Every year in Media and Society class, I assign my students a 24-Hour Challenge of doing without any electronic media, including:
- texting, email, websites and anything viewed via their smartphones
- social media (SnapChat, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube)
- music via a digital device (some have listened to vinyl)
- TV shows, Netflix, movies
Students always panic when they hear about this assignment. I explain that if they need to use their smartphones for work, do so, but then put the device right back down. The students are not to use media for entertainment, to relieve boredom, to kill time, etc.
Then, they write a response paper reflecting on the difficulties they experienced, their level of anxiety, how dependent they are on media for information and for their sense of themselves, and yes, hopefully, what they learned about themselves.
Here are four common themes expressed by the 24-Hour Challengers:
1. Students don’t realize how many times a day they pick up their phones or how much time they spend on them.
“After being given this challenge, I felt that with a little determination I wouldn’t have a problem going 24 hours without using electronic media. I was wrong. It’s mind opening that it took an assignment like this to see how much (and often) media enters my life.”
“By doing this 24-hour challenge, I saw just how much I depend on these little computers on a day-to-day basis. I cannot wake up in time for class or work unless I set an alarm, I cannot get in contact with any of my friends or my significant other unless I text them, and I cannot even dress appropriately for the weather without checking the weather app.”
2. Students report feeling anxiety from not being in the loop with their friends.
“While it was nice to disconnect from the media for a day, it made me feel disconnected as well. I was constantly wondering what my friends were saying on our group chat and if anything exciting had happened on Facebook or Snapchat.”
My “anxiety came from not being in contact with the people I was going to meet up with that day. The thought of potentially having plans change without my knowledge stressed me out. I didn’t want to be the person that showed up at this place at that time, when we were now supposed to go to that place at that time, or have the plans be canceled altogether.”
“I have always been a caretaker and the one to help people through their problems. Almost immediately after I got my first cellphone, I took on the role of always being available for anyone to talk to. I felt uncomfortable telling the few people I talk to consistently that I would be unavailable.”
3. Students don’t know what to do with boredom.
“The car rides were what made me the most anxious. Usually I will have something playing on the radio but I was forced to sit in silence and listen only to my thoughts, which in a way was therapeutic. It allowed for me to think about my own health and well being instead of becoming distracted by the new hits. I also noticed I was more alert while driving since my mind was solely focused on the road.”
“After about 15 minutes of this, I began to get bored. I started to feel a little sorry for myself, and it was then that I decided to add on to the challenge. I challenged myself to go through the rest of the day without complaining, no matter how much I wanted to.”
“I also made it a mission that whenever I would wait for something or pass time, I would not look at my phone and instead I would just be present in the world and make the most of it.”
4. Students realize that disconnecting from media makes their lives less convenient.
“I was doing pretty well up until lunchtime when I went to make one of those Stouffer’s Italian Bread Pizzas when I realized that the box with the directions had been thrown away some time ago. Not knowing how long to cook it and what to set the oven temperature to, I ended up looking it up on the good ol’ Google Chrome. The 24-hour challenge had turned into the four-hour challenge. Not bad, right?”
“I had to use my laptop for a quick minute to write down one recipe I had on my laptop because I needed to see what I needed to get from the market.”
And now some final comments the students expressed about the challenge itself:
“As a whole, this assignment was challenging, yet fun. I am now going to try and take a step back and unplug from the social media world more. I have to surprisingly admit, I did feel refreshed after turning off the craziness of the media world for 24-hours.”
“I would not choose to do this challenge again unless I was in great need of a media cleanse. I missed being able to listen to music and chat with my friends and do simple things such as check my email.”
“During a normal day, I am very connected to social media…. Without the media I would not be able to keep up with the world around me, and I would be very lost and confused. In the future, I intend to find the line between too much media and too little media to help me in my everyday life.”
So I’ve done this challenge occasionally, and I admit it can be difficult. But overall, it’s very helpful. It’s nice to unplug, to not know the latest hysteria trending on Twitter, to hear the sounds of nature around me, to be quiet, to be present.
It’s also nice to plug back in, but this challenge will teach you balance and offer you awareness about your media intake. Why don’t you try it?