By Mary Kate White | Graphic by Natalie Wittmayer
It’s 11:10 a.m. on a Wednesday and two girls, looking down at their phones, walk in opposite directions in front of Jackson Hall. Inside, 20 students crowd the hallway waiting for their classroom to be unlocked; 14 of the students are scrolling and swiping on their phones in silence, two sit at tables in the lobby — one looking at her Facebook, the other with her Facebook open on her computer but looking at her phone nonetheless. Strangely enough, two students out of the crowd are actually talking to one another.
It’s not a unique scene on a college campus. With awkward 15-minute gaps between classes, there is time to walk and time to wait, but not enough time to really do anything else. In these short spans of downtime, most students will do what bored students do best: play with their phones.
Like most students of our generation, junior international affairs major Gina Gatti has been using the Internet for social purposes since fifth grade, starting with AOL Instant Messenger.
“I was really bad at it, I’m still bad at Facebook chat,” Gatti says. “The conversations were like, ‘Hey,’ ‘hey,’ to my neighbor like one house away. I totally sucked at it.”
Gatti’s classmates had “hundreds of buddies” where as she “had like 50, and half of them were robots.” Nonetheless, AIM was the cool place to be after school and where the seeds of our Internet addiction were probably first planted.
By seventh grade, at the age of 12, Gatti had her first cellphone. She was not alone, and, in fact, got a phone because all her classmates already had them.
“I didn’t get a cool one, like a [Motorola] Razr. I had like a Jitterbug, pretty much. I had to record my own ringtones,” Gatti says.
Now, nearly a decade later, Gatti’s relationship with technology has gotten more intense. The two are rarely separated, and, like an abusive relationship, it has started to cause serious problems.
“Any minute that I had to myself, I would check my phone,” Gatti says. “When I’m in the dining hall by myself, or on the way to the dining hall or when there’s a pause in a conversation …”
The list goes on.
“It got to the point that when I’m studying, it doesn’t really make any sense,” she says. “No work is actually done because I’m not really retaining anything and just checking my phone all the time.”
Most students can probably relate to Gatti’s plight. In fact, so many have had similar issues with their phones and social media that it has given rise to the Madison Unplugged movement on campus that started in July.
Members of Madison Unplugged describe themselves as an organization “dedicated to breaking away from the digital world,” although they stress that they aren’t actually anti-technology.
“The goal is to look at why we use social media, as a crutch or an excuse to have really superficial relationships? The whole point is for people to ask ‘Why do we do this?’” Madison Unplugged member and senior justice studies major Emma Groo says.
Madison Unplugged is hardly anti-Internet. They’re as aware as anyone of the valuable tool that the Internet has become. As senior media arts and design major Kat McDearis says, the Internet is “all the information in the world literally at your fingertips.”
The idea that Madison Unplugged tries to emphasize is balance: balance between social media and intellectual pursuits, technology use and personal introspection.
“One of the issues I find with technology dependence is you rob yourself of the opportunity to reflect throughout the day,” Groo says. “We fill all our spare moments with this technology. You think you have all this empty or dead time, so you fill it with your phone or your Facebook, but it doesn’t have to be ‘empty’ or ‘dead’ time.”
Madison Unplugged fears that as people become more and more invested in their Internet life, they’ll lose out on the benefits of face-to-face interpersonal relationships. Being able to think about and edit your contributions to a conversation — say, a Facebook comment thread — may make you seem more eloquent, but also makes interactions less genuine.
“It’s an inhibitor to the development of skilled communication, really,” sophomore anthropology major Rosie Lynch says. “When we always have an interface between ourselves and someone else, it allows the stilling of time and it makes this façade of who we really are.”
Lynch’s view makes sense: Academic research supports it.
Leigh Nelson, an associate professor of communication studies, has been researching computer-mediated communication for years. She says that the relatively new social media are the middle ground between one-way mass communication, like television, and interpersonal communication.
Nelson, too, is not anti-Internet. How could she not support the most effective communication tool of our time as a communication studies teacher? Nelson, in fact, feels quite the opposite: that social media offers users opportunities unique to this millennium, like interactions with otherwise unreachable entities.
“Let’s say you see a Coca-Cola commercial, and it either angers or moves you, you now have a conversation about it,” Nelson said. “An auto company is going to want to know if you have a lemon of a car. If they see customers having the same problem over and over again, they’ll be able to fix the issue in the next year’s model.”
Like Madison Unplugged and Gatti, Nelson too has felt the sting of what she calls “time displacement” — the consumption of a disproportionate amount of time by social media use.
“My children will let me know if I’m on Facebook and they’re not happy,” Nelson says. “It’s a good lesson for them, too, to learn how to put it down and do what you need to do.”
Nelson is not like most students, thoughtlessly checking the phone that they checked 90 seconds before. She looks at her Facebook once in the morning and once in the evening, spending most of her time online reading emails or working.
She seems to find students’ inability to put their phones down more fascinating and humorous than concerning. She frequently requires that her students abstain from all digital media (computers, television, cell phones) for 24 hours and then write about the experience, but was surprised to find that many students just couldn’t do it.
Rather than becoming concerned for what many people perceive as an “addiction,” Nelson warns against taking this most recent “moral panic” — which she equates to the similar “moral panic” surrounding the beginning of MTV and cable television in the ’80s — too seriously.
“It’s just a different culture today, you can’t beat yourself up for participating in it or how different your culture is,” she says.
Facebook and cellphones aren’t inherently bad, but they’re problematic as well as useful. Gina Gatti even went so far as to have a friend change her Facebook password to restrict her access to the never-ending scroll of stories.
Maybe such drastic measures aren’t necessarily for everyone. The key is for individuals to stop and think about what they’re losing to their relationship with their phone. But the first, and often most difficult step, is just to stop.