“How am I supposed to do homework or submit assignments?

“What if my family or friends desperately need to get ahold of me?

“What if my job relies on me using my phone?”

These are a few of the annoyed responses from Mount Royal University (MRU) students who were asked to unplug for 48 hours as part of a class assignment.

It seems as if technology has taken over our lives, and one of my instructors, Susan Harris, wanted to prove this with an assignment she gave us called, “48-hour Unplugged.”

We weren’t allowed to use our phones, email, social media, laptops, or watch television for 48 hours. She explained that the project was intended on getting us to look at the ways that fear often motivates and shapes our attitudes, values, feelings and behaviours, and how such fear gets conditioned through habit.

Unplugging from our technological and popular culture “habits” is a good way for us to look critically at our social conditioning, she said.

Research suggests that the growing anxiety and depression among young adults is related to frequent phone use, and in order to stop this we need to unplug more often. Yet, this was no comfort for her class, gender and pop culture.

The three students interviewed for this article said they were not able to fully complete the assignment because they needed technology for school and work purposes. One even said unplugged anxiety made her irritable bowel syndrome flare up.

Clearly, the notion of cutting out technology may be impossible for students and workers.

The Assignment

The story starts off on Sept. 18 in our second class of gender and pop culture with our instructor, Susan Harris. Harris is a contract faculty member teaching in the women’s and gender studies program at MRU.

She is petite with short hair and a spunky attitude. In her class she sits us in a circle, makes us put away our phones, and uses dialogue as a way to better understand social problems that we all share.

harris imageSusan Harris, a faculty member in the women’s and gender studies program at Mount Royal University, adopted the idea for the 48-hour unplugged experiment from one of her colleagues. She has been using the assignment on her students for two years now. Photo by Natalie Valleau.

She started our dialogue that day by talking about a future project we will have: it was called the 48-hour unplugged assignment. We were all aware of how she felt about technology. Not only were we not allowed to be on our phones and laptops in class but she didn’t even have a phone herself!

But we were all still confused by the assignment.

“How can you make us not use our phones,” one student asked. We snickered across the room that we would just do it anyways.

Some students joked that they weren’t going to be able to handle not checking Instagram every minute or binge watching their Netflix series. Some students however were at peace with the assignment and said they were okay with ignoring their moms’ texts for two days.

One student shifted the atmosphere. A small, thin girl with ice blonde hair argued that she couldn’t do the assignment because she needed her phone for work. She didn’t usually speak up in class, but this time a snarl spread across her face as she glared at the teacher.

“My job entails that I have to post on their social media everyday, I can’t just suddenly stop!”

That remark started an explosion of questions throughout the classroom.

“How am I supposed to do homework or submit assignments?

“What if my family or friends desperately need to get ahold of me?

“What if my job relies on me using my phone?”

The more questions that were asked, the more it appeared to us that the assignment was next to impossible. Harris smiled politely, waiting for us to calm down. “If you aren’t able to do the full assignment please book a time with me to explain why,” she said.

Fast forward to about a month later and I had started the assignment. We were still allowed to use our technology for work and school purposes so I decided that all I had to do was disable my social media and texting.

On the day I started the unplugged challenge, I trekked my way to work at Boardwalk Rental Communities where I assist with marketing and communications. My day revolves around using a computer for emails, event research, and social media.

Despite there not being much of a purpose to my phone anymore, I was still constantly picking it up expecting to see a notification. I headed home that day and switched out my work computer for my personal one and began doing homework.

I went to bed that night feeling unsatisfied by this assignment. I missed texting my friends and scrolling through social media, but I still spent my day very much connected with technology.

Is it even possible to unplug anymore?

Colleen Berner

The first student I interviewed, Colleen Berner, met me in a small room in the communications lab at MRU. She’s in her last year of a business degree at MRU.

She followed me in the room with a Tim’s coffee in one hand and her phone in the other. After she sat down, Berner described how tough the first six hours of the assignment were for her. At first she hid her phone in her car, but as soon as she opened up her computer to do homework all of her text notifications started popping up.

She quickly tried deleting them in order to do the assignment properly, but she began getting a growing anxiety over missing emails and text messages.

She thought, “Who’s emailing me?

“What’s going on?

“Who’s texting me and why are they texting me?”

Berner admits that her average phone use is pretty high but she explains that her job at The Glencoe Club relies on it.

“We just got rid of landlines at work so my cellphone is my work phone as well. I do a lot of recruitment through my job so I use LinkedIn quite a bit to look up candidates to see how they’ve done in the past and I use social media quite often to post for some of our jobs at work,” she said.

Albertans are abandoning landlines faster than anyone else in in the nation. According to Statistics Canada, barely 60 per cent of homes in the province still had a traditional telephone in 2016.  

Berner completed the 48-hour unplugged assignment but explained that during that time she still had to use technology for school and work. She doesn’t think she could ever completely unplug from technology.

“If you’re adding work and school and everything into the mix, then no, I don’t think so. I think theoretically it probably could be possible, but it would be so exhausting and so much additional work and I think that it just wouldn’t be worth it… Well, it wouldn’t be worth it for me.”

Who’s emailing me? What’s going on? Who’s texting me and why are they texting me?

However, Berner does agree that taking time away from social media can be very helpful. She saw a huge personal growth in unplugging from her Facebook and Instagram.

“I think especially for me I sometimes I feel like I can’t exist without social media. I’m like, ‘What would I do if I deleted my Facebook?’ and stuff like that.  It was nice to know that you can put the phone down and take a break.”

Despite this, Berner said that after the 48-hour challenge she fell into her same habits. “I was instantly on Instagram checking my friend’s stories and stuff seeing if I missed anything. It was easy to let go but once I’ve had it back I was like, ‘Oh, I just need to quickly check what everyone’s doing for the last two days.’”

The study Cell-Phone Addiction: A Review, published in Frontiers of Psychiatry by José De-Sola Gutiérrez, Fernando Rodríguez de Fonseca and Gabriel Rubio, questions whether cellphone abuse can lead to addiction.

Their review revealed that 22.1 per cent of adolescents and 27.9 per cent of young people were considered to be cellphone addicts.

Their data found that cellphones enable behavioural problems and disorders, particularly in adolescents. “This fact has become more and more evident in communications media, inspiring new pathologies, such as “Nomophobia” (No-Mobile- Phobia), “FOMO” (Fear Of Missing Out) – the fear of being without a cellphone, disconnected or off the Internet, and “Textiety” – the anxiety of receiving and responding immediately to text messages.”

Jim Folk, the president of the Anxiety Centre of Calgary, explains that this is because we have a fear of missing out, so we constantly want to stay plugged in. He said that employing device restriction on yourself will help you in the long run.

Jim FolkJim Folk, president of the Anxiety Centre, believes that frequent cell phone use can go hand in hand with anxiety and depression. Photo courtesy Jim Folk.

“Another really telling thing to do is say I’m going to give myself an electronic device fast. That means putting the device away for 48 weeks. Might seem like impossible but I think what you’ll find is at the end of that time you’ll say, ‘Man, I can’t believe how much my life has changed and how my outlook is different,’” Folk says.

It has become extremely difficult to do an unplugged challenge because most jobs that university students are advancing in are centred around technology. In the infographic, The Rise of Social Media as a Career, it explains that job postings for social media positions on LinkedIn have grown 1,300  per cent since 2010.

Saja Said

Saja Said is 22 years old and in her last semester of the bachelor of science degree at MRU. Similar to Colleen Berner, she relies on technology for work and school and struggled with the unplugged assignment.

“I’m the secretary [of Invisible Windows] who answers the phone calls, book jobs, answer emails, takes payments. So I do all that stuff but it’s from home so I need a computer and a phone to do it. So if I don’t have a phone I can’t do my job,” said Said. She is also in charge of the company’s Facebook and Instagram pages.

Said decided to do the assignment on a holiday so that she wouldn’t have work or school to disrupt the unplugged challenge. She gathered her phone, Apple watch, and iPad and shoved it all into a drawer.

“I basically hid in my room all day and did nothing. Like, I sat on the on my bed because usually if I’m in my bed I’m watching Netflix. I stared at the ceiling for a long time, I don’t even know how long because I couldn’t check the time because it’s on my phone.”

She then attempted to study; however, in order to do that she had to use her computer. She was then swamped with messages from her friends questioning her lack of response.

“One of my friends actually got mad because she’s like, ‘I know you are always on your phone.’ And I got a lot of anxiety and I have IBS, (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), and if I get nervous and if someone’s mad at me I get a really bad stomach ache and I have to use a washroom.”

Said’s anxiety continued to grow. “So I sat there and I’m like, ‘Oh my god my friends probably think I’m ignoring them.’ So they’re going to get mad and not talk to me anymore and then we’re going to have a big fight because they’re not going to believe that I was actually doing this 48-hour unplug.”

Said woke up the next day with still 24 hours left of the unplugged challenge.

Since she had school, she decided to still take her phone with her. She left her house and looked down to see her mom calling. She questioned if she should pick it up knowing that if she did she would have to start the 48-hour challenge again. Her mom continued to call her so she gave in and answered her phone.

Said has come to the conclusion that she relies on her phone too much. Despite this she doesn’t think she could do this challenge on her own terms.

“I mean, we realize how bad it is that we are so attached to something, but it’s the society that we live in now that makes it that way otherwise we can’t live, we can’t work, we can’t go to school,” she said.

Cory Hrushka, a psychologist and the executive director at Insight Psychological, offered his opinion on the issue.

“We have been conditioned, so is it a priority? My hunch is that it’s just moved into a priority because people expect it. I expect you to respond to my text immediately and why are you not?

It’s a way to bond, connect and get stimulation without really having to do any work,” he said.

He adds that the phone is then conditioning us to respond to every vibration or ding. When we are being conditioned in that response we are constantly on edge.

“If we shut off the phone, the texting, the responding sounds and we don’t know about it my hunch is that you’re going to get less anxiety.”

Hrushka believes that doing a 48-hour unplugged monthly will help you to not get consistently hooked in.

Said agreed it’s about conditioning herself, but also the people around her that are used to her responding so quickly. “It is something that I have to definitely start changing, because this phone thing is actually affecting like my mental health too. I’ve been to the doctor like maybe two weeks ago and they told me I had depression. Hopefully I can change but it’s going to take a lot more than just not having your phone for 48 hours.”

Cory Hrushka explained, “[People] are secluding themselves into a corner which can also increase in the long-term depression because they are not having connections directly.”

“The dilemma with the phone is that people get weaker in their social skills and communicating in full sentences and dealing with nonverbal communication of others more and more as time is going on. So the pro of fast communication and quick stimulation is being counterbalanced by the social skills deficit and or depression. You can now go through depression from withdrawal and/or not having regular stimulation with having being entertained all the time,” said Hrushka.

He questions what the phone is representing in terms of their overall life. It often becomes a person’s hobby and when that happens they don’t have anything else to grow on or live with.

The girls(From left to right) Mount Royal University students Sarah Bramall, Colleen Berner and Saja Said all agreed that despite understanding the importance of the assignment they could never completely give up their phones. Photo by Natalie Valleau.

The study, Cell-Phone Addiction: A Review, notes that the pattern of cellphone abuse is greatest among young people, primarily females. They also discovered significant relationships between cellphone abuse, chronic stress, emotional stability, and depression in young women.

Sarah Bramall

Sarah Bramall is a 21-year-old and in her last year of her criminal justice program at MRU. I called her from my cellphone to hers — even though she was at home.

She laughed about how hard the assignment was and admits that she’s usually on her phone for at least 18 hours a day and swaps between Instagram, Snapchat, and online games.

Bramall had trouble completing the 48-hour unplugged assignment. It took her three days rather than the two after having to restart after she crept Facebook during a class lecture.

“I was anxious because I’m like… One, I can’t see if I’m getting messages and stuff. Are people even trying to talk to me? And then two, it was just like, ‘Oh maybe my phone just broke,’ even though I turned off all of the notifications,” said Bramall.

Despite missing social media, Bramall disagreed with what Cory Hrushka said about her phone becoming her hobby. “I don’t just rely on my phone. I don’t just sit at home all the time and just constantly go on Netflix,” she said.

“Yeah, like they’re an important part of our society, but if you look at it in a general perspective, technology is coming into society like you see that in shopping like stores and all this kind of stuff. So I think calling a person out and saying that they need their phones and treating it like a child is a little overstretching.”

Bramall explained that she was still able to function and find things to do when she was without her phone.

“I get uncomfortable when I’m not doing anything. I still didn’t want to do my homework, so I found new ways to procrastinate. I finished this puzzle and I started playing cards by myself. It was really fun for about five minutes, but then I just read some Harry Potter books,” said Bramall.

She added that she could see herself doing the 48-hour challenge again, but she feels it’s important that it’s voluntary rather than it being a school assignment.

“I think it will be beneficial for people to have the opportunity to not use their phone, but again,  I think it needs to be voluntary. Most addictions don’t typically take unless the person volunteers to go into it on their own terms.”

A study by the Pew Research Center, 10 facts about smartphones as the iPhone turns 10, explains how the smartphone is essential for many owners. “Some 46 per cent of smartphone owners said their smartphone is something ‘they couldn’t live without’… [And] about three-quarters of U.S. adults (77 per cent) say they own a smartphone.”

The Results

I decided to connect with my instructor after everyone had finished the assignment to see how she thought it went.

“First, let me say that I was blown away by how seriously everyone took up this challenge, despite their initial fear and anxiety,” she said. “I was moved by how much they learned about themselves, their relationship to their devices, and their relationship to others.”

Harris was disturbed by the number of students who admitted to being plugged in for the majority of time that they were awake.

“Many of these students said that their habitual attachment to their devices allows them to avoid dealing with uncomfortable thoughts and or issues in their lives, or to fill a void most often described as loneliness or an inner sense of emptiness,” she said.

She added that a lot of students realized their overdependence on social media and how they are building a “false” image of themselves in order to build their self-esteem.

However, at the same time, the students admitted that their social media presence actually heightens their insecurities.

“On a more positive note, I was encouraged by the number of students who expressed a desire for more authentic human connection than texting or social media posting allow.  I was also encouraged by those who talked about the need to take a more balanced approach to their media consumption and technological use. This was often voiced in terms of a desire to unplug more often or as a desire to make a greater effort to connect with people face-to-face more often.”


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Editor: Kate Paton | cpaton@cjournal.ca  

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