The silence of the iPods

I made at least two college students bang their heads against walls. Some felt tortured or punished—as if they’d done something “wrong” to deserve this “24 hours of hell.”

Students felt helpless, sad, scared, angry, frustrated, alienated, insecure, lost, deprived, miserable and depressed. Like social outcasts! Freaks!

My bad. What kind of heinous monster of a college instructor gives 150 journalism students an assignment like “The Great 24-Hour Electronic Media Fast"?

The idea: Spend 24 hours without TV, computers, iPods or other MP3 devices. No radio, video games, CD players, records or phones—especially cell. Write about it.

When I explained this, one college freshman raised her Razor to her lips.

“What if we can’t live without our phone?” she asked me.

“Are you kissing a cell phone?” I responded.

The media-fast idea came from a Washington Post article by Danna Walker, who’d assigned a fast to communication students at American University. Walker’s students read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: “America is engaged in the world’s most ambitious experiment to accommodate itself to the technological distractions made possible by the electric plug.”

Postman wrote that in 1985. Before MySpace and Facebook. Before reality TV and Xbox 360s and text messaging. Before college students walked around campus in isolated bubbles created by cell phones and iPods.

No one’s saying media technology is bad. It simplifies our lives, helps us communicate across distances, keeps us informed, educated, entertained. But we should recognize its role—and its control over our lives.

“Challenge the chains,” I told students. Can we disconnect for a day?

I joined the experiment on a day when I could leave my computer and phone off. I was overconfident. As many students reported later, an e-media-free day can seem excruciatingly long. Minutes passed like hours. I read two books, including Linda Hogan’s The Woman Who Watches Over the World. I wrote a Hogan quote in my notebook: “We have failed to understand how each thing connects with all the rest.”

My teens and I played Risk and hauled out Monopoly only to find that I’d jacked the faux cash for another classroom project. The quiet was unnerving. No music or TV in the background, just refrigerator humming, dogs snoring, wash machine swishing. My son played acoustic guitar for a couple of hours. That helped.

Like many students, I grew bored enough to clean. Student dorm rooms have never been tidier. Nor has my bedroom closet.

Some students cheated, to be sure—a course of action recommended by their friends. Many more accepted the challenge. They sang out loud in the car, baked pies, played cards, walked along the river, took long showers, played with puppies, worked out, went skateboarding, snowboarding and biking. They wrote songs, drew pictures, wrote stories and completed scrapbooks. They prayed, went to church, read Bibles. They caught up on homework. One checked out “an actual book” at the library.

They went for coffee with mom or a best friend, engaged in satisfying face-to-face conversations and discussed life goals with significant others. After spending a media-free Thanksgiving with family, one student quoted her grandmother saying, “This is the most real day I’ve had with you in a long time.”

It was only 24 hours, but by day’s end, some students reported feeling rested, peaceful, organized and focused. One felt awake: “Natural sensitivities return—the five senses become more in touch with the outside world.”

I left my computer off the next morning. Instead of checking email and reading news online, I hiked to the top of a hill near my home and watched the full moon set, melting into the rosy peach haze of the western horizon.