Ease your student supervision speed bumps.

Empowered to Unplug

I teach a course at Florida State University called Leadership in the Digital Age. This course is part of the Undergraduate Certificate in Leadership Studies – housed under the Leadership Learning Research Center – which I also serve as a research associate.

In my course, I apply the Social Change Model of Leadership Development and Digital Leadership Education Pillars that were a result of my dissertation research called “Developing Digital Student Leaders.” These six pillars are pivotal topics in the formation of student leaders will skill in the digital age including Digital Identity, Wellness, Decision Making, Community, Branding, and Leadership. Find out more about these pillars in my recent publication in New Directions for Student Leadership series, Going Digital in Student Leadership.

One of the most popular Pillars of Digital Leadership Education is Digital Wellness. I devote more than a week of the curriculum to it, exploring how technology (and especially social media) impacts our daily lives. In particular, we focus on the impact of social media/tech use on students’ health and wellness. We examine sleep patterns, face to face interactions and leadership capacity.

One experiential assignment, in particular, has dramatically impacted my students. I can say this in confidence as I just completed coding the last year of blog posts that ask students to reflect on one simple challenge: Unplug from social media for at least two days.

Unplugged cords

In qualitative research, one can “code” or draw conclusions from, text- from interview transcripts to Instagram posts. In this case, these 500-800 word blog posts detailing how the students ‘survived’ the challenge, and then figured out to thrive without social media.

In total, our research team is analyzing over 500 pieces of course content that will help further refine the Digital Leadership Education Pillars, improve the course and expand research on college students use/experiences with technology

Even coding these 75 blogs just once uncovered a number of clearly articulated themes – but I see these same findings and reactions with the thousands of students I speak to every year. The result = students need to be empowered and possibly even given permission to unplug. (Note: Do not confuse empowerment and permission with punishment or shame)

In this post, I will share the realizations my students had after being challenged to stay off social media for only two days – in their own words –and five methods to empower students to unplug. I’ll leave you with a few resources as well.

Students on phone

Caught Up Scrolling

Within minutes of the two-day challenge, students caught themselves grabbing for their phones and scrolling. It was as if it was second nature, especially if they had downtime to fill. Times, when they were most tempted, were in the morning, at night, between classes and in the car. The main realization of the students was being on social media without even realizing it:

“I found myself most of the time taking my phone out while walking to class, taking a study break at the library, and even while I was eating lunch or dinner. The truth is, I seriously cannot go long at all without checking social media. I believe I am addicted to social media. That was something I knew way before doing this cleanse but I didn’t realize how bad it actually was.”

“Throughout this process, every time I got a little bored it almost felt like a small part of me was missing. Until social media is taking away from us, we have no clue how much we truly use it and depend on it.”

A Guilty Itch

There were certain triggers that brought students back into their phones, especially receiving notifications or wanting to know what was going on. They carried guilt and even shame about how they continued to be pulled back to their phones.

“To force myself into not checking my Facebook newsfeed or post an Instagram post was extremely challenging, plainly put, it did not feel all too well. My physical response to avoiding social media was represented by a constant, almost twitch/jitter-like, motion of my hands to very frequently reach for my phone in my pocket in desire to have a quick look on Facebook or Instagram. It was as if I was an addict going through withdrawal and had a nervous twitch in my hands because my body needed my phone. And sometimes, when I received a call or text message it was very difficult to only check/respond to the text and not open up my Instagram application to see what new pictures were up today.”

“I am feeling stressed, I am feeling weak, and I am feeling worn down. It is normal for me to distract myself with a funny instagram post, or post an ironic tweet and receive a large amount of likes, but for the next two days, I promised my class that I would not.”

“Day one, and I wake up from the dead of sleep with one thought, and I am shocked by the toxicity of this thought. “I need to check my Instagram feed.” Instead of asking myself how I am feeling or asking myself what I need to get done this morning before leaving the house, I tell myself that it is important to check my instagram feed. I tell myself that it is important for me to look at images of what people did last night. People that I barely know, acquaintances, and people that I have never even met mostly.”

Overwhelmed night owl

The Tech Tipping Point

The tipping point for students in pulling back and staying off social media was the awareness of their physical and emotional reactions. They were finally forced to reflect on how they honestly felt about their behavior around social media. One student even expressed feeling  “cheated” by social media – into creating an unattainable lifestyle.

“Moreover, I felt very tempted to look on social media – I felt like I was missing out on life and confused about my life. I immediately thought: Am I really addicted to social media? Has technology updated so much that I’ve forgot the feeling of living without social media? Why do I feel sick about not looking on social media? As I reflected on my thoughts, I know I needed to reevaluate my life and life decisions- this can seriously hold me back on important things to I need to get done.”

“Social media has become more of a competition because everyone has seen everything, and it is only getting more and more difficult to rise above everyone else. It is nothing to have a good singing voice anymore, because you are one amongst many.”

“I believe I am cheated by social media. I am shown things that I am meant to believe such as biased articles and videos. There are cooking recipes that are either impossible, or expensive. Half of them look absolutely delicious but almost impossible to make. Social media is a land full of possibilities that are unable to be reached.”

Unplugged Realizations

Once students unplugged, they began to look at the world a little differently – and had some concerns. This especially came out in realizing how everyone around them was literally looking down. These realizations helped them figure out how they would modify their use of technology in the future.

“I notice people hide behind their phones, and I know I do it to [sic]. We avoid looking up from them so we do not have to make eye contact with strangers, or use them, to make us look busy. It was odd not hiding behind the piece of glass for a few days.”

“Practice keeps me busy every day almost all day. When I’m at home I enjoy playing Madden with my friends so once they came over we had the chance to spend some time playing. While the game was loading I noticed that they all got on their phones and started using social media. I picked my phone up too, a few times but I had to remind myself to close the apps and put the phone back down.”

“I think that I rely on social media for contact with the outer world, when in reality, I should be connecting with people in person. I think I will keep some of these apps deleted and use them when I am actually interested in what they are showing, not when I need to hide behind my screen.”

Submerged phone

Non-Tech Time

Students began to explore the world around them without technology, turning to hobbies they enjoyed, paying attention to their surroundings and even talking to people they might not if they were logged on.

“I woke up in the morning and did something that I have not done in a long time. I got out my sketch book, colored pencils, water colors and pastels. Then I went outside to sit in the sun on the porch in my backyard and began to draw. For me it was such a peaceful and calming experience. Sitting in the warmth of the sun and creating in that setting gave me the opportunity to make intentional and original motions, and to bask in my humanity.”

“Being aware of your surroundings especially when I walk to my night classes or across a street, for instance, is so important. Mentally I believe that we need a break from these constant reminders of what we are not doing/wearing/traveling, etc. Taking a break and testing myself with social media this past week has taught me the importance of being my own person and taking time for myself instead of spending that time looking at others’ lives.”

“Social media seems like such a more intriguing idea that starring [sic] out the window and watching other cars go by. I realized, however, there is so much life outside a car window and in every other car window you pass by, there is a story. Every car window has a story as does every tree and every street you pass by. I never really paid attention to any detail that went on outside my car window, but as I was forced two these past few days I actually enjoyed looking and starring [sic] out the windows.”

Phone on hiking trail

What Now?

Students were asked to reflect on how this experience would affect their social media usage going forward. There were students that didn’t see their usage changing or see it as problematic. However, the majority of students felt empowered to make a change – even in other areas of their lives. A huge notion was around the management of time, especially downtime.

“From this experiment, I was able to determine how social media play multiple roles within my life, socially and professionally. I spend a lot of my time procrastinating and finding a way to procrastinate by exploring social media. Additionally, whenever I have to use social media to communicate with others, by logging on, I am tempted to deviate away from the task at hand, even though it is something as basic as sending or posting a message. I believe I am either enslaved or in charge of social media, having my role determined by what my purpose for the account is and staying focused with the task.”

“This cleanse taught me how to wean off other poor habits I have in my life, such as a poor diet at times. My ability to reduce using social media instilled confidence in me that I am also able to reduce the amount of junk food I consume on a daily basis. This challenge opened my eyes to the many addictions I can overcome if I just set my mind to it. Even though it can be hard at times, I just have to remind myself that I am better off without it.”

“I was always taught to be a leader on and off the field in football, on and off the mat in wrestling, and now most importantly on and offline.”

In addition to this very simple class exercise, there are other methods to empower students in formal ways to unplug. Just telling them to get off their phones isn’t working. We need to built in role modeling and strategic methods for this outcome. Think about the training, programs, events, and courses you have coming up – and how especially suggestions 1-3 could be applied. Methods 4-5 require more campus-wide buy-in, but with very little funding requirements. Do you have other ideas to empower students to unplug? Add them in the comments below!

Heart-shaped cord1. Attention & Action.

In these blog posts I discovered that the moment students had downtime, especially if they were bored, they grab for their phones. Look to integrate activities into training, programming, and courses that require students to devote a high level of attention to detail, use their hands, or get them moving around. Ask students to be part of the expectations of technology in formal educational settings – you may be surprised that they ask for a no phone/computer policies OR they may find specific sessions that would be enhanced by including them.

2. Remixing Your Workshops.

As noted in #1, the first thing students go to are their phones, between class, in bed – even in the bathroom. Students need more skills and empowerment that used to be taught in traditional “time management” or leadership workshops. Students need resources for their downtime and even options for healthy stress relief – as many students would head to social media to relieve stress. Further, there are tips and lessons students learned in managing their phones – such as turning off notifications, deleting apps or moving apps into folders. All students need these ideas immediately – looking at you, orientation programs! All these are topics that I cover in my keynotes and workshops with students – and even with professionals! Learn more about these programs here.

3. Leadership Presence & Phone Usage.

The primary objective of the course is to teach leadership skills in the digital age. One of these skills is the awareness of self online, including what the student posts – but also their physical presence on and off campus with tech. Leadership presence and phone usage is a skill not given enough attention. Are you aware of your own use? Are you scrolling in committee meetings? Looking down at phone your between buildings? What message does this communicate to students, colleagues or community members you pass by? Self-awareness needs to be applied to technology – how much everyone is on their phones and the impact that has on your physical leadership presence. The IRL (in real life) leadership presence the students struggled with was putting their phones down and further looking others in the eye. This puts existing (basic) leadership skill building back on the table as critical for students.

4. Passive Campus Education.

Numerous students identified walking between classes as a time they took to their phones. But after being asked to unplug, they noticed they would talk to more people around campus or at least look at/smile at others. One specific idea that could be applied in a major traffic zone of campus would be an unplug challenge – let’s say a distance of at least 200 yards with quality designed signs that read “Can you walk without social media?” or “How long can you go without your phone?” or “What does 200 steps look like without social media?” – something catchy that gets their attention. You’ll need real people to grab people’s attention too – off of their phones. At the end of the 200 yards have a table with freebies and education. Celebrate that students did it – then challenge them to the two-day social media cleanse – add a reward if they make it such as a gift card. This concept could also be simplified with ongoing passive education that remains around campus in high traffic/high phone use zones with empowering education with a call to action to unplug.

5. Implement campus wi-fi free zones/programs.

It is unlikely that students are going to ask educators to turn off the wi-fi – but as I discovered in a recent book “The Happiness Effect” the researcher found students will crowd into areas of campus that does not have wi-fi or cell phone reception is poor – when they are trying to study. They are self-managing what they know they need to be successful – this is awesome! What buildings and areas on campus does wi-fi/cell reception already pose a problem? Could you actually brand and promote these areas as wifi free zones? What about dining hall hours that are technology free? Events that ask attendees to be device free?

Digital leader

Final Thoughts

Students have so much to teach us when it comes to what they really need in digital education – it’s more than telling students to use social media responsibly or for branding or for ‘social change.’ Ask them in an empathic and empowering way, and I promise students will reveal challenges they are having with technology and how as an educator or parent you can help.

Every year, students laugh at me when I say they are going to complete a two-day social media cleanse challenge – because at first, they think two days will be so easy! What they quickly find out is the dependence not just of themselves, but everyone around them. And they don’t like it.

Are you up for it? Could you unplug from social media for two days, a week or a month?

What discoveries will you find? What use of your time will you find joy?

Digital Wellness Resources

Targeting digital wellness skills has been a priority for me in the last year, so I have been building out more and more resources for you! Below are a number of tools I have created, as well as outside resources on the topic.

        Digital Wellness Toolkit

        Digital Education at Your Campus

Blog Post: Cultivating Digital Wellness Skills in College Students

Book: Happiness Effect: How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost

        Book: Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to our Digital Lives

        Podcast: Note to Self

To stay up to date with this research, as well as all my digital leadership educator efforts, subscribe to my monthly newsletter below!


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About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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