Updated: Oct 28, 2020
By: Victoria Grinthal
Donna Freitas, visiting professor in the English Department, conducted the first-year seminar, "Life Unplugged," which challenged students to give up their cellphones for a week.
Chances are that you spend way more time scrolling on your mobile devices and phones than reading articles and books in paper format. As technology advances with every day, it’s common to let the digital world take over our time, but it’s not the best idea for us or our future. This is the reason why first-year seminar (FYS) professor Donna Freitas offered a volunteer “unplugging” assignment to her fall 2019 class. Unexpectedly, the move soon gained media attention beyond her classroom, campus and even the state.
Though the idea may sound torturous for some, the activity was inspired by research. Freitas, a visiting professor in the English Department, is no stranger to the effects of social media and digital contact, as she has written multiple books on the topic.
“First-year seminar can be an experimental class, and several years ago I did a national study on Social Media, Smartphones, and the College Experience, published as `The Happiness Effect: How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost’ (Oxford),” she said. “I based the class around findings from the study, and the question, `What does it mean to have a healthy relationship with our devices and social media?’ I think this is one of the most important questions for college students today (and all of us, really). The experiment of giving up phones was meant for students to reflect--seriously--on their relationship with their devices, and what it is like to be and converse and think and study and read and be in relationship unaccompanied by them, and uninterrupted by them constantly.”
With that in mind, Freitas gave her FYS students the opportunity to participate in a voluntary experiment in which their cell phones were left with Adelphi’s Public Safety Department over the course of a week. The participants were able to use other types of digital devices, and all set up ways to contact their families and friends without texting or calling them.
This interactive lesson was good for not only the students, but also the public, as “Newsday” reported it in print during November 2019. “Newsday,” CBS New York and Pix 11 also recorded segments detailing the experiment for their respective websites, gaining even more momentum online. A video report of the event from CBS’ “Inside Edition” news broadcast has gained nearly half a million YouTube views since its release.
Freitas, who is also a middle grade and young adult novelist, said she was surprised that the class made headlines. “It says something about our society today, I think, that students giving up smartphones for a week could make national headlines. It says that we all think it is shocking and nearly impossible to do. I think it's a good experience for all of us to remember--or discover--what life is like when we are not grabbing for our phones constantly, what it is like to live uninterrupted.”
Many students were unsure about the idea of giving up their phones for a whole week. However, it quickly became a memorable learning experience for all involved, including Freitas and the Adelphi community.
While everyone’s relationship with technology is different, some students, like first-year Charles Herman, found a lot of positives to working without a cell phone nearby.
“I really liked being phoneless,” Herman said. “I could get work done more productively. If I had to, or if the opportunity to [do so arises], I would do this experiment again.”
Other students felt symptoms of withdrawal and found it more challenging to adapt to life without phones, for various reasons. Despite the lack of connection through technological means, the students were able to communicate in a way that is currently much less common in our society.
Freitas said the week without phones (and the whole semester in general) was meant to inform these students about the copious amounts of scientific and social information about how we are impacted by serious cell phone usage. Research has concluded that cell phones can affect self-image and mental state and even be addicting in some situations. The response to this experiment was not only to get people talking, but also to bring to light the impending effects of constant technology use on the body and mind. To that end, Freitas said it worked.
“I think I was just surprised--and pleased and happy--that by the time my students and I were ready to do the experiment, everyone had gotten on board, even though they were nervous, too,” Freitas said. “At the beginning of the class, I think people were shocked that we were really going to do this. But I was also happy to see how much fun the students had and how into it they were. I would definitely do it again if I had the opportunity.”