May 27, 2019
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These college students gave up their phones. They discovered an addiction.

A person uses a smart phone in Chicago, Sept. 16, 2017.

They did it. A group that might as well be any of our kids. They’re old enough for college but young enough that they know life mostly as a digital distraction driven by the smartphone in our hands, our pockets, our souls. They went without. And what they discovered in doing so should inspire fear in us all.

Fifteen undergrads went 24 hours with orders to keep their mitts off their smartphones. As their professor, I hoped this would lead to some good copy. This was a class in news column writing. My own full-day iPhone cleanse, done for this same group assignment I’d designed, had been an eyes-and-ears-opening experiment.

I wish I could say impressions had been better for the St. Joseph’s University students. Some of you had asked, in email to me, how the class had fared. With final drafts of their accounts now in hand and permission to share excerpts, I deliver on your request.

Read it and weep.

“It’s like losing a limb,” wrote Alysa Bainbridge, a sophomore communications major from Reading, Pennsylvania. “Your source of oxygen. Being stranded on a deserted island, isolated from the rest of the world … I chose my 24 hours strategically, in a way that would inflict the least amount of pain possible: sorority recruitment weekend.”

Things go haywire quickly.

“I have a mini panic attack because I forgot to check what room recruitment was in before I gave up my phone … I wander around the building until I find other people wearing the same Tri Sigma T-shirt.”

On a break: “Everyone’s glued to their phones … too occupied for a conversation. I feel the first pang of envy. I also realize how ridiculous it is to watch people stop mid-sentence and purse their lips for a Snapchat selfie not just once, but every two minutes.”

For Michael Kokias, a senior dual English-business major from Norwalk, Connecticut, a single Saturday without the phone was tricky. He went for a run. Got back and cleaned his room because what else do you do when you can’t waste time on the phone?

“The tables never knew such pressure from a Clorox wipe, and the windows suddenly shone with a deep clean, putting some back into it,” Kokias wrote. “In silence I smelled the fumes, wanting, yearning for even a simple podcast to occupy my mind. But then I sat. And stared.” (At the phone across the room, if you must know).

“Looking around the dinner table, the nine people that sat with me are all sending messages or scrolling through Twitter,” wrote Paige Santiago, a senior English major from Ridgefield, Connecticut. “I feel a little lonely, and almost stupid, for sitting there staring at all of them.”

Senior psychology major Rebecca Lane spent three hours and 19 minutes on her phone the day before giving it up. The next morning, she fell off the wagon immediately.

“Maria’s faith in us Gen Z’s to go without technology [is] proving almost as strong as using a freshly baked cake for the foundation of a skyscraper,” she wrote. “As I sit on my couch for the 30 seconds it takes my roommate to come downstairs, I’m lost. I clench my phone in my right hand, thumb on the lock button, tempted to press down. In an attempt to distract myself I look around the lounge area. An empty cup on the coffee table. A blanket spread out next to me on the couch. Mail on the floor by the front door. Yet, my mind is completely consumed with the smooth glass encircling its perfect counterpart that is my thumb.

“… I never thought it would happen to me but after countless hours of buzzing vibrations, taking and retaking photos, and word-by-word conversations I am now dependent,” Lane continued. “As I type this piece right now, I am back and forth each minute with iMessage, Snapchat, Instagram, and writing.”

Maria Panaritis is columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer who writes about Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia suburbs.


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