2021 UPDATE: 23 (+2 more) Things I Learned from Digital-liberated College Students

Last spring, just before COVID lockdown, I challenged The King’s College freshmen to a 7-day digital fast from phones, digital media, and screens (where possible). I had them reading my book Human Rites: The Power of Rituals, Habits, and Sacraments (table of contents below) and writing reflections each of the 7 days.

This year 2021, I challenged a whole new batch of young college students to the same thing, but a few things had changed:

  1. COVID happened.
  2. The advocacy documentary The Social Dilemma came out and very carefully showed the evils of app design and social media.
  3. I had them watch the film and read from Human Rites, Sabbath Rest, and Practicing the King’s Economy.

After reading hundreds of their daily reflections as they detoxed from their phones and other media, I offer you all summaries of the GOOD, BAD, and UGLY realities coursing through their hearts and minds.

The 2 new things I learned from 2021:

  1. SOCIAL MEDIA: Most of them don’t care as much for social media as they used to. Instagram and Twitter used to be the main culprits of addiction, along with texting impulsively. Outside of the few students who work as social media managers for companies or have their own monetized accounts (yes, I have students who get paid real money to be on social media and curate their own “brand”), students seemed to be able to distance themselves. They have a healthier wariness about social media and body image. Overall, this was very encouraging.
  2. MUSIC: They use music to “drown out,” “distract,” “close out,” and “numb” themselves from the real world. They are CONSTANTLY listening to music and they report missing it more than anything else. What they seem to fear most is where their minds go in times of silence. This also helps to make sense of the extreme lack of executive functioning (the ability to self-organize your priorities, calendar, etc.) amongst college freshmen. According to studies, children need 20+ minutes of boredom (including no music) in order for their minds to grow their executive abilities. They never get silence and they don’t like the mind-wandering time that their bodies need.

The disturbing/expected results: 

1. FIRST: Most college freshmen have ZERO silence in their lives. No sabbath rest. No time for contemplation about their upcoming day in the morning or reflection over it in the evening. 

2. Because of their ZERO silence life, many have difficulties with executive tasks (e.g., organizing scattered information into “most important”, “needs attention now,” or “can wait.”). Brains need a certain amount of boredom before they can develop these skills. 

3. This explained so much to me about behaviors I’d see with perfectly intelligent students who would make befuddling errors of judgment. 

4. SECOND: Most of them still think the body is secondary to the mind/soul (i.e., they are lazy Platonists of the worst kind). They believe that knowing is essentially the same as being able to do something. It’s mind-over-matterism for them. 

5. Additionally, they challenge and question every ritual in their life except the ones they’re slavishly and uncritically doing most often (eight hours of phone time a day, picking up their phones 100s of times a day, etc.). 

6. Between their mind-over-matterism and their lack of silence/reflection, they can’t see how bad things are for them. Most said something like: “I knew my phone problem was bad, but this week has exposed layers of problems.” 

7. Embodying the digital fast showed them things they couldn’t have understood otherwise and they admit that they wouldn’t have ever done it on their own unless it was a graded assignment. Their body taught them and they didn’t know how to handle that. 

8. I didn’t realize that this challenge would cause drug-addict-like physical responses. They were excited at first, serious in the second day, and many got openly hostile or cranky by the 4th or 5th day. 

9. You could replace the word “phone” in their reflections with your drug of choice and it would have all made sense. I felt a little like a rehab counselor throughout the week, including students in tears. 

10. Most became aware that their phones were now mapped into their neurology and endocrine system. They experienced “phantom vibration syndrome” in their legs and wrists (thank you Apple Watch®). That freaked them out a bit. 

11. THIRD: Almost all of them talk/text with their parents daily or more. Parents are often the reason they feel that they “need” their phones on them at all times. Most have not ever emotionally left their parents to “adult” on their own, and they saw that themselves over the week. 

12. Parental anxieties about their kids’ welfare has been packaged up and ritualized into a to-go “black mirror.” That phone physically represents their parents’ anxieties and so leaving it at home for the day was a huge hurdle for most. 

13. Those who left the phone at home during the school day reported a sense of liberation and surprise that they didn’t need it most of the time. They arranged times to talk with their parents on the phone (allowed by the fast). 

14. After pushing through the pangs of addiction and reading about how phones/apps were constructed to create addiction, they were MAD!!! 

15. Angry at their parents, the technologists, and just the world in general. Some were handed phones when they were in elementary school and couldn’t understand how their parents could be so naïve. 

16. Those who had parents who wouldn’t allow a smartphone until they were 18 were incredibly proud of their parents for holding the line—even if they slipped into bad habits quickly within a year of owning a phone. 

17. THE UGLY: Most admitted that they would be going back to their phones and social media, even though they now understood how dangerous it all is and felt ashamed to admit it. 

18. THE GOOD: They got it! They realized that their bodies play a majority role in their intellectualism, morality, etc. That ol’ biblical diatribe that “what we do with our bodies shapes us ethically and forms our understanding” turns out to be correct. 

19. They are sick of being chastised and blamed for their use of technology. They want to be encouraged to be the ones who set healthy standards for ethical tech. After all, us older folks are the ones who built this stuff and shoved it into their hands. 

20. They are uniquely gifted and situated to teach us how to use tech ethically. Once they are free of their physical and emotional addictions (mainly to phones, but also video games and TV/movies), they can lead us out of this mess. 

21. Their parents are often worse slaves to the phone, especially texting. I encouraged them to stop conversations by text except for notes like, “I’ll be there in 5.” Use voice calls to talk where you can hear the tone and avoid what the Apostle Paul called “needless quarrels.” 

22. They are great people who really want to do great things for our communities and churches. They want to be coached and encouraged. Unlike GenX and Boomers, they don’t think they have it all figured out. They’re not yelling dumb slogans like, “Don’t trust anyone over 30!” 

23. FINALLY: if they’ve had a good liberal arts experience, (ahem! @TheKingsCollege) they’ve figured out that the self-esteem programs crippled them and the phone made them narcissistic.* They don’t really need that pointed out to them. 

*They’re just trying to figure out what excuse us GenXers and Boomers have for our generational faux pas. 

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