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SLU students sacrifice phone, Web, TV in social experiment

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CANTON — The unplugged freshmen sit in a circle, sharing their stories of a life without electronics.

It’s been a week since their last fix: their last tweet, text or TV show.

The group looks like a meeting of Electronics Anonymous, but the students are all participants in a social experiment engineered by St. Lawrence University Professor Jennifer B. MacGregor, who teaches a class called “Identity in the Internet Age.”

The students were charged with avoiding or discarding all the usual gadgets they use to stay in touch with the outside world. They are not to turn on the TV, and the Internet is to be used only for vital schoolwork. Of their own volition, most of them gave Ms. MacGregor their cellphones to avoid temptation.

They will be allowed to plug back in Tuesday, 12 days after beginning the experiment.

Some hardly seem to miss their electronics; others are jonesing to get their devices back. Some have caved already, reclaiming their phones and rejoining the modern world.

Those who gave up early are not at risk for a lower grade. A little bit of “cheating” is expected, even among those who remain mostly screen-free, said Ms. MacGregor, who is participating in the experiment along with her students.

“I know they’re going to cheat. I’m cheating,” she said.

However, through it all, the students are asked to keep a journal. Whether they succeed or fail, they must keep track of their texts, phone calls and media usage, or the lack thereof.

The purpose of the exercise is to help students understand people’s dependence on technology from an outside perspective. It was inspired by Ms. MacGregor’s trip to Kenya, which she said let her learn more about what it means to be an American than she could have learned at home. She said the best way to learn about your own society is to spend time outside it.

In the same way, she said, it is impossible for her students to truly understand the role gadgets play in their lives until they are outsiders looking in.

Some talked about how their self-esteem is tied to the life they’ve built online, with every “like,” “share” and comment providing a sense of validation.

“You just realize how connected people are,” Hayley C. Ahouse said. Ms. Ahouse and her fellow students are learning just how dependent on their phones people are.

She asked for her phone back at Thursday’s class, because she said she was worried she would not be able to reach anyone in a crisis. However, she promised not to use it unless there was an emergency.

Jared E. Shatkin was one of the students who has already asked for their phones back, although now that he has it, he said, it doesn’t feel as important to him. “I haven’t even tweeted since I got my phone back. It’s been three days. That’s a big deal for me,” he said.

Those who are still phone-free have searched for non-electronic ways to fill their hours.

“I use other things to distract myself,” Noah Bunton said.

Some write letters to their family or significant others back home. Some pour their spare time into their homework, but most just look for more creative ways to procrastinate, such as rearranging their dorm room or spending more time at the campus pub.

Ms. MacGregor ran this experiment once before, in 2010.

“The 2010 group as a whole were much more panicked,” she said, although she is not yet sure whether this is just a difference between the two groups or whether students’ bonds to their phones have loosened in the last four years.

Although some of the students vowed to cut back on their social media use even after the experiment has ended, Ms. MacGregor predicts most of them soon will be back to normal.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, she said. Modern technology allows people to connect in ways they never could before. “We need to manage it and not be managed by it,” she said.

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