WILMINGTON — A popular meme featuring celebrity Ben Affleck, who appears to look defeated reads, “When you realize 2022 is pronounced 2020 too” has been credited with capturing the essence of this past year. Certainly, we have returned to some semblance of “normal” since the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns and quarantines have subsided. And yet we find ourselves still coping with the aftermath and the seeming increased dependence on technology.
To reflect upon this, Dr. Audrey Wagstaff, professor of social science and communication arts at Wilmington College, continues to require a 24-hour “media exclusion project” in her mass media in a global society course. During a 24-hour period, students are asked to refrain from media use, or at least mobile phone use, journal about their experience and write a reflection to connect important course concepts to their observations.
“This is an incredibly poignant time to engage in mindful media exclusion,” Wagstaff said. “In many ways, COVID killed the Snow Day, and it provided alternatives to calling in sick. Now, if the roads are slick or you have a head cold, forget staying in bed. You are supposed to log into Zoom and do your work anyway. Zoom was once a noun, but now it is a verb that means get back to work. We are now even more dependent on media to connect.
“Students have to be that much more careful to plan their media exclusion as they have classes to attend and discussion board posts to make. There really is no escape. Not surprisingly, students reflect upon this.”
Many students opted to exclude media during the Thanksgiving holiday, thinking it would be easier to pass the time in the company of others and without concern for homework or exams.
“I played games with my little sister,” wrote one student, while another engaged in a four-hour game of UNO.
Nevertheless, being the only one sans device on a holiday also presented its own challenges. As one student wrote, “It was really hard because I did it on Thanksgiving, and people were trying to show me pictures of their kids, and I was like, ‘Nope! Get away from me.’”
Other students felt increasingly isolated during this time.
“What I found most difficult was the surrounding people continued to use their ability to access media. That’s when I found myself craving my technology.” And another reflected, “I noticed how lonely I felt even though I was surrounded by family members because they were all on their phones.”
Students also note how the exclusion allowed them to be more productive and mindful. Many were able to work extra hours, deep clean their rooms and one even reread the classic novel “Fahrenheit 451”.
As one student noted, “Even before I started this project, I knew that mindfulness would be a challenge for me. Prior to this course, I was familiar with the term thanks to Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) counseling… Our DBT lead often stressed the importance of being singularly focused on one task, that no one is truly capable of multi-tasking and the best we can do is very quickly switch from one task to another.”
Some students also reflected on their own sense of privacy, some acknowledging how vulnerable their social media use makes them.
As one student wrote, “As gratifying as YouTube, Instagram and Tik Tok are, I have had my share of disappointments caused by social media. I guess that is where some of my anxiety and stress come from. Because of people’s ability to comment or share, I left myself wide open for some bullying… Unfortunately, you give up certain rights when putting any type of personal information on any social media platform.”
Another student remarked that sharing everything via media is not necessarily the means to gratification, writing “I am in charge of my own self-appreciation, and I do not need an audience hidden behind a screen to make me feel seen.”
Others noted that they felt vindicated in withholding personal information for a day.
“This exclusion day was the only day I felt completely private in a very long time. Google and Facebook couldn’t capture any analytics about what articles and posts I was spending time reading. YouTube couldn’t suggest anything based on my recent viewing history. My thoughts were ostensibly my own, with no way for the apps to have access to them (for now!). The book I decided to read to pass the time couldn’t tell the publisher how many pages I read, or how many times I fell asleep doing so. By the end of the day, my apps were imploring me to come back to them, a point highlighted by one of my mobile games sending me a notification that evening that read along the lines of, ‘Your fleet needs you!’ It felt somewhat empowering to deprive apps of their valuable data: the keystrokes you enter, the on-screen time, the engagement with posts and articles they assume I’d be interested in. At least, for one day, I had them guess what I was up to instead of being completely transparent to them thanks to my interactions with digital media.”
Finally, a universal theme emerged as students considered life with — and without — their devices.
“This is often the most common and most compelling theme that emerges,” Wagstaff said. “To consider life without your device and then actually live life for a day without it is very intimidating. And most students come away from the experience with a greater understanding of their dependence on their devices, even if they never wish to be separated from them again.”
One student wrote, “We depend on our phones for about everything… Addiction stems from dependency and the more apps that pop up to make everyday life chores easier the more we depend on our phones and addiction is sure to follow. I was doing research on mobile phone addiction, and a message popped up asking me if I or someone I know is struggling with addiction.”
Other students find new independence and confidence that they can live without their devices.
As one student reflected, “I don’t need technology as much as I think I do. I can do basic math without it.”
Another concluded, “All in all, I think that the media exclusion day was easy because I try not to be on my phone all the time. I enjoyed the day, and it truly did open my eyes a little wider as to the negative effects our phones alone can have on us as humans. If I want anything to be taken away from this paper, I want it to be media does affect us poorly, but it is good in moderation. Look up and open your eyes.
“From an old soul to you, the world is beautiful, so look at it. Don’t look at pictures of the world, go out and find where the pictures were taken!”