smartphones are the hype among their friends.
“Our texts are fine” but “it’s what texting does to our conversations when we are together that’s the problem” is what a college junior said when asked to describe what he thinks is wrong about life amongst his peers. In a 2015 Pew Research Center report, over 80 percent of adults recently reported that they felt their phone use in social settings hurt the conversation. In a separate 30-year long study conducted at the University of Michigan they found a whopping 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with the significant decline occurring after 2000 when smartphone use significantly increased ( 2010 Sara Konrath Study). Human connection is necessary. We learn to care, be understanding, and see other viewpoints from another person’s perspective when we connect face-to-face, where we can see body language which is often lost when using our cell phones.
As a higher education professional working in student services, I see issues on campuses that get the most attention are the ones that are easiest to see. Issues that fly under the radar are often missed. It is under the radar where a group of students who I call The Unplugged, fly.
The Unplugged are not an official collective but a subtle pattern of students I know through my work in supporting students and working on a university campus. At the root, these students share common values. They long for connectivity and want more in-depth and quality conversations in-person. Preserving their ability to stay focused, enabling themselves to be more vulnerable, and maintaining their interpersonal relationships is what they seek to protect and is why these students choose to intentionally unplug. They have no idea but they are ahead of the times, knowing technology does have consequences.
M.I.T. Professor, Sherry Turkle, author of the new book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” (2015) leads the new research on the social impact mobile phones have on people, particularly young people. She says we all need greater intention. Putting phones out of sight may be unlikely, but what we can do is to intentionally change our auto-mode behavior and reactions to a cell phone in our presence. This is what The Unplugged already do.
There is a lot to be learned from The Unplugged. I encourage higher education faculty and staff to first acknowledge that there are students out there on their college campuses that see beauty in balancing life between analog and digital modes of communication. Before you give in to the pressure from your colleagues or those above you to adopt the newest technology or trying to “meet students where they are at”, take a moment to question if the technology will truly benefit the situation or if it would be just fine without it. It’s okay to not jump on that bandwagon sometimes.
I hear and read about children these days wishing their parents would unplug from their phones and email more often to play, to talk, and to just spend more quality time together. Our college students will soon be new parents, colleagues, and managers, and that is why you should care; honor these students who seek greater intention, trying to unplug more often. I’m nervous about the uphill battle that lies ahead of us when we are so quick to stay plugged into our phones and allowing our students to do the same.
Whether you catch wind of it or not, know that The Unplugged are at work quietly, under the radar, trying to hold on tight to their ability to stay focused and keep their closest personal relationships. Next time you come across one of these students, give them a nudge of encouragement, a smile, a pat on the back, a simple thank for seeing the value in face-to-face conversations. Best of all—give them your undivided attention and time. Otherwise, we risk losing our connection.
Crowley, B. (2014). What Digital Literacy Looks Like in a Classroom. Education Week Teacher. Retrieved from http://ericstoller.com/blog/
Konrath, O’Brien, & Hsing. (2011). Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis. Pers Soc Psychol, vol. 15 no. 2 180-198
Rainie, L. & Zickuhr. (2015) Americans’ Views of Mobile Etiquette. Pew Research Center Report. Retrieved fromhttp://www.pewinternet.org/
Stoller, E. (2015). Get Digital or Get Out of the Way: Overcoming Our Collective Fear ofTechnology. ericstoller.com. Retrieved fromhttp://ericstoller.com/blog/
Turkle, Sherry (2015). Stop Googling. Let’s Talk. New York Times: Sunday Review/Opinion. Retrieved fromhttp://www.nytimes.com/2015/