by Lisa Moody Breslin photography by Phil Grout
Until mid-December, 16-year-old Belle Nelson’s cell phone was a mobile lifeline to her friends, her family, her music, homework assistance and entertainment. She probably checked it 10 to 20 times an hour and often picked it up during awkward pauses in conversation with her friends or as she transitioned to unfamiliar settings like the cafeteria table.
When she misplaced her phone, she felt “worried,” fidgety,” “unconnected.”
Delaney Debinski, 15, had a similar relationship with her iPhone 5. She surfed it for practical and social connections to friends and family. Via her phone, she texted, emailed, used Instagram and Facebook between an estimated 100 and 150 times a day. She also read daily devotionals.
Emily Bartholet, 17, was less enamored with her “Samsung phone of some sort.” Unlike many of her peers, she was known to go a few days without checking it, and she was comfortable with the fact that her phone was prehistoric by most tech standards. She didn’t check Facebook or post as often as her peers, and she was already wary of the amount of time most people devote to mobile social media and other cell phone conveniences.
If Emily ever lost or forgot to take her cell phone to school, she “didn’t usually notice.” She described how she felt when she used her cell phone with three adjectives: “bored,” “distracted,” and “socially awkward.”
All three teens attend Century High School and all three responded to a call from Carroll Magazine for teens willing to give up their cell phones, mobile social media, for two weeks.
The same request went to many students at another high school in Carroll County, but there were no takers. In turn, no men opted to take the challenge: “Will we get paid?” one male student asked.
Even Belle’s twin sister, Gabby, said “No thanks.” She didn’t want to give up the library of tunes that motivated her and soothed her, especially during a time when she was buried by responsibilities.
Use of cell phone to soothe, to instantly cheer or jeer peers via social media climbs among teens.
“One in four teens are ‘cell-mostly’ internet users – far more than the 15% of adults who are cell-mostly, according to the Teens and Technology 2013 report published by Pew Research Center and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.
“Smartphone ownership among teens has grown substantially since 2011; 37% of American youth ages 12 – 17 now have a smartphone, up from 23% in 2011. Tablets are also taking hold, as close to one in four teens say they have one of these devices,” the report continues. “Taken together, teens have more ways than ever to stay connected throughout the day – and night.”
Belle, Delaney and Emily are keenly aware, and share many, of the concerns raised by recent research.
“The peer pressure ‘to be available’ used to mean hanging out after school,” posts Suzanne Phillips, PsyD for the blog This Emotional Life, produced for PBS Online. “It takes on different proportions when it means being available 24/7. Teens in focus groups report that they sleep with a phone under the pillow in case someone contacts them…”
“The ‘on call’ status can reflect obligation, anxious need and even addictions. It jeopardizes physical, emotional and cognitive functioning and limits domains of influence and connection,” Phillips continues.
So from December 1 until December 15, they agreed to say no to mobile social media and other conveniences linked to their cellphones.
In the middle of milestones like college tours, college acceptances, class ring arrival, final exams, play auditions and the upcoming holiday Belle, Delaney and Emily accepted a challenge that most of their peers declined.
The Sunday before they turned off their phones, the teens said they were “excited,” “nervous,” and “hopeful.”
“It will be interesting to really see my personal standards for social media use,” said Delaney. “This might make me change how I use my phone. It bugs me to be part of negative statistics.”
Regarding Facebook, Belle conceded that it was “ridiculous” to be “so compelled to check it.”
On November 28, Emily wrote in her journal: My hypothesis: If you deprive an Em(ily) of her tech for two weeks, she will write more poems. Also, Facebook is a passive aggressive way to show off photography. But, you know, I’ll be fine w/out it for two weeks…” She adds:
Em(ily) – music = death
Em(ily) – phone = eh
Em(ily) –Facebook =free time/getting some guts
The teens’ parents were excited and nervous about the challenge, with the exception of Emily’s father, Rob Bartholet, whose family already leaned away from the use of social media.
“My wife, Karen, and I are not into it [social media] and our children look to us,” said Rob Bartholet. “Every family is a microcosm of culture. If it works for others, great. We are just not high social media users. It doesn’t drive us but we don’t judge others who use it.”
“We have to be careful not to demonize social media,” said Belle’s mother, Kelli Nelson. “In many ways it brings us closer together. It helps us stay in touch with loved ones; we enjoy posting great pictures of our kids. Setting up boundaries, establishing the time and place and ensuring our children are self aware so that social media doesn’t take control is what is important for us as parents.”
On December 1, as their cell phones went off, the teens’ agitations rose – with the exception of Emily. Their parents experienced frustration too.
“We were almost going to force her to bow out she so was so cranky and miserable,” said Kelli Nelson. “She was so out of her comfort zone. She was Cranky City.”
“At first I thought, how am I going to make it through two weeks of this?” said Belle.
For her December 1 journal entry Delaney notes: I woke up – wanted to check my phone. Went to school, in flex – wanted to check my phone. After school – wanted to check my phone. In auditorium – wanted to check my phone. See a pattern? Constantly, I reach for my phone to check my texts, play Triva Crack, or update Instagram. Right before I I swipe to unlock it I freeze. I can’t! I didn’t use my phone today although I had the urge…Apparently email is too ‘old school, so it’s either talking face to face in school or nothing. It becomes very awkward in a situation where you have nothing to do. The only right seems to be to check your phone.
“From youths’ perspectives, phones do a freakishly good job of helping them negotiate many of the primary developmental tasks of adolescence: Acceptance of self, formation of relationships, establishing some separation and independence from adults/parents, creative expression, determining and asserting their values, among others,” explained Sean Hembree, a Century High School counselor.
“Now, whether those tasks are fully met, or adequately met, as a result of phones and social networking is another matter. But, in the end, if phones serve as a portal through which kids can more easily understand themselves and their world, it’s not difficult to understand why they are so reluctant to let their phones go.”
The teens and their parents were pushed to an unexpected limit on the second day without cell phones when their high school was evacuated to a neighboring elementary school because of a bomb scare.
“Would they remember that this was an emergency situation that warranted using the phone?” the parents wondered. “Will they worry that we are worried that they will struggle with whether or not to use their phones?” As quickly as other parents at the school, they received assurances from their teens’ friends that they were, indeed, safe. Delaney, aware that it was an emergency, zipped out two words to her mother: “I’m safe.”
“The school did such a smooth job that even if I could not have reached Belle and Gabby, I wouldn’t have had much dread or worry,” said Kelli Nelson. “I really trusted the school system. The process was that smooth.”
The bomb scare, specifically how students used their cell phones, accentuated both the need and the absurdity of cell phone and mobile social media use.
December 2: …I didn’t need to turn on my cell phone because my sister was in my class, but if she weren’t there, certainly would have turned on my phone to contact my parents. Talk about not knowing what to do with yourself though. I was in a gym surrounded by a bunch of HS students all social media-ing about what was going on… Belle
December 2: This may sound crazy, but I NEED my phone. The principal wrangled us together and literally said…”Text your parents.” Plus, social media really helps! My sister found out that my school had an evacuation before either of my parents with Facebook!..I do admit I had to use the emergency policy to text my parents. After that the gate opened for me to use my phone to text others who were asking me about the situations. Then about Youth group and much more. Finally, I turned my phone off and reinstated the rules of the experiment. – Delaney Footnote: I really don’t “Need” my phone, but it is very helpful in emergencies.
Throughout the two weeks, the girls mastered roundabout ways to connect with their friends – most often via email from home computer. Gabby, Belle’s twin who opted not to participate in the “no phones” experiment found herself continually functioning as a bridge between Belle and her family.
She helped coordinate pick up times from school and outside activities, she calmed Belle as the venture launched, and enjoyed her music, especially when they flew to St. Louis, Missouri to tour Washington University.
The teens reported spending more time with their pets, playing video games connected to televisions, reading, or even getting ahead on homework.
Date unknown: I was so super busy with school work that not having my cell helped to prevent me from being distracted – Belle
Emily acknowledged loneliness.
December 8: It’s about 6:00, and I REALLY want to text my friend, or message her on Facebook, or something. Bad day. Loneliness I guess. I mean, I’ll see her tomorrow morning, and messaging/texting never actually makes me feel better anyways, but it’s nice to know you can always get in touch with your friends if you need them. – Emily
“When us old-timers reflect back on our preferred method of communicating covertly during school,” said Hembree, “we recall folding notes into origami-like shapes and either slipping them to friends in class or dropping them into locker vents. So, is a text to a suitor or friend really that different?”
What they missed most was the use of their phone’s camera – not Facebook or Instagram as they had suspected – and the convenience of swift connection to peers to talk about homework, especially where to find resources.
They also missed instant gratification of sharing milestones, like Emily’s acceptance to Dickinson College and her receipt of the John Montgomery Scholarship.
December 13: …I didn’t want to use social media until I got an envelope. That envelope contained an acceptance letter to Dickinson College!!!! So, yeah, I think my mom tagged me in some embarrisingly goofy pictures – wide eyes, open mouth, shoulder in my ears. Hey, I was surprised. And excited. Thrilled, really. I’m going to Dickinson, and tomorrow I get to squeal about it in person. – Emily
Each teen talked about the experience of being outsiders looking in on their peers who continued cell phone and social media use.
Delaney described students at a lunch table: “Talk about robotics. They didn’t look up at lunch and I know them. Belle and I connected more than usual since we were not on our phones but they were involved with Trivia Crack and other apps. We were trying to engage them in conversations, but actually not having a phone was awkward.
This give-up-your-cell-phones for two weeks experience was not the first time Belle, Emily and Delaney had carefully reflected about cell phone and mobile social media use. Each praised classes at their high school that raised awareness about the psychological and even neurological detriments of high use.
In a March 2014 paper for her AP Language teacher, Mrs. Jennifer Houseknect, Emily Bartholet writes, “…while technology has certainly enhanced learning opportunities, the majority of changes it has made to how we learn lead to skimming, lack of focus and poor memory retention, all of which do nothing to help the youngest generations to succeed.”
Ditching their cell phones and mobile social media inspired Emily, Belle and Delaney – and their parents – to be even more mindful of use. They recognized the need to set aside more time to unplug.
“We could all benefit from speaking more often than texting and actually listening to each other,” said Emily.
“I became more and more proud of surviving without my cell phone,” said Belle. “I like how it made me feel without it. No social media, no drama.”
“It’s not rude to make the choice not to answer someone’s text right away,” said Delaney. “Facebook annoys me more than I realized and Instagram is worse.”
December 14: – Well – It’s over! I feel really accomplished…If everyone can take just two weeks to have a complete phone “cleanse,” they will be able to focus on more important things. I think the first week I focused on the negatives. It was hard!. Yet, the second week, I tried to focus on how it was helping me, Truly, I think two weeks was a good time but more than two weeks would be too hard to handle….I have 61 unopened texts and over 10 unchecked calls. I felt out of the loop and restricted, yet it helped me to recognize that getting too caught up in my phone wasn’t a good thing. – Delaney