Digital Detox: Challenging Students to Unplug for the Weekend

Digital Detox

“I don’t really want to do this. I just can’t imagine living without my phone for a weekend.” That was what Grade 8 student Andrew G. thought when one of his teachers pitched the idea of a 68-hour digital detox last week.

And he wasn’t alone. Most of the students and teachers who heard about Ms. Tanya Lee’s weekend-long challenge (no phones, no computers, no tablets) were admittedly hesitant.

“At first I was anxious about it, but I was excited, too, because I wanted to see what would happen if I gave up my phone,” adds Devon M., another student in Ms. Lee’s Communication Skills 8 class. “I always feel like I’m going to need it. And it’s hard to stay in the loop if you don’t have it with you.”

The challenge came about as a segue from one in-class lesson to another.

“Given that this is Communication Skills, I like to meet my kids where they’re at. And where they’re at is on their phones using social media and communicating via text and email. We just did an Instagram project and now we’re moving on to a unit on debate and they’re going to debate the question, ‘Have mobile devices done more harm than good?'” Tanya says. “I want them to look at our increasing dependency on devices. I thought giving up screens for a weekend would be an interesting exercise for us to go through and reflect upon. And now that they’ve felt it, they can go into the debating unit being able to really see both sides of the argument.”

On Friday at lunch, a dozen students and two teachers dropped their phones into a box and they were locked away until 8 o’clock Monday morning. (Not all of Ms. Lee’s students participated – it was entirely voluntary, and many gave excuses or said they just couldn’t bear the thought of not having their phone on the weekend.)

The students who did participate say they spent the hours before the weekend scrambling to write down the home phone numbers of their friends.

“I think what made it easier for me going into it was having other kids do it; that made it a lot better because I knew some of my friends are going through it, too,” says Claire P.

The weekend felt very different from a normal weekend, students say. There were a lot more conversations with family members, more organizing in cupboards and bedrooms, and a lot more board games and books. Some students went for longer walks, did more physical activities and achieved their FitBit goals.

But there were certainly struggles.

“I found some interesting things to do instead of being on my phone, but I also got really bored and just walked around my house doing nothing on Sunday,” Andrew says.

“It was hard. I found it most hard when everyone else in my family was on their tech and I wasn’t. I felt like I was the odd one out and no one wanted to do anything because they were busy on their electronics,” Claire says.

While it was challenging, the students say the time away from their phones made them realize just how much they use their phones – in both productive and unproductive ways.

“I learned that I am pretty reliant on technology, especially when I’m bored,” Devon says. “It opened my eyes to how much I can do, instead of just scrolling through stuff on my phone.”

Even Ms. Lee discovered just how much she, too, relies on technology.

“I have small habits around my phone that caught me off guard: every time I leave a room the first thing I do is I pat my pocket to see if my phone is there, or if I don’t know something my go-to is grab my phone and Google it,” she says. “At the end of it, I sat down and made a list of all things I had accomplished above and beyond my regular activities; it was remarkable. I finished the weekend feeling satisfied, ready to go to work, like I had accomplished a lot.

“But if I’m being totally honest, getting my phone back on Monday morning, I had that childhood excitement of Christmas morning; like opening presents to see what I had missed.”

At school on Monday (after everyone got their phones back), the detox challenge was all students and teachers could talk about.

“It has been the catalyst for so many really great conversations. Our dependency on tech is like this little dirty secret that everyone has,” Ms. Lee says. “This is the best way to start a conversation with students: simulate something, create a reaction, create a feeling. It’s one thing for me to say to students, ‘We are becoming addicted to our devices,’ it’s another thing for them to experience what that means. Now that they’ve felt that – and I’ve felt that – we can come to the conversation much more informed.”

Upon reflection, the students who participated say they appreciated the experience of a digital detox for what it was. But they also acknowledge how challenging their lives would be without a phone, given that those tools – social media, texting, emails – are what all of their friends use to communicate.

“My dad told me it’s called FOMO – Fear of Missing Out,” Claire says, adding being on her phone has now dropped down her list of priorities. “I now put reading and other stuff above my phone… but that could change after a few more days.”

“I’m glad I did it. It was a good learning experience for me,” Andrew says. “I think what’s most interesting is how many people made up excuses for why they couldn’t do it. That’s just more evidence to show how much we are addicted to our phones.”

Watch the Communications students talk about their experience and learn nine guidelines that will help you be more intentional with your screen time.

Last year Ms. Lee wrote a blog for the SMUSpaper that asked, “How Much Screen Time is Too Much?” Learn more about how St. Michaels University School ensures students get a digital detox as part of their education, through our K-12 outdoor education program.


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