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Digital abstinence

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Watching young people go without electronic devices is like imagining dolphins abandoning water.

They’ve grown up in a world where the advanced technology of cellphones is taken for granted. They probably can’t even conceive of a time when there was no such thing as a personal computer.

Getting students to discover what it’s like to view the world differently is what Jennifer B. MacGregor intended with an experiment that is scheduled to end today. A professor at St. Lawrence University, Ms. MacGregor asked the students in her “Identity in the Internet Age” class to go without all the digital benefits they normally use for 12 days.

Most felt some effect by the loss of their ability to either call or text friends or to send out a tweet. Despite this, some have managed to carry on with their daily lives without too many concerns.

Others, however, couldn’t make it through the experiment without moving back into a digital platform. Ms. MacGregor, who joined her students in the experiment, said that was OK.

“I know they’re going to cheat. I’m cheating,” she said in a Friday story in the Watertown Daily Times.

Regardless of how far they got without slipping back into cyberspace, the students were asked to keep a journal about their experiences. Ms. MacGregor believes this will help them understand something about themselves and our society that they may not have previously observed.

“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,” according to the story. “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.”

For many people, processing information and communicating with others is vastly different than it was several decades ago. For young people, this is virtually the only environment they’ve ever known.

But while millennials may have been born into the age of modern computing, they’re not the only ones whose lives have been forever impacted. Most of us spend an untold amount of time staring at a handheld screen reading frivolous tidbits sent to us by others.

To go 12 days without cellphone calls, texts, Facebook posts or email messages would drive many of us up the wall. It shows to what extent technology has a grip on our lives.

The trick is keeping this phenomenon in perspective. Ms. MacGregor had the right idea.

“We need to manage it and not be managed by it,” she said.

That’s definitely worth a tweet or two.

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