GROTON -- What would it be like to untether, even if just for a day, from the phone? No texting, no Facebook, no taking pictures on the spur of the moment, no checking the weather and, oh yeah, no phone calls.
It is possible, students at Lawrence Academy discovered during Tech Blackout. As part of a challenge from the administration, 30 volunteers handed their phones in at the start of the school day. At 1 p.m., they met to retrieve their phones and participate in a roundtable discussion of what the day of disconnection had been like.
Students struggled to withdraw from their electronics. "I was depressed. I was looking through my pocket. Oh, it's not there," one said.
"I felt really disconnected. What's going on with my friends, with the weather?" another said.
One girl found herself leaving the door open as she did her homework, hoping that someone would walk by.
Students are allowed to carry their phones with them throughout the day, said Dave Casanave, director of communications and marketing. Teachers can choose whether or not to allow phones in their classrooms. Some students take all their notes using laptops; others may use the phone to photograph school work.
Safety at the school relies on students carrying phones. The notification procedure for a lockdown or natural disaster is based on immediate notification across the multibuilding campus. Students and staff know where to go in whatever building they might be in an emergency, Casanave said.
During Tech Blackout, participants used the phone for a more mundane purpose than studying or safety. "The biggest thing that affected me: I was always looking for a clock," a student said. Another student discovered that many of the clocks around campus were wrong.
"I heard the bells a lot," one said. The campus carillon rings every quarter hour.
Many of the students are inveterate checkers of social media, confessing to checking Facebook between classes. Casanave said near-collisions between phone-using students around campus are common as they walk, eyes on the tiny screen.
During lunch, the phoneless experimenters were forced to interact with their peers. They could not sit down at a table and start thumbing away at the screen. The consensus? Texting is more comfortable for these teens than talking.
Conversing takes skills. "There's going to be that awkward silence," a student said. Taking the phone out and texting, or pretending to, can cover that moment.
Another student said he will look down at the phone to avoid making eye contact if he does not want to speak to someone.
Some students become texting friends, but have little to no face-to-face contact. "They'd see each other in the halls and not even say hi," a student said.
"I'll order pizza online," one said, because he did not want to make a mistake while talking to the order-taker.
Phone calls are mostly reserved for things that need to be addressed immediately, or perhaps for parents who might not know what LOL means.
There is a rite of passage with awkwardness that is avoided by texting, Casanave said. This results in an "eroding of the ability to interact with one another on a personal level," he said.
Part of the role of the teachers and advisors at the school is to provide "the old one-on-one" and give the teenagers the space and time the interact with others on a personal level. "They're not used to doing that," he said.
Many of the students in the study said they sometimes put their phones away for awhile, an hour or two or sometimes for an entire vacation. One allowed it to periodically run out of juice.
At the end of the roundtable discussion, students were allowed to take back their phones and other electronics and resume their day. Heads went down and thumbs got busy as students departed, rushing off to games and practices.
"They're all living on the edge of technology burnout," Casanave said.