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What LI college students learned when they gave up smartphones for a week

What happened when students at Adelphi University in a class called "Life Unplugged" surrendered their smartphones for an entire week? Students share what they learned. (Credit: Newsday / Beth Whitehouse)

Charles Herman, a freshman at Adelphi University in Garden City, kissed his smartphone before handing it to a campus Public Safety officer who locked it away for a week.

It was a bittersweet goodbye shared by 21 fellow students in the freshman seminar “Life Unplugged." English Department Professor Donna Freitas required the entire class to surrender their phones for a week from Nov. 7 to 14. “At first I thought, ‘She’s joking. I think she’s joking,’” said Jacob Dannenberg, 18, of Middle Island.

She was not.

Going cold turkey was an experiment to help the students examine their relationships with their phones. “I’ve become more and more concerned by my students’ inability to sustain attention,” said Freitas, author of a book titled ''The Happiness Effect: How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost'' (Oxford University Press, 2017). She asked students to seriously consider this question: “What does it mean to live constantly interrupted?”

Each students’ phone was sealed in a plastic bag with the student’s name on it.

The shock was immediate.

“This morning I thought I was fine, but my hand is shaking right now. I just got really sweaty,” Dannenberg said.

Here are eight things students said they learned during the phone fast — and what they said they plan to change now that they have their phones back:

1. How annoying it is when other people use smartphones. “At the dinner table with my friends, it was very awkward, because most people were sitting on their phones, so I was kind of just staring into space while eating,” said Daniella Roselli, 18, of Levittown, who lives on campus and eats in the dining hall. “Eventually, they saw I did not have my phone and decided to put theirs away. We ended up having a nice conversation. I thought to myself that I need to stop bringing my phone with me when I am out with friends.” Jesse Walker, 18, of Manhattan, was playing video games with a friend, and the friend paused the video game whenever he got a text. “I didn’t mind before, because when he checked his, I would check mine,” Walker said. But not having his phone made him realize how annoying the interruptions are. He ended up snapping at his friend, “Can you not pause every time you get a text?”

2. How their phones disturb their sleep. “I 100 percent have been sleeping better,” said Adrianna Cigliano, 18, of West Islip. “I haven’t fallen asleep before midnight in months.” Students said they typically keep their phones next to their beds; several said they hear the vibration when they receive a notification and are drawn to check texts. Myrveen Berlanger, 18, of Lawrence, said she hopes she will keep her phone in another room now but admits, “I don’t know if I’ll really go through with that.”

3. How much faster they work without the distraction. “I got almost all my research paper done in two days,” said Herman, 21, of Washington, D.C. “I kind of wish you just murdered my phone. I almost don’t want a phone anymore, but I wouldn’t survive without it.” Roselli said she might hand her phone over to her roommate when she is studying and tell her not to give it back to her until she gets her work done.

4. How freeing it can be not to have constant access to social media. Most students said they use Snapchat daily to communicate with friends; the app records “streaks” of time when people keep a daily communication going. Melanie Klein, 18, of West Islip said she had to give up a streak she has had going with one friend that has spawned 1,400 days — that’s more than three years. Users get notified by their phones every time a friend posts on an app such as Snapchat or Instagram, which tempts them to look at their phones immediately. When students got their phones back, some phones took more than five minutes to upload the dozens and dozens of notifications missed during the week when the devices were off. Some said they plan to turn off notifications.

5. How much they count on phones for things that have nothing to do with phones. When Jessica Lahrens, 18, of Hempstead, went to the Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in Manhattan for the day with friends, she wasn’t able to take selfies with Whoopi Goldberg and Kim Kardashian. Fortunately, she says, her friends snapped the pictures and will text them to her now that she has her phone back. Unlike some other students, Gabriel Silva, 18, of Mineola, said he hadn’t been sleeping well without his phone because he is so dependent on its alarm clock to wake him at 5:45 so he could make it to 6:15 a.m. cross-country practice. He didn’t trust the old-fashioned alarm — he worried he didn’t set it right, or that it wouldn’t wake him — and he kept waking at 3 a.m. and then 5 a.m. to double-check the time. And students can literally be lost without the phone’s GPS. Cigliano commutes from West Islip; she said she never learned the route because she just listened to her phone’s GPS instruct, “Turn here, turn there.” Having no smartphone made her finally memorize the way, she said.

6. How much their parents also rely on the students’ phones. Knowing Cigliano was driving phone-free was stressful for her dad, who gave Cigliano an old phone that would only allow her to dial 911 in an emergency. “He uses Life 360,” Cigliano said, referring to an app on her father’s phone that allows him to track her by the location of her cellphone. Thomas Cigliano, 54, who manages a commercial real estate company, agreed the week was nerve-racking for safety reasons, in part because there aren’t pay phones anymore that Cigliano could use to call him if she needed to. Added the younger Cigliano, “My mom asked, ‘Can you send me some of your friends’ numbers?’” Dannenberg said his mom has been emailing him once a day instead of texting throughout. “It’s a lot better. She gets what she needs to say out in one email, and I’ll respond,” he said. Several students said the first thing they planned to do when they got their phones back was to text their parents to let them know they were back in business.

7. How dependent their social lives are on their phones. “I feel disconnected,” Silva said during the phone-free week. “My friends hang out; I don’t know about it. I feel like I’m being left out.” Roselli said the one thing she really missed was texting. “I miss that a lot,” she said. That’s one thing that likely won’t change, students said.

8. How addicted they really are. Cigliano babysat for two of her cousins during the weekend, and when her aunt came home she asked the kids, “How do you like your cousin without her phone?” “They said, ‘We love her!’” Cigliano said. She said she played with them on the playground instead of sitting on a swing on her phone. Ashley Castillero, 18, of Northport, said she is planning to leave her phone in the car more when she hangs out with her friends. “I originally didn’t think I was addicted to my phone. But this class made me realize how much I really am,” she said. “If it’s in front of me, I’m going to use it.”

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