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For about 20 years, my professor Marc Cohen has been teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. During his office hours one day, we got to talking about the changes he’s seen in different generations of college students. During his two decades at UNC, students have changed a lot—from the clothes they wear and the music they listen to to the policies and beliefs they champion. One of the most startling, and perhaps most alarming, changes he recounted, however, was that students today seem to have a much harder time connecting with peers.
They are less motivated to participate in group discussions, he said. And in his writing course, which is required for first-year students, he was surprised to see that more and more people in recent years simply don’t interact with those next to them. The unlikely culprit behind this disconnect, we figured, could be the one that ironically links more people than ever before: social media.
Interested in exploring this notion further, my friend and I started a group based on his idea of inviting students from all backgrounds to gather and connect—without using social media. From spring to summer, we set up lawn chairs in a beautiful outdoor area on campus and hosted gatherings every Friday. We called our group the Social Media Is Bad club.
With trends of digital overuse spiraling, we wanted to encourage what we felt would be healthier and more positive forms of social connection.
It was important to us that the club promote a welcoming, supportive and inclusive environment for all. Through personal experience, I learned that barriers to entry, often established with no ill intent, can contribute to feelings of exclusion, inequity or a lack of diversity within groups. We wanted to welcome people from all backgrounds to sit down and chat—a real-world social platform where people could interact in person instead of operating in online alcoves.
To drum up interest, we spoke to students, faculty and staff about our initiative. For a few hours each week, we talked with as many people as possible while walking around campus—at busy intersections, on the central quad where students gather on warm and sunny days, in libraries and dining halls. These conversations were not limited to the club. I talked with people about their digital habits, their views on social media and how they limited digital use by setting routines, deleting accounts or even switching to flip phones.
In just a few weeks, more than 100 people registered for our Listserv, and we hosted about 12 students every week.
In starting our group, we saw community building as the top priority. Our goal was to help students find a network where they felt supported in their growth. Through trial and error, we learned about different ways to foster a greater sense of community. We found it helpful to facilitate discussions about goals and aspirations people were excited about—and this eventually evolved into opportunities for conversation and collaboration beyond the group. From starting passion projects and hiking Mount Everest to pursuing artistic endeavors, we each shared what we cared about in a supportive, low-stress environment.
By facilitating in-person meetings, I also realized the importance of soft skills that can be elusive or hard to master on social media—including the value of structure and establishing routines. In larger groups, it can be challenging to involve people with varying comfort levels solely through the natural flow of conversation, so we prepared friendly conversation prompts for the entire group. I also sent out greeting texts and emails to our Listserv members every week to recap meetings, collect feedback and encourage attendance.
As we found ways to improve the meetings, we gained more regular participants and positive feedback. I appreciated hearing from some students that they enjoyed connecting with peers from different backgrounds, especially given a lack of mental health support on campus.
What I Learned
In seventh grade, I signed up for my first Instagram account. Since then, social media has brought me conflicting feelings that fluctuate from a sense of connection to feelings of anxiety, self-consciousness and self-doubt.
Over time, I grew more aware that social media has motivated my efforts to seek attention, distractions and social recognition. Additionally, I never fully committed to cultivating or investing significant time and energy into in-person interactions over virtual ones. Starting our club at UNC is what helped me do that. Since then, I haven’t stepped away from social media entirely, but taking a detour from it led me to realize that for those wanting to form healthier digital habits, finding support in a like-minded community is key.
The mindful shift from digital to in-person connections can be challenging. The reward, however, is one that young people today crucially need.
Shifting away from social media helped me build skills I didn’t even know I needed. I learned the importance of patience and persistence—in building awareness by speaking to new people every week, dealing with rejections or hostility, actively encouraging connection and diversity, and driving these processes when there is less help or support in the beginning. I also learned that when forming healthy habits, including moderating my digital use, there will always be relapses and setbacks. That’s OK. Progress requires persistent effort, investment and experimentation to realize new opportunities. It also requires us to utilize critical thinking skills in identifying, analyzing and adjusting our own behavioral and thinking patterns.
Having wrestled with the strong appeal of social media, my friend and I were able to make more informed choices about how we organized the club. Familiar with being part of a minority group in different settings, we learned about and applied ways to actively encourage inclusion and facilitate diverse perspectives. It is a gift to learn from our challenges—and as my professor at UNC noted in his disquiet about the growing disconnect among students, we are giving up the ability to intimately understand the underlying causes of our feelings and challenges if we simply surf social media.
As a society, our true power to connect and identify solutions to shared problems is firmly grounded in our ability to engage in depth and face-to-face with people who are equally committed to finding common ground.
When I stepped away from my smartphone and social media apps, I learned that it is easier than I envisioned to truly connect with each other, problem-solve and share instead of settling for superficial interaction. Online, it is easy and tempting to engage in a disingenuous way. But when we gather or connect in person, we remove this crutch. My detour from digital overuse taught me to stand tall. I hope it will motivate more people to do the same.