Perhaps it was my questioning faith in the salvation of technology that led me to disconnect from Facebook when Easter converged with April Fool’s Day. Deactivating my account wasn’t a response to the recent revelations about data breeches but rather another step in my ongoing efforts to limit my screen time.
Along with reducing the number of personal hours that I’ve spent on my phone and laptop, I devoted the school year to a revised curriculum that aimed to strike a balance between on-screen and off-screen endeavors. My students maintained blogs but also composed snail mail once per month. They drafted each essay by hand in class and revised each handwritten draft in class on their laptops.
Trying to convince students of the value of beginning their work on paper was difficult but not nearly as challenging as separating them from their phones. Once those digital devices were tucked away in backpacks, some of their owners powered off as well, like androids themselves, disconnected from their vital components. How could anything as primitive as pens, journals, and physical textbooks (no e-books permitted) animate students in the digital age? Despite the hard sell of low-tech class days, I persevered, bearing in mind these research findings:
- Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who has studied generational differences for twenty-five years, has observed a significant shift in teenagers’ behaviors and emotional states beginning around 2012, the year when the proportion of Americans owning smartphones first exceeded fifty percent. Twenge’s findings present a portrait of adolescents who are psychologically more vulnerable than those of previous generations, and the evidence that links depression to smartphone use leads Twenge to recommend that parents limit their teenagers’ screen time.
- In “The Science of Handwriting,” Keim Brandon explores how his belief in the benefits of writing longhand finds scientific support in recent studies. Keim recounts a five-year research project conducted by Virginia Beringer, an educational psychologist at the University of Washington, that demonstrated second-, third-, and fourth-graders’ ability to write more rapidly and express more ideas when they composed by hand. Along with Beringer’s study, Keim outlines brain-imaging research conducted by Karin James, a cognitive neuroscientist of the University of Indiana, Bloomington, revealing that learning cursive activates multiple areas of the brain that remain dormant when we type.
- Natalie Phillips, an English professor at Michigan State, and her neuroscience-collaborators at Stanford conducted brain scan research revealing evidence that close critical reading of literary novels activates regions of the brain unaffected by casual reading (Phillips ctd. in Vedantam, par. 13).
Simply put, putting pen to paper, studying literary texts that place demands on us as readers, and turning away from the screen contributes to our intellectual development, and studying literature and reading away from the screen benefits our emotional well-being, too.
In early May, near the semester’s close—and one month into my two-month break from social media—I began reading my students final reflective essays, which included these observations:
[T]his journey was a real wake-up call for me. It made me realize how much I do not pay attention in class and how much I depend on my devices. This class has taught me there are times to use your devices and times not to. I also found some good apps to keep me on task while using my laptop. One app called Self-Control lets you block certain websites for a set amount time so you can get your work done.
English 131 has helped me understand more why we are supposed to read books and even given me a passion to want to pick up a book on my own . . . English 131 helped me better understand the books that we read, whenever we would go over certain parts of the book together as a class. Discussing what was going on in the chapters we were supposed to read didn’t just help me understand the book, but it made me more interested in it since I knew what was going on
Now as I write, and the semester draws to an end, I have seen my writing improve because I am more aware of what I am actually writing, or at least it feels like I care more about it because I have realized that my iPhone, PlayStation, laptop, and TV are not as important as I made them out to be at the beginning of the semester. Taking time away from the screen has been an enlightening experience where I have learned a lot about myself and about learning. I have learned that the relationships you build, the connections you make are what really will make me successful . . .
As for me, now at the end of my second month away from social media, I feel reinvigorated. I’ve read more, I’ve written more, I’ve generated more ideas, and I feel more creative and less anxious. Though I’ll reactivate my Facebook account, I know that I’ll use that platform less—and in general spend fewer hours of the day experiencing the world mediated by screens. I haven’t lost my faith in digital technology, but I see it now more as a trinity with pen and paper, those other ways that words are made flesh.
Keim, Brandon. “The Science of Handwriting.” Scientific American Mind vol. 24, no. 4, Aug. 2013, pp. 54-59. Academic Search Complete. Accessed 11 Nov. 2013.
Twenge, Jean M. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/, Sept. 2017, Accessed 24 Jan. 2018.
Vedantam, Shankar. “A Lively Mind: Your Brain on Jane Austen.” NPR: Morning Edition, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2012/10/09/162401053/a-lively-mind-your-brain-on-jane-austen, 9 Oct. 2012, Accessed 31 May 2018.