from the Philips Andover Bulletin
Teenagers reflect on technology and being human, with the help of Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Pascal, and Sartre.
You might wonder what a group of American teenagers have in common with existentialist philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre. Three words in particular come to mind: dread, anxiety, and despair. Existentialist thinkers, and many of their philosophical predecessors, saw these moods as central to the human predicament. And these are feelings that many students today can relate to just as strongly.
The existentialists argued for facing, reflecting on, and understanding these feelings to live a free and authentic life. This led me to wonder what I and my high school philosophy students could learn about anxiety and despair if the students decided to confront these existential anxieties head-on by giving up their cell phones and using the time they gained for personal reflection. Further, what might this experience reveal about how best to educate students today?
Phillips Academy is a boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts. With an average class size of 13, the school is able to have students regularly engage in seminar-style discussions. Some of these particulars about small class sizes or a residential environment may not be shared in all school contexts, but there are lessons from our experience to be learned and shared with educators everywhere.
About halfway into a 10-week course on existential philosophy, I could see that students were able to demonstrate a good understanding of the words of the texts we discussed — no mean feat given their complexity. However, I was concerned about a gap between their intellectual knowledge and their understanding of how the ideas we had been studying related to their lives.
Keeping in mind John Dewey’s ideas about students learning not from experience alone but from reflection on experience, I gave my students the option to turn in their cell phone for 72 hours, during which time I would keep them locked in a drawer in my office. Reactions to this proposal varied widely: There was excitement, curiosity, even a sense of panic. One student fled the room when I announced the optional exercise, although she returned sheepishly later that day, handing me her phone. All told, eight out of 14 students participated the first time I did this experiment, and a similar number did so in subsequent years. At the end of the week, students wrote an in-class essay in which they drew upon ideas of the existentialist thinkers we had been studying to analyze their experience of not having their phone for three days. Their reflections showed that they had begun to close the gap between intellectual knowledge and deep experience and, in so doing, had come to a much deeper understanding of these ideas.
Their thoughts also offer insight into three major causes of distress facing adolescents today: first, anxiety around social media; second, difficulty enduring mental and physical discomfort, especially in the absence of stimulation; and third, deep-seated anxiety over what it means to be a free human, responsible for one’s choices.
Anxiety, social media, and “the crowd”: Reflections on Kierkegaard
Our study of Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish philosopher, helped students better understand their simultaneous and contradictory longings for independence and approval from their peers. Warning about the dangers of conformity, Kierkegaard (1859/1975) wrote, “a crowd in its very concept is the untruth, by reason of the fact that it renders the individual completely impenitent and irresponsible” (p. 95). His concerns about the ways individuals can lose themselves in the crowd were echoed in several student essays. One wrote:
On a walk back to my dorm from orchestra rehearsal on Thursday evening, I broke down in tears. I felt intense anxiety over the fact that not only have I wasted so much of my life staring at a screen, but that I don’t have the willpower to break free from the crowd that is phone users.
This magnetic pull of the phone is caused in part by the fact that many of our students access their social world through it. Even though this student frets over the amount of time she has spent on her phone, she does not see herself as able to refrain from using it. Her words point to the power of the crowd — in this case, the social media networks that students participate in. It can be simply too difficult to turn away from this crowd, a social phenomenon exacerbated by Snapchat streaks (which encourage users to log in to Snapchat daily) and embodied in the acronym FOMO: fear of missing out.
A second student wrote about adjusting her self-presentation for those who would be viewing her online posts: “To use words Kierkegaard might, how can I get the largest possible crowd to give their approval?” This student realized that she had been creating a curated — and, ultimately, fabricated — self, editing pictures for the crowd’s approval.
“To use words Kierkegaard might, how can I get the largest possible crowd to give their approval?”
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These two examples point to deeper challenges. The student leaving orchestra rehearsal framed her struggles as a lack of volition: “I don’t have the willpower to break free.” Her analysis is as poignant as it is incomplete. She is using a device and apps that have been designed to be addictive and take advantage of hard-wired human needs for pleasure and social approval. Tristan Harris, a former product manager at Google and the founder of the Center for Humane Technology, argues that this technology is “not designed to help us. It’s designed to keep us hooked” (Vox Media, 2018). After all, the more users interact with certain apps, the more data their developers will have to sell to advertisers. Harris compares the refresh feature in several popular apps to the playing of a slot machine, an experience designed to give the illusion of control to the user. Players keep pulling the lever — or refreshing the screen — in hopes of a reward. And, when the reward comes in the form of “likes” on their posts, students alter their self-presentation to increase their chances of getting more rewards. Students, with their still-developing brains and deeply felt desire for approval, are highly vulnerable to the techniques social media designers use to keep them online.
Embodied physical and mental anguish: Pascal and boredom
In the absence of their phones, the students had to confront boredom and the accompanying persistent discomfort. They began to appreciate in a deeper way the words of the 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal (1670/1995), who asserted that “the sole cause of [humanity’s] unhappiness is that [we] do not know how to stay quietly in [our] room” (p. 37). Reflecting on this plight, one student wrote, “I know my phone is not healthy for me, but nonetheless I am almost always scrolling. It is an escape from the acute consciousness that humanity suffers from.” These words point to a deep tension in students’ use of their cell phones: They know intellectually that the way they use their phone is not good for them, but their experience is that the phone provides a temporary (albeit inadequate) refuge in moments of distress. Later in her essay, this student said that her phone “allows me to choose when to think and when I don’t. It’s a simple off switch that I can fit in my hand.” These reflections echo the findings of a group of scientists who found that people preferred electric shocks to the experience of sitting alone in a room (Wilson et al., 2014). Scrolling on the cell phone can provide a temporary respite from discomfort, but procrastination and time on social media often exacerbate their distress in the long term.
Another student described his phone simply as a “personal anxiety coping mechanism.” Without this security blanket, students were often adrift; they had not learned to be by themselves or understand their inner lives well. Being without a phone could be overwhelming, as it was for the student who broke down in tears upon leaving her orchestra rehearsal. For another student, “what began as a pleasant freedom from a sense of obligation to submerge myself in social media quickly turned into profound loneliness, the sensation pulling me into deep thought like the undertow of a wave.” These strong emotions had been kept at bay when students had something to distract themselves with, but they emerged with force once that stimulation was absent.
Follow-up conversations with these students revealed them to be more resilient than their initial raw reflections might have suggested. But this experience nonetheless revealed to students a baseline level of distress and anxiety that they had previously been able to suppress via technological distractions. It also helped to illuminate the deeper meaning of words like dread and despair that they had used more casually in class discussions earlier in the term.
Not all experiences of abandoning digital distraction were negative. Several students so enjoyed the freedom and peace of mind that came from this new way of being in the world that they left their phones in my office past the initial three days. Two students’ phones stayed in my office for more than a month. Another student wrote that whereas he previously would use his phone to “bore my mind into numbness until the fear subsides,” by the end of the three days he had begun reading for fun and had begun to write a short story. This student reported that “by isolating myself from my phone, I began to do things much more authentically than I do on a daily basis.”
The anxiety of freedom: Sartre and Dostoyevsky
The students overwhelmingly saw time on their phones as a flight from freedom, giving them a new understanding of Sartre’s (1946/2007) assertion that “[we] are condemned to be free” (p. 29). For some, this freedom was simply too much to bear. The student whose freedom from his phone led him to reading and writing a short story also began to question some of the academic work he was being asked to do, with the result that he stopped doing homework entirely in two classes to focus on these more creative pursuits. Because of this, he ultimately decided that “acting freely was not conducive toward success. . . . I got yelled at in both my physics and math classes.”
Another student began to understand how the freedom she thought she had was an illusion: “I use my phone as a tool of self-limitation, in which I believe that I am in control. . . . In reality, am I in control? Or am I losing part of what it means to be human?” In our discussion of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, several students pointed to the Grand Inquisitor’s assertion that there exists a “universal and everlasting anguish of man as an individual being, and the whole of mankind together, namely: ‘before whom shall I bow down?’ ” (Dostoyevsky, 1880/2002, p. 254). These students saw that while their phones offered the veneer of choice, they were in fact largely enchained by technology and their emotional responses to it.
At the conclusion of her essay, the student who fretted about her loss of control reflected on her fraught relationship with her phone: “I cannot blame myself for attempting to distance myself from the endless dread, I must keep my obsessions with distraction in check, as to not lose my identity as a free human being.” What does it mean to be a free human being? It is hard to imagine a more central question in the study of philosophy and, even more important, in the lives of our students.
What this means for educators
To anyone who has worked with adolescents over the past decade, the centrality of cell phones and social media in these students’ lives is no surprise. But what is new is how well these students are able to talk about their own lives and choices. One student who ended up leaving his phone with me for three weeks observed that “it is my conditioned outlook on life, and my fear of it, that call for real attention.” Words like this would make the existentialists proud because they show a student choosing to turn toward their fear, rather than away from it. No matter their experience, these students were able to offer such compelling reflections precisely because they were in dialogue with powerful thinkers. By stepping away from their cell phones, paying close attention to their inner lives and moods, and then bringing those experiences into dialogue with central texts in philosophy and literature, they were able to better understand themselves and the motivations and impulses behind their use of technology.
This experiment shows clearly that students are interested in reflecting on and understanding their whole lives, on and offline. As educators, our task is to invite this part of their lives into the classroom, connecting it to central themes and questions in the humanities, giving students the language and ideas to articulate how they can best lead freely chosen and authentic lives.
Dostoyevsky, F. (2002). The Brothers Karamazov (R. Pevear and L. Volokhonsky, trans.). New York, NY: FSG. (Original work published 1880)
Kierkegaard, S. (1975). That individual. In W. Kaufmann (Ed.), Existentialism: From Dostoyevsky to Sartre (pp. 94-101). New York, NY: Penguin. (Original work published 1859)
Pascal, B. (1995). Pensées (A. Krailsheimer, trans.). New York, NY: Penguin. (Original work published 1670)
Sartre, J. (2007). Existentialism is a humanism (C. Macomber, trans.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. (Original work published 1946)
Vox media. (2018, February 23). It’s not you. Phones are designed to be addicting. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NUMa0QkPzns
Wilson, T.D., Reinhard, D.A., Westgate, E.C., Gilbert, D.T., Ellerbeck, N., Hahn, C. . . . Shaked, A. (2014). Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science, 345 (6192), 75-77.