Helping students trade the false promises of Big Tech for lasting joy
We can remember a time before the Internet. They can’t.
I once spent a slow afternoon experiencing Age of You, a vast collection of photography, sculpture, video, and text at Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art. In one immersive experience, artists sought to make sense of the global shifts we’ve undergone as digital technology has furiously reshaped our world—more often for the better, but sometimes for the worse.
The exhibit revealed how every part of our lives has been transformed, disrupted, or made obsolete, including our relationships with ourselves—our own knowing—and our need for one another. The collection showed how, in almost every online context, our attention has been in service of someone else, someone who stood to gain by us consuming more information, products, connections, and likes while, out of sight, they consumed more and more of our data.
The curators, which included Douglas Coupland (the novelist, visual artist, and designer who became the voice of a generation with his novel Generation X), intended to urge viewers to consider how digital capitalism (capitalism conducted through the internet) has forced the self to become more extreme–a performance, inauthentic in its portrayal. Just look at TikTok. When it comes to views, spectacle beats substance every time.
Just look around. You’ll see signs of the extreme everywhere.
“Adults can’t really imagine how bad kids feel. In the social wasteland that exists in schools today, you’re already rejected before you say anything.”Sean Killingsworth
Extreme fear of what’s happening to your personal data. Extreme presentations of self in service of online follower growth. Extreme political polarization. Extreme dis-ease in relationships and communities, online and off, as the lines between the real and unreal (thanks to AI, deep fakes, and fake news) blur beyond recognition.
This is the world we and our students inhabit.
Today’s adolescents are living in the era of everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything—a time where AI blurs the lines of reality and digital capitalism drives the terms of social engagement to the extent that students are left wanting, wanting for something real.
“Adults can’t really imagine how bad kids feel,” says 22-year-old Sean Killingsworth. “In the social wasteland that exists in schools today, you’re already rejected before you say anything.”
Sean’s feelings mirror what I heard in interviews with undergraduate and graduate students at Virginia Tech in the late fall of 2022.
In a series of in-person conversations, students confided–
- “I’m here because I am on my tech 24 hours per day.”
- “I’d love to throw my phone in the ocean, but I need to be a productive person in the world.”
- “I was told before I even arrived on campus that there is too much tech. I was told I have to ‘adapt or die.’”
These students’ sentiments merge with the insights researchers Jean Twenge and Jonathan Haidt have been mapping with their global collaborative review of studies related to social media and smartphones’ impact on adolescent mental health.
Here is what Haidt writes in his After Babel Substack,
A big story last week was the partial release of the CDC’s bi-annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which showed that most teen girls (57%) now say that they experience persistent sadness or hopelessness (up from 36% in 2011), and 30% of teen girls now say that they have seriously considered suicide (up from 19% in 2011). . . . The big surprise in the CDC data is that COVID didn’t have much effect on the overall trends, which just kept marching on as they have since around [the emergence of smartphones and social media in] 2012.
Decreased student well-being and increased disengagement
Through a close reading of the most recent College Health Assessment and more than a dozen long-form faculty and student interviews, my colleague Laurie Fritsch and I identified three key digital trends on campus:
1) Procrastination abounds
75% of students reported challenges with procrastination, causing moderate to high distress, negatively affecting academic performance and progress towards a degree.
2) Hooked on the Internet
Mindless tech consumption (social media scrolling, binge-watching) and FOMO are norms among teens and young adults, leading to anxiety, distraction, loneliness, and, in some cases, physical harm.
3) Overwhelmed by notifications
Lack of digital boundaries leads to interrupted focus and flow in deep work. As one student put it, “Getting a notification at night is like your professor walking up and knocking on your front door.”
“What we want is real connection, but that doesn’t happen in the new ecosystem. Everything that naturally breeds real connection has been lost.”Sean Killingsworth
Is this what students want?
No, says Killingsworth, who has started a small unplugged event series called Reconnect. “We don’t actually want our phones or SnapChat. What we want is real connection, but that doesn’t happen in the new ecosystem. Everything that naturally breeds real connection has been lost.”
Looking for answers
Our biggest discovery through our exploratory work on campus was that this isn’t just an individual technology use problem; it’s systemic. For example, at Virginia Tech, students must two-factor with their phone to log into Canvas, Virginia Tech’s learning management system. Consequently, students are tethered to their smartphones by the university’s own design. We began experimenting with classroom prompts to “Two-factor now and put your phone away” and teaching students how to turn on 24-hour or 7-day factoring to remove the digital hurdle.
One study found that students who can see the screen of a multitasker’s laptop (but were not multitasking themselves) score up to 17 percent lower on comprehension than those who had no distracting view. The research on banning smartphones at schools points to higher test scores, less anxiety, and more exercise. Teachers in the U.K. are in the process of banning mobile phone use during the school day. Experts suggest that the U.S. consider doing the same.
What will happen if we don’t address digital misuse now? How will things be next year?
Digital well-being strategies for campus
Some of the best ideas for digital well-being on campus come directly from students. Here are some of the ideas we heard:
I would love it if professors would begin with How To Succeed in each class. Set clear expectations regarding homework, due dates, communication, how much time we should spend on our work and how to study well for that class.
Take away phones during Freshman week! Force people out of their comfort zones. It’s super connecting.
I think phones only hurt people when you are with people. They can make you miss what’s right in front of you. I need to find a way to NOT have the world at my fingertips.
Consider your own campus. What are the digital well-being needs you see? What are the opportunities for increasing student social engagement and academic focus?
To create a digital wellness culture, introduce campus approaches to technology that support student engagement and academic focus.
First, establish digital well-being as a strategic priority. Imagine a flourishing campus where students, faculty, and staff prioritize in-person connection over digital distraction. Imagine community.
Second, create screen-free spaces. Build new healthy social norms that make it okay to not be on your phone. Off-topic device use impedes academic performance. Keeping phones out of sight can improve concentration, increase the ability to retain information, and help reduce stress.
Third, offer digital well-being education. Help students think critically about technology use and the positive impacts of reducing screen time. Students need to learn digital well-being principles and practices EARLY to help them thrive.
“People who are happiest with technology use it differently. They use it for community, creativity, and care.”Christina Crook
There is good news that can motivate us toward digital wellness. People who are happiest with technology use it differently. They use it for community, creativity, and care, trading the false promises of Big Tech (convenience, comfort and control) for lasting sources of joy. That’s the joy of missing out on the right things–life-taking things like toxic hustle, comparison, and digital drain.
Let me share one final student insight: “I think our school could make a more device-free environment by educating us on the benefits of going device-free. People won’t want to give up using their phones if they don’t know the benefits.”
We can help students get there.
Download 10 Tips for a More Digitally Well Campus
Read Handbook of Adolescent Digital Media Use and Mental Health
The Joy of Missing Out by Christina Crook
Good Burdens: How to Live Joyfully in the Digital Age by Christina Crook