The Unplugged Life Is Worth Living

Published June 14, 2023

National Catholic Register

An innovative grassroots movement to decrease the reach of smartphones and increase the potential for human engagement is germinating on college campuses and in state legislatures. Is this something to commend and expand or a futile effort motivated by fear?

A recent article by John Grosso, ‘Smartphones and social media are not the problem. Unplugging and banning are not the solution,’ takes to task a new Unplugged Scholarship at Franciscan University of Steubenville encouraging students to voluntarily give up their smartphones and engage in efforts to inspire others to do so as well. I am on the board of the Unplugged Scholarship and have written about it previously.

Grosso summarizes his position thusly:

I am dumbfounded that an institute for higher learning would actively encourage its students to accept fear over knowledge, to run away and hide from the world, and to cede social media to the problematic forces of greed and narcissism that currently inhabit it.

The discussion is important and warrants a deeper consideration of fear, knowledge and responsibility in the era of big tech.

Firstly, the framing of what is happening at FUS as encouraging the acceptance of fear serves well the writer’s conclusion but does not serve an accurate representation of the reality on the ground. Any person making a prudential decision can be castigated as making a fearful one. It is easy to confuse the two and the distinction rests with reason. Is encouraging young adults to unplug in accord with reason or does it stem from an irrational fear?

Mountains of evidence support that it is reasonable and even wise to take with grave seriousness the epidemic of smartphone addiction. If there is a problem with fear, it is directly correlated not with the abandoning of smartphones but with the use of them. We are seeing record levels of anxiety in young adults. Anorexia, self-harm and suicide have all increased dramatically since the arrival of the smartphone (and well before the COVID shutdowns). Smartphones are not the sole cause of all this, but there is no reasonable way to doubt that they are a pivotal factor in it.

Grosso says he does not doubt the problematic aspects of social media, but elsewhere in the article refers to social media as the “bogeyman du jour” and dismisses efforts to combat it as a “trendy thing to blame.” It is hard to square such characterizations with the taking seriously of the mental health crisis plaguing teens and young adults.

Secondly, in offering the scholarship, the university is not rejecting its mission of fostering knowledge; it is amplifying it. Again, the evidence is clear. Smartphones are far more a distraction and obstacle to the intellectual life than an avenue to it. Knowledge requires the ability to concentrate. We can set aside our phones at times to do so and that is good and helpful, but it does not resolve the fact that our ability to focus has been seriously degraded due to smartphone use. This might not require their total rejection, but it certainly makes the case that opting out of smartphone use facilitates the mission of a university, rather than detracts from that mission.

I had the opportunity to meet with the kids in the Unplugged Scholarship earlier this year. They did not seem fearful; they seemed freed. They weren’t naïve nor anxious about the modern world, but rather clear-eyed and engaged. One spoke of how he had taught himself to play piano in the time he used to spend scrolling. A young woman spoke of how she had read two novels this year for fun for the first time since her pre-smartphone days. They mostly seemed ambivalent about eventually rejoining the ranks of the plugged, but open to discerning that later.

Perhaps Grosso means FUS is compromising its purpose of fostering knowledge more narrowly — specifically, knowledge about how to use smartphones well. I agree that is important, but it is much easier to ascertain how to use them responsibly if one is not already enslaved to them. The human brain isn’t fully developed until around age 25 or 26. Forfeiting a smartphone in college allows the student — in a formative time of life — to experience the richness of life and cement the purpose of managing tech well in the future. One can only really know why it is important to resist the constant pull of a virtual life if he knows what a deeply human life has to offer.

Grosso is also skeptical of policies legislation that would, among other things, “prohibit kids under 13 being on social media, require parental consent, and prohibit algorithms for kids age 13-17.”

Such prohibition Grosso deems an “abrogation of personal responsibility on every level. An outright ban doesn’t encourage parents to teach, model or practice sustainable social media use. A ban doesn’t hold big tech accountable for their platforms and put the onus on multibillion dollar corporations to change. Banning children doesn’t prevent the expansion of hate speech.”

I’d certainly like to hold big tech accountable too, but I don’t see any way in which my kids’ participation in it achieves that. Both anecdotal evidence and comprehensive studies support the claim that smartphones are akin to a highly addictive drug. Parental control to keep such things out of their families is an assuming of responsibility, not an abdication of it. Laws that support that effort should be applauded and replicated.

Finally, Grosso contends, “Unless every student in the program is going into cloistered religious life, sooner or later, they will be confronted with the realities of digital media. When they do, they may find that they are unprepared for life in the modern age.”

It is not really that difficult to adapt to digital media. In fact, it is far too easy. Encouraging young adults to immerse themselves first in the uncurated, beautiful awkwardness of an embodied human life will better equip them to navigate the digital world ahead. The concern ought not be that these kids might be unprepared for modern life, but rather that most kids might be unprepared for a human one.

Noelle Mering Noelle Mering is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She is the author of Awake, Not Woke: A Christian Response to the Cult of Progressive Ideologyand co-author of the Theology of Home series. She is an editor at and a wife and mother of six children.

Noelle Mering is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center where she co-directs EPPC’s Theology of Home Project. She is the author of the book Awake, Not Woke: A Christian Response to the Cult of Progressive Ideology (TAN Books, May 2021).

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