WILMINGTON — A popular meme featuring defeated-looking celebrity Ben Affleck reads, “When you realize 2022 is also pronounced 2020,” is credited with capturing the essence of last year. We have certainly returned to some semblance of “normalcy” since the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and quarantines have eased. And yet we still find ourselves dealing with the consequences and the apparent increased reliance on technology.
To reflect on this, Dr. Audrey Wagstaff, professor of social sciences and communication arts at Wilmington College, goes on 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 using the media, or at least the use of mobile phones, journaling about their experience, and writing a reflection to connect important concepts from the course with your observations.
“This is an incredibly moving time to be engaging in conscious exclusion from the media,” Wagstaff said. “In many ways, COVID put an end to Snow Day and provided alternatives to calling in sick. Now, if the roads are slippery or you have a cold, forget about staying in bed. You’re supposed to log into Zoom and do your work anyway. Zoom was once a noun, but is now a verb meaning “get back to work.” Now we are even more dependent on the media to connect.”
“Students need to be much more careful when planning their exclusion from the media, as they have classes to attend and discussion board posts to make. There really is no escape,” she added. “It’s not surprising that students reflect on this.”
Many students chose to exclude media over the Thanksgiving break, thinking it would be easier to spend time in the company of others and not worry about homework or tests.
“I played with my little sister,” wrote one student, while another played a four-hour game of UNO.
However, being the only one without a 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, ‘No! Get away from me.'”
Other students felt increasingly isolated during this time.
“What was hardest for me was that the people around me continued to use their ability to access media, that’s when I found myself craving my technology.” And another reflected: “I realized how lonely I felt even though I was surrounded by family because they were all on their phones.”
Students also note how exclusion allowed them to be more productive and mindful. Many were able to work overtime, deep clean their rooms, and one even reread the classic novel Fahrenheit 451.
As one student noted: “Even before starting this project, I knew that mindfulness would be a challenge for me. Before this course, I was familiar with the term from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) counseling… Our DBT leader often stressed the importance of focusing singularly on one task, that no one is truly capable of multitasking and the best we can do is switch very quickly from one task to another.”
Some students also reflected on their own sense of privacy, with some acknowledging how vulnerable their [social] the use of the media makes them.
As one student wrote: “As rewarding as YouTube, Instagram, and Tik Tok are, I’ve had my share of disappointments caused by social media. I guess that’s where some of my anxiety and stress comes from. Because of people’s ability to comment or share, I was left completely open to bullying…Unfortunately, you give up certain rights when you post any type of personal information on any social media platform.”
Another student commented that sharing everything through the media is not necessarily the means of gratification, writing, “I’m in charge of my own appreciation and I don’t need an audience hiding behind a screen to feel seen.”
Others noted that they felt vindicated by withholding personal information for a day.
“This day of exclusion was the only day I felt completely deprived in a long time. Google and Facebook were unable to capture any analytics about what articles and posts you were reading. YouTube couldn’t suggest anything based on my recent viewing history. My thoughts were apparently my own, with no way for 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 it. By the end of the day, my apps were begging me to get back to them, a point highlighted by one of my mobile games sending me a notification that night that read, “Your fleet needs you!” It felt a bit empowering to deprive apps of their valuable data: the keystrokes you enter, screen time, engagement with posts and articles they assume I’d be interested in. At least, for one day, I made them guess what I was instead of being completely transparent with them thanks to my interactions with digital media.
Finally, a universal theme emerged as students considered life with and without their devices.
“This is usually the most common and most compelling theme that comes up,” Wagstaff said. “Considering life without his device and then living life for a day without him is very intimidating. And most students leave the experience with a greater understanding of their dependence on their devices, even if they never want to be separated from them again.”
One student wrote: “We depend on our phones for almost everything… Addiction grows out of dependency and the more apps come along to make everyday tasks easier, the more we will depend on our phones and the addiction will surely follow. He was doing research on mobile phone addiction and a message popped up asking if I or someone I know is struggling with addiction.”
Other students find a 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 can do basic math without it.”
Another concluded: “Overall I think media blackout day was easy because I try not to be on my phone all the time. I enjoyed the day, and it really opened my eyes a bit more to the negative effects our phones can only have on us as humans. If I want something removed from this newspaper, I want it to be that the media affects us badly, but 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!”
The image of eyes glued to Smartphones is a familiar site in today’s society for people of all ages.