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Unplugging: An Antidote to Phone Addiction

Published: April 17, 2018

Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, texting, and more. Who amongst us has not seen a student or an adult who could barely stand to go a few minutes without checking their device for updates? It’s hard to believe, but the iPhone was introduced to the world just ten years ago. A recent Pew Research Center study found that more than 70% of all Americans have smart phones, and in the 12 to 29 age range, that number climbs closer to 90%. In just the last few years our phones, tablets, and computers have become more and more prominent in our lives, and in the lives of our youth.

Recently, there has been an outburst of research and writing about this rising phone addiction, such as Jean Twenge’s “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation” and the movie Screenagers by Delanaey Ruston. The research is not necessarily definitive, nor does everyone agree that smartphones are to blame for all the ills that are outlined. Yet, according to a variety of studies, including one by Common Sense Media, as many as 50% of teens report a sense of addiction to their phones.

I did my own, informal classroom poll of 11th and 12th graders, asking if they felt addicted to their phones. Seventy-six percent answered either “yes” or “maybe.” The fact that more and more people at younger and younger ages seem to be getting overly attached, even addicted, to their phones is not what scholars and pundits are debating. The disagreement is over whether or not all this extra screen time is a serious problem that we should be worried about.

Phone addiction is negatively affecting our overall well-being. The solution: unplug and spend time outside!
Sharing a meal deep in the woods, well out of WiFi range,
can help both children and adults to be happier and healthier.

As a parent, an educator and a camp director, I am quite frankly alarmed about the negative consequences of the consummate presence of digital devices in the lives of our youth. However, I’m also interested in the fact that this situation parallels the research done more than ten years ago. A group of scholars and activists began to express concern about a growing disconnect that Americans have with the natural world. Richard Louv described in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, a wide variety of startling research from a multitude of disciplines that showed strong correlations between our growing disconnect with nature and the rise of a whole slew of problems, including depression, loneliness, rising rates of ADHD, obesity, decreases in creativity, and more.

And yet the solution is literally right in front of our faces—we simply need to spend more time outside. We urgently need to reverse the changing landscape of childhood that has been shifting over time from the great outdoors to the confines of social media, smartphones, and high-tech progress.  Getting kids (and adults) outside is critical. Recognizing this is perhaps the easy part. Making more engaging outdoor activities available to more people—and doing it right—now those are the real challenges. 

Louv’s work sparked a global movement with “No Child Left Inside” programs being launched in dozens of states. But attempts in Congress to push for better funding for outdoor education have continued to stall. Meaningful outdoor experiences are becoming rarer and rarer in the vast majority of schools. This is precisely why summer camp is so important, especially if we cannot incorporate more outdoor learning during the school year.

Phone addiction is negatively affecting our overall well-being. The solution: unplug and spend time outside!
At camp, young people connect to one
another and the natural world through
unplugged, immersive outdoor play.  

At Concordia Language Villages, all of our programs place a strong emphasis on “getting unplugged,” or in other words: no devices. We also place a strong emphasis on the importance of learning and playing outside and embracing the beautiful natural environment of the Minnesota North Woods. From nature walks to a canoe activity, and from free time at the beach to an hour of language learning classes outside, our villagers eventually come to feel deeply connected to the lakes and forests that grace our camps.

Let’s be clear: the benefits are enormous.  It’s hard to find a more powerful antidote to the challenges of the 21st century than “unplugging” and spending more time in nature. Young people will ultimately feel more connected to the real world around them if they are less connected through technological devices to what they cannot always touch. There’s a happy medium somewhere, where we can experience the natural world around us in real time.

About the Author

David Dahveed Benson is the dean of Les Voyageurs, Concordia Language Villages’ French adventure program. He has been on staff for over 25 years. In addition to French, he has studied Hausa, Swahili, Fulfulde, Yemba, and Malgassy. He has explored waterways all over the world in canoes and kayaks, including in Thailand, New Zealand, Samoa, South Africa, Namibia, Cameroon, Madagascar and Canada. When he isn’t in a boat, he teaches history and political science at a high school focused on experiential learning in Colorado Springs, Colo. 

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