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MIT Technology Review

Teens are all obsessed with social media? Not so much.

Meet the young people who stay offline and hear why they’re doing it.

December 27, 2019
Cell Phone useCell Phone use
Cell Phone use
Sharon Hofer

Sharon Hofer

16, New York

Sharon Hofer lives in a Bruderhof community in Walden, New York. The Bruderhof, who have 23 settlements in seven countries, are Christians who live communally and use modern technology sparingly.

I’ve lived at a Bruderhof community my whole life. We have about 300 people and live in big apartment buildings that house up to eight families. We have a dining hall, and make all our own meals, and have lunch and suppers together. We have a garden where we grow vegetables, a farm where we raise cows, and our own meat processing plant. The grass is really green; there’s lots of trees.

I go to a private school in Esopus, New York. It’s a four-year high school and has no technology except for a computer lab where seniors take typing. I don’t have a phone or a computer, so I’m never really online. I do my homework with a pen, paper, and calculator. I’ve never seen social media. If I need to look something up, like for a research paper, I ask my mom and go online with her computer, which she uses for work.

There aren’t any rules about what’s allowed and what’s not allowed, which makes the Bruderhof different from other religious groups. There’s a willingness to try new things. We don’t see technology as a bad thing unless it’s taking the place of real interactions and connections between people.

This story appeared in a package with another story

  • I asked my students to turn in their cell phones and write about living without them

People do have phones here, but they don’t go around looking at them the entire time. When I was in eighth grade we went to New York City for a tour and I was seeing all these people and all they do is look at their phones. That was different to see. It was just funny, because no one was talking to anyone on the streets. Here, when we walk past people we say, “Hi, how’s it been?”

If I had the option of using the internet for a day, I think it would be fun to see how it works and what’s all out there. I’m into sports, so maybe I’d watch a game on YouTube or look up highlights. So a day would be fine, but not much longer. I worry that I wouldn’t spend any time with my family if I had constant access to the internet.

Judah

Judah Siegand

15, Tennessee

Judah Siegand’s parents founded Parents Who Fight, an organization that advocates for online safety for minors. He has grown up with strict limits on his technology use, but in 2018 he was one of 15 students chosen to participate in Microsoft’s teen Council for Digital Good.

Growing up, my access to technology was basically nonexistent. My parents believe that if it isn’t necessary, then we don’t get it. We don’t have a smart TV. My mom has a computer for work, but that’s really all she uses it for.

There was a period in fourth grade when I really bugged my parents for a phone. In eighth grade I got a flip phone so I could coordinate my football schedule with them. There were a bunch of kids that would always come up to me and be like, “Do the flip phone thing!” I would flip it out with my thumb and put it up to my ear and they would all crack up so hard.

I finally got an iPhone 6 over the summer. I don’t have any social media. I don’t have any games on my phone. There’s an app that allows me 30 minutes of internet access a day and has a saved search that’s monitored by my mom and dad. During independent study period I finish homework and then watch a YouTube video for like 10 minutes and then never even go back on the internet the whole day. I got an Xbox last Christmas, and I can play that four hours a week.

When it comes down to it, I don’t even really want social media. I feel like it invites you to have friendships solely based on followers, and it kind of turns your friends into a number. By not being on it, I stay out of the drama that starts there. I get to focus on friendships that are deeper and long-lasting. To me, a real friendship is someone that you can talk to about deep things and you don’t feel like you have to impress them all the time.

When I go to college I will definitely want to have some kind of gaming system. That’s how me and a lot of my friends connect. I’ll probably want social media to keep in touch with my friends. Hopefully, by then I’ll be able to really weigh those decisions and have learned how to balance life and online use.

Aliza Kopans

Aliza Kopans

16, Massachusetts

Aliza Kopans took a break from her public school to attend a special program that limits technology use.

Right now I’m actually at a school program up in Vermont and I’m about halfway through the semester. It’s an alternative academic space and also a working farm. We grow 70% of our own food. And one of the things that they do here is take away your phone for the first half.

I have an iPhone and I text a lotthat’s really picked up in this last year. My phone use is very minimal compared to other kids my age, but I definitely spend more time on it than I’d like. The rest of the year I go to a big public school in a suburb of Boston, and I have it during the day and sometimes in classes, but I’ll shut it off sometimes or leave it in my locker. I used to spend so much time scrolling through pointless things on Instagram and then just not feeling good afterwards. So my best friends and I deleted our accounts together. I’m really trying to self-manage when it comes to screen time.

In the mountains where I am right now, we only have Wi-Fi in the academic building for homework and class purposes. At home if I got stuck on writing an essay, I’d open up YouTube and two hours later I haven’t made any progress. Sometimes I’d shut off the Wi-Fi to stop getting distracted. Here that isn’t a problem. Now that we’re halfway through the semester, though, everyone gets to choose if they get their phone back or not. Personally, I don’t think we should get them back, because the group dynamic is so good right now without the distraction of phones in everyone’s faces.

I wish there was more guidance from the older generation, and especially teachers, in terms of how to monitor technology use. But then again, everyone’s kind of figuring it out at the same time. Older generations haven’t lived with it since they were young. I genuinely do think that most people don’t want to be wasting hours by themselves watching Netflix and surfing the web.

Keiki Kanahele-Santos

Keiki Kanahele-Santos

20, Hawaii

Keiki Kanahele-Santos lives on the island of Oahu in a rural 45-acre village that was founded in 1994 in an effort to create a sovereign state for native Hawaiians. The village has little internet access.

Growing up here, technology was nonexistent. There is no service here. As a kid, I didn’t know you could get internet access at your home. I thought it was only at schools. I didn’t need internet access until I went to high school. And then I was like, wowI felt like we were going to have flying cars the next year. I didn’t even know online games were a thing until I went to school. All the kids were talking about it and I just felt left out.

Since I didn’t have internet at home, I went to school early to do homework. I play sports, so the window to do homework was maybe 30 minutes to do online assignments before practice started. Practice would finish, it’d be like 7 p.m., and I would have to come home, do my paper assignments, and then wake up early the next morning to go to school on time to get a good computer.

I have Facebook now, Snapchat, Twitter. I’m not posting my life story, I’m just trying to keep up with the world. I don’t want to be left behind anymore. We are trying to get internet up here. It would liven the place up. It might sound boring, but it would be nice just to get some movie sites. A lot of the adults up here want to get back into school, but they can’t leave because they have children and grandchildren. Internet access would help them become online students, which is what I’m doing.

Communication would be better. My grandfather sends out a lot of emails and no one answers.

I’m not trying to say “We don’t have internet, and it’s boring up here.” It would be nice if we had it. But I’d still live every day up here without it. We have the most beautiful view I could ever see. We can see the ocean, islands, and boats out at sea. It’s like summer vacation every day. It makes you forget the internet is even a thing.

Ethan Snyder

Ethan Snyder

17, Virginia

Ethan Snyder is a high school junior who lives in rural Virginia, where only just over half the residents have access to broadband that meets the federal government’s benchmarks.

Where I live is definitely what people would call a redneck or country area. It’s a lot of fun. There’s a great sense of community.

And there’s virtually no internet access. In my house, the internet that we have is supposedly unlimited, but we’ve already run out of gigs and it was virtually impossible to get my homework done the other day. I couldn’t load my drive or open documents. When we run out, it will only work if there’s only one device connected to the internet, and we have anywhere from six to seven people living in our house. That can really complicate things because everyone’s trying to get their stuff done at once. We sort of have to schedule when we get things done. I’m usually the first one home, so I can get my homework done. I try to rush through it. I have stayed up a couple of times to around 12 or 1 a.m., because at that point you don’t have to worry about having a super high speed because everybody else is asleep.

The hardest thing for me is just opening stuff up. It’s very frustrating when I go online and it’s raining outside, or the wind is blowing the trees and blocking the signal, or it’s snowingthen the internet is ridiculously slow and it’s so hard to even go online and open up my email. On a really bad day, it can take anywhere from five to 20 minutes. I’ll leave the computer open and go make a snack, or I’ll go outside and throw a baseball and come back.

I’m an outdoors personI’ve never been that into the internet and electronics. I didn’t have a phone until a few months ago. I have social media, but I’m not on it that often. There’s not a real need for me to sit there and text all my friends or Snapchat, because I can just go see them.

I don’t necessarily want to stay in Louisa County. There are other factors, but part of it is the internet serviceit’s just so bad.

Katrina Quinoz

Katrina Quinoz

20, California

Katrina Quinoz, a college freshman and former foster youth, was part of a committee that helped write a 2018 bill mandating access to computers and the internet for youth in care in California.

I entered the foster care system for the first time in 2009, and I’ve lived in seven different foster homes. In the first home my foster mom wouldn’t give us any internet access. She feared that youth in the system were more likely to be trafficked and things like that. She was a former foster youth herself, so I understand why she had those fears. But she never gave us a Wi-Fi password or anything. I felt very disconnected. I was in a new environment, a new city. I didn’t know where anything was.

I didn’t have any way to contact family or friends. Usually, I did it through social media. It cut me off from my sisters, who had entered the system at the same time. My godmother found out really late that we had entered the system, and she wanted to get custody and have me stay with her in Monterey County, but I wasn’t able to contact her when it happened to let her know. 

My second foster mom also had the same fear; I wasn’t allowed to have a smartphone, even if I paid for it. We were given a little bit of technology access, but not much. If I had to do something with Wi-Fi, I made sure to finish it at school. She was a mothering type that just wanted to protect the kids, but at the end of the day it made my studies harder.

Right before my senior year, I moved again. That foster mom was a lot younger than the ones I had before. She knew most things relied on technology. She had computers for all the youth to use in case they needed to do schoolwork, and later she did provide me with a smartphone. She wanted me to learn independence, and encouraged me to be safe by giving me the tools to recognize a scam. She educated me about the dangers instead of cutting me off.

When I turned 18 and could access the internet whenever I wanted, it was a little weird at first. No one’s asking me who I’m texting or what I’m doing on the computer. It took some time, but I got used to it.