In an effort to combat smartphone addiction, one university has begun to offer scholarships for students who agree to forego their devices while they’re on campus. In a recent article for Newsweek, writer and fellow Federalist contributor Noelle Mering discusses the new “Unplugged Scholarship” at the Franciscan University of Steubenville (FUS) and the positive effect it’s had on the campus so far. Inspired by the “Friends”-like atmosphere of tech-free Wyoming Catholic University, school leaders of FUS wanted to encourage the same habits at their own school.
While well-intentioned and surprisingly appealing (“50 additional students joined the movement”), the fact that a university is now paying students to stay off their phones can seem somewhat extreme. Are students going to receive scholarships for eating their vegetables and brushing their teeth too? At what point will these students learn to manage their lives without external incentives? And do these administrators really believe that their scholarship will break students of addiction? Are things really so bad as to warrant this?
Unfortunately, yes, things are that bad, and the initiative at FUS was desperately needed. A great number of young adults are addicted to their phones, unable to go without them for more than a few minutes. They depend on them not only for constant diversion, but also for most of their socialization, forming relationships and having conversations almost exclusively through texting and social media. This has predictably led to a surge in depression and anxiety and has delayed adulthood in many teens who don’t know how to talk to people around them or perform basic tasks in the real world.
Instead of thinking of this issue as kids picking up a bad tendency that they can fix with a little self-control, people should think of this issue as a crippling vice that requires serious intervention. What makes this worse is that today’s world encourages this addiction at every turn. Today’s youths are like the children-turned-donkeys on Pleasure Island in the old Pinocchio movie, and they need to be saved by something as powerful as the fairy godmother.
Ideally, this intervention would primarily come from parents who have the power to limit screen time in their homes. However, many parents are themselves smartphone addicts or they have come to depend on using smartphones as pacifiers for their children. For this reason, it falls to the schools to create incentives like scholarships or devise whole-campus bans and effectively force all their students to move off the grid.
True, it remains to be seen whether this kind of intervention at this point in a young person’s life is enough to effect a lasting change in the way they live after college. After all, most millennials have made it through college without a smartphone, only to become addicted to them afterward.
However, speaking as a millennial and a high school English teacher, I find that the attachment that my generation has to their devices is different from the attachment that Gen Z has to theirs. Because I grew up without TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram, I was able to make friends, learn to talk to different people, and cultivate some degree of personal autonomy. As a result, I never really experienced the complete alienation and stress that my students now struggle with. Moreover, because I can think back to a time before smartphones, I have the capacity to know when to quit and live differently; today’s teenagers lack this frame of reference and likely wouldn’t know how to begin.
Nevertheless, awarding a whole scholarship to address this issue may seem misguided, seeing that scholarships are normally given to students who demonstrate academic or athletic excellence. They are meant to promote the kind of virtues that come from hard work and talent. Even scholarships predicated on one’s ethnicity or socioeconomic status are meant to promote diverse and equitable culture. What exactly is promoted or encouraged by the “Unplugged Scholarship”?
I would answer that it promotes human excellence and a more civilized culture. Much has been said (by myself and others) about the impact smartphones can have on learning, but even more can be said about what smartphones have done to human nature itself. In an essay recounting the lonely and helpless narcissism accompanying smartphone addiction, Gen Z writer Blaise Ebiner observes, “With the infinite amount of information provided to them, users grow up thinking they know everything about the world, but because they have been rendered incapable of true friendship, they will never learn to understand another human being.” The reality check of other human beings never arrives, leaving a person ignorant about their world and themselves.
I explain this to my students fairly regularly (they started panicking when I told them what was required for the “Unplugged Scholarship”). They like to think that their phones are making life easier, saving them from confrontations, rejections, and boredom. However, it is the opposite. Without fail, my best students all limit their time on their phones. They put in the time to complete their work, and they do well on it. Moreover, they put in time with their friends and family, and they live well too. Ironically, it’s their screen-addled peers obsessing over grades, staying up late, and shunning others most days.
At the end of her piece, Merring concludes, “Every human at every age wants something—not a series of tech fantasies that merely serve to pacify us, but the great struggle and grand adventure of engaging with human reality.” Indeed, programs combatting smartphone addiction like the one at FUS or Wyoming Catholic University should be the rule, not the exception. This is even truer for K-12 schools, which still do far too little about phone addiction. We owe it to younger generations to know a life outside the screen, both for the sake of our future as well for the sake of their humanity.