Digital Detox - Quality, Leisure, and the Right to Act By Annie Matthews ‘93 9th Grade English Teacher
Fahrenheit 451 is a prescient science fiction novel by Ray Bradbury depicting a future in which books are illegal and the average citizen spends her days staring at wall-sized screens and wearing “seashell” earpieces as a passive consumer of a constant flow of vapid entertainment. One character describes how all information and entertainment has been diluted and shortened to soundbites and blurbs. A teenager in the book describes peers who only speak of their cars and their swimming pools, but don’t really say anything. When we studied this novel in my 9th grade English class this year, many of the students were quick to pick up on the reflections of our current society and recognize themselves, in Bradbury’s 1950s depiction of the not-too-distant future. “Ms. Matthews,” they said, “That character Mildred, she’s like us and our earbuds.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “YES. But she’s not a very happy character, is she?”
I presented them an article from KQED Science, Teen Happiness. Plummeted After 2012. Here’s One Possible Reason Why…. The article discusses a study which analyzed the sharp decrease in psychological well-being (self-esteem, life satisfaction, and happiness) among teenagers after 2012, during the rise of the smartphone. The researchers discovered that teenagers who spent more time “on screens” than they did on other activities were generally unhappier, while those who indulged in just a little screen-time were happiest. To quote the article: “In other words, every activity that didn’t involve a screen was linked to more happiness, and every activity that involved a screen was linked to less happiness. The differences were considerable: Teens who spent more than five hours a day online were twice as likely to be unhappy as those who spent less than an hour a day.”
Now, I am certainly not anti-technology. In fact, the other part of my job at PHS is Technology Integration Specialist, and I work with fellow teachers to help enhance our curriculum with digital tools. I require my students to use technology regularly. I am as addicted to my phone as my students are. So, in discussing the implications of Fahrenheit 451 and the findings of the article, the kids were a bit surprised. “Ms. Matthews,” one kid said, “You’re into technology, you like all this stuff. Don’t you think Ray Bradbury just sounds like a cranky old man who doesn’t understand technology and wants to blame it for everything?”
“No,” I disagreed. “Not quite. You’ll see what I mean, keep reading. We haven’t gotten to Faber yet.”
In the second part of the novel, Faber is sought out by the main character, Montag, during an existential crisis about the emptiness of life and society. Montag begs Faber, a retired English professor, to help him understand what’s missing from his life and if perhaps the illegal books may give him the answers he’s seeking. Faber tells Montag, “It’s not the books themselves. It’s what’s IN them.” He goes on to say that there are three things missing from society, three things inherent in books, and too often hindered by technology: quality, leisure, and the right to act. By quality, he means information and entertainment that “have texture,” show “the pores of life,” and require real active thought. Leisure is the time to process information, to think critically, to be discerning. Finally, Faber says we need the freedom to be able to act on what we learn from the first two.
About this time, we had a major technological issue on campus that made basically all our technology unavailable for about two weeks. As you can imagine, it was a significant practical inconvenience, but it was also weirdly good timing for the discussions taking place in my classroom. A couple of colleagues commented about how the students seemed somehow “mellower” when they couldn’t check their online grade books when computers and wifi were taken out of the picture. This was also about halfway through Lent, a time of sacrifice, reflection and reconnection. I had an idea…
I presented my students with a challenge: a Digital Detox for the remainder of Lent. With a small amount of extra credit as an incentive, the challenge required students to completely abstain from social media, decrease TV and games to two hours per day, and put all electronic devices aside for the night at 8pm. For reflection and accountability, participants also had keep a regular journal and daily prompts were provided. I sent an email home to families, informing them about the Detox and encouraging them to support their child and maybe even participate. About 50 students initially expressed interest, and 34 brave souls actually accepted the challenge. They expressed real concern about the withdrawal, a few were doubtful they could succeed. To show his commitment, one kid deleted Snapchat from his phone in front of me, wincing as he did it.
So, what did they say?
- Nearly everyone said they spent more time talking to family and friends face-to-face (especially at the lunch tables and dinner tables), and most mentioned spending more time on activities like reading, drawing, playing sports, going outdoors, and cooking.
- Many mentioned feeling free of “the drama” that exists on social media, and of feeling “more like themselves,” “less anxious” and “being able to breathe.”
- Most of them said their sleep improved – they fell asleep faster and easier - and they felt more energized. • Many realized that they feel a very real pressure to keep up “streaks” and monitor “likes” on social media, a pressure that they put on themselves.
- Nearly all of them realized they have more time than they think they do – they recognized that their devices cause them to procrastinate.
- While a couple of them admit they did the detox purely for the extra credit, the majority said they chose to do it because they really believe device addiction is a problem affecting their lives.
- At the end, most of them wrote that they hope to change some of their technology habits permanently – specifically using social media less, and generally spending less time on their devices.
Faber was right. Too often what our kids are consuming through their devices is not quality – it’s artificial social media that damages their self-esteem. Too much of their leisure time is spent passively absorbing information and stimuli in the form of mindless blurbs without critical processing time to consider what they are taking in. Perhaps this experiment at least showed them they do have the right to act: that they have power over their devices, that they can choose quality over nonsense, that they can put their phone down every once in a while and think about what they’re being fed.
If even a few kids gained some insight to the link between mental health and technology use, I consider this experiment a success. If they saw relevant connections between literature, the issues in the world around them, and their own personal experience, I consider it a bonus.