Can Students Go a Week Without Social Media?

Washington high school students temporarily gave up Facebook and its brethren to reclaim time normally dedicated to virtual socializing.

“This is harder than I thought.”

That observation (and others like it) was uttered to me a few dozen times during the week in December 2010 when more than 600 students and staff at Shorecrest and Shore­wood high schools in Shoreline, Wash., gave up social networking.

The students in my Video Production 1 class conceived this “Social Experiment” after I ranted about kids walking down the halls fixated on their phones and oblivious to their surroundings. The experiment encouraged students, teachers and staff to forgo texting, Facebook and other technology-powered socializing for seven days in order to gauge the impact these diversions were having on their daily lives. In the weeks leading up to the experiment, students produced ­commercials, movie trailers and posters — and even created an “event” on Facebook (irony intended) — to promote what we were doing and get others excited about it.

Shorewood High School teacher Marty Ballew and I asked students to sign honesty pledges. But we also monitored participants, using spies to patrol Facebook and sending fake text messages (through our teaching ­assistants) to entice people to reply.

About-Face

Initially, most students seemed to think they could step away from these tools with ease. Within a day or two, however, many began to crack. One student marched into my room on the second morning and said, “I just can’t do it.” Like many others, he had left his phone at home to avoid texting. But he couldn’t resist Facebook.

Until this project, I hadn’t realized just how big a part of my students’ lives Facebook had become. All week long, students proclaimed that they use the site to do homework with friends or to find out what they missed in class. They also admitted spending “a couple hours a day” on it and wondered aloud, “How do I know what’s going on if I’m not on Facebook?” Even the kids who weren’t ­participating complained: “Facebook is so quiet this week.”

This made me curious about the content students were posting. Was it appropriate for a general audience? Were they aware that their posts could live online forever? Did they realize potential employers use Facebook to research job applicants?

So I asked the students if they ever regretted their posts. Almost everyone said yes. I then asked if they ever were disappointed or hurt by something that a friend posted about them online. Again, almost every hand went up.

If nothing else, the experiment was forcing students to think and talk about the long-term effect of ­living their lives online for all to see.

Now What?

Roughly half of the experiment’s ­participants went the full week without using social media. Many students were amazed by the time they gained to focus on homework and family. Of course, others felt the week was ­torturous and couldn’t wait to ­resume their “normal” lives. The big question everyone asked was this: Did the Social Experiment change anything?

Well, yes and no. I don’t believe students will stop using social media. And I doubt anyone is ready to quit Facebook. But I do think the students who participated did see that there are other ways to communicate and that you don’t have to be plugged in 24 hours a day. In fact, some kids thought it was pretty cool to “disappear” — for a ­little while, at least.

What a Week

Both Shoreline high schools were visited by a variety of media throughout our “Social Experiment.” But we were stunned to discover as ABC News aired its Friday, Dec. 10, 2010, live broadcast that we had been named its “Persons of the Week.” I was very honored that others felt our experiment was worthy of recognition, and I was proud of my students, who worked so hard to plan, promote and execute such a large-scale project.

To view the “Persons of the Week” segment, along with student-produced advertisements and documentaries about the Social Experiment, check out shorelinesocialexperiment.blogspot.com.

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Dec 20 2011

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