Earlier this week the University of Harrisburg Provost Eric Darr made headlines after unilaterally banning access to all social networks on campus for a week. Of course Darr can’t dictate what students do off campus, or even on campus when it comes to smartphones and free wireless from other providers. The Provost claims the banning is not a disciplinary exercise but an academic one; students will be asked to write essays describing their experience of social detox. But does a ban, even a temporary one, take things too far?
Darr’s point is thus: habitually scanning our social networks has become as routine as checking emails or phone calls. Darr states “there are behaviors, habits, ways we use technology that we may ourselves not even be able to articulate because we’re not aware of them.” Think this is untrue? Consider that one study found 65% percent of adults sleep next to their cell phone; another discovered that the first thing young women do in the morning is check Facebook. Technology does have some influence on habits, whether we like it or not.
The idea of a social media detox is nothing new. Media theorist and professor Neil Postman wrote in Technopoly about an exercise his students did in the 90s before the advent of cell phones and social networks. Postman’s experiment was even more simple than Darr’s; students were asked to abstain from all electronics for the weekend and journal the experience. Postman had the same backlash, but the epiphanies were astounding; all talked about the effort it takes to make connections and the rewarding sense of authenticity that followed in making real versus digital connections. Given that some critics have already called Darr’s experiment too extreme, any professor requiring a similar experiment to Postman’s would be accused of being a luddite. And with good reason; social networking is no longer niche but mainstream, accounting for most of our time spent online.
If social media is here to stay, and it is, it is up to everyone to learn how to take advantage of the medium responsibly. Banning them isn’t the solution, and claiming a need a detox implies the technology itself is detrimental. Whether we need a detox or a break from the medium is debatable– maybe we plug in and participate in social networks because we actually enjoy it? Either way, social networks provide a new way for people to interact and share content with each other. Is being a social junkie better than being a couch potato? Probably not. But in the end a person using social will at least be connecting with others versus amusing themselves to death.