It’s my junior year at Hofstra University. A week of exams makes it hard to get out of bed, hard to wrap your brain around every last thing to be done, and most of all, it makes caffeine an outright necessity. Having just run out of coffee at my house, I decided one morning to treat myself to the campus café. When I arrived, half asleep, and found my place in line, my exhausted thoughts still rumbled in my brain: which test is it today?… I still need to edit that paper… midterms are crazy this semester… you know what? I bet everybody else here feels this way… If they did, I wouldn’t have known. My peers weren’t looking to talk with me, let alone unite over our mutual stress. They stood in line with their heads in their phones, tapping away at their screens.
As a young person who listened to vinyl records well before they came back into vogue, practiced my string bass for fun and hiked the 48 4000-foot-high peaks of New Hampshire before I turned 21, I’ve always been kind of screen-free. When I put down screens, I find myself on mountain trails, I meet people who have stories and goals and personalities different than my own, and I hear complex chords that resonate in a world of dissonance. But it can be lonely to be a 20-something today. Sometimes I just wish you could turn the whole thing off.
On this one particular morning, I beheld this collective obsession for what it was. Had our lives become so stressful that our only means of relief was to exchange barrages of texts and relentlessly peruse Instagram feeds? I laughed in irony at the thought of trying to speak to the person in front of me. Would he have joined me in conversation, or just returned a look of simultaneous surprise and annoyance? My guess is the latter. Such is the reality of our times. It’s hard to fathom how we got here; it seems as if just yesterday, I was running around the woods with my childhood friends, communing with the outdoors in blissful disconnect. Now, in the age of digital socialization, it’s near second nature to check my phone almost every minute. It’s hard to resist when everyone around me is equally transfixed by their devices.
The best I can do is create rituals of my own that keep me grounded and disconnected for a while. For instance, although I use my phone as an alarm, I don’t sleep with it under my pillow or even on my night table. Instead, I place it across the room on top of my bookshelf That’s it. When I cook, I don’t listen to music or podcasts. If I did, how could I savor the rhythm of chopping, the smell of fresh herbs and the satisfaction of making a meal for others? Some of my roommates are on board with things like no-screen meals, but all bets are off when we’re hanging around the house together. I get frustrated when I want to talk or just hang with someone and they are actually spending time with someone else virtually.
The conversation surrounding the role of our phones in our everyday lives is hard to start and difficult to sustain, but it has never been more urgent. Not only is it necessary that we spread awareness of how our reliance on screens manifests itself in our lives, our habits, and our relationships; it’s vital that we willingly take time away from screens. Yet I find I have to be very careful how I do it and what I say about it. On the college campuses of today, parading oneself around as a screen-free symbol of perfection warrants accusations of pretentiousness and elitism. We have to be ready to admit that each of us spends a little too much time staring at screens—time that could be spent reconnecting with our friends, our passions, and the substance of the real world. Humbly, we have to step up and lead our generation back to connectedness. Screen-Free Week is coming, so let’s spread the word!
Benny Gottwald is a junior at Hofstra University.