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Pulling the plug on technology

Six youth learn more about themselves as they disconnect from social media in research project.

"Students take part in technology project"
The students who took part in the project were, clockwise from bottom left: Anna Little, Lucas Farquharson, Catriona Farquharson, Lily Rich, and Isobel Moore. Not pictured Adam Tibi.

Queen’s University researcher Valerie Michaelson and University of Ottawa researcher Valerie Steeves worked with six youth, who challenged themselves to put down their phones and disconnect from social media for seven days. The results of the #Disconnection project were quite different than many people expected.

The six young people (ages 13-16) who set their own rules for the research project, found they didn’t miss social media all that much - they had time to catch up on homework, hang out with their friends and reconnect with their families.

“I thought it would be hard to do but I was also interested to see how attached I was to my phone,” says Anna Little. “I actually didn’t realize how important my phone was to me. I didn’t think I used it that much so that was surprising.”

Ms. Little says the first day wasn’t that bad but the middle of the week was a challenge.

“I was stressed if I missed an episode (of a show) as we weren’t allowed to watch Netflix unless it was part of a family movie night. But, as the week went on, I started to realize I wasn’t missing as much as I thought I would. I realized how much time I was wasting.”

“The virtual world really has become an extension of our physical space and we’ve got to pay attention to it. The kids are navigating things that we never had to figure out,” says Dr. Michaelson (Public Health Sciences, School of Religion) who also took part in the challenge, as did her research assistant Sophie Moore.

“Adults are endlessly cautioning teens about the dangers of social media but black and white blanket statements aren’t really helpful to kids,” Dr. Michaelson adds. “(The students) were curious about what’s actually going on with their social media use . . . Things are rarely just good or bad.”

With the project finished, the majority of the participants say they have recognized the amount of time they are spending on social media and are trying to cut down. “I really don’t check my phone as often,” says Ms. Little. “Most of it really isn’t that important.”

Dr. Michaelson adds, the adults did the disconnection challenge too. “I think we all realized that sometimes, social media is really helpful to our lives. But when we actually paid closer attention to how much we were using and what we were doing, sometimes it became a short cut that replaces real life connections and relationships. So the disconnection challenge actually helped us get off social media for a bit, and connect to ourselves, to people we care about, and even to nature.

Our message is not that people should stop using their smart phones and social media. But we do think we should be more intentional about how we are using them, because if we aren’t, then rather than being tools to help us live well, they can end up controlling us.”

To learn more about the project, see the video here. Funding for the project was provided by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.