Why these young people embraced unplugging

College students talk anxiety, digital devices, and real connection.

Young people just can’t get enough of their phones, right? Turns out, not so much! In this edition of Action Network Live!, Professor Joni Siani and her Manhattanville College students discussed their relationships with digital devices, how parents’ expectations of connectedness can affect young people’s anxiety, and what they learned when they unplugged during the No App for Life challenge.

Here are our top takeaways from the conversation:


All-digital communication can put us in “fight or flight” mode.

Dr. Elana Light, a clinical psychologist and assistant director of the Student Health and Counseling Center at Manhattanville, noted that mental health professionals in colleges and high schools have seen a significant increase in anxiety disorders just in the last five years, as well as an increase in avoidant behaviors. Also on the rise? Reliance on digital devices and social media as a way to manage feelings of anxiety – which can make anxiety and its physiological effects even worse! “When we’re anxious, our bodies go into fight or flight mode,” Dr. Light explained. Humans’ “fight or flight” reaction gets our bodies ready to handle a predator, but, says Dr. Light, “now our bodies are reacting that way when we don’t get a text back from a person, or having a missed text from a parent and thinking it’s an emergency.”


Parents can “transfer their anxiety” to their kids through constant digital connection.

Helena Rampersaud, a senior at Manhattanville, described how both of her parents are usually “on edge” given that they live in New York City. “There’s something happening every day and you always find out right away. Of course, the first thought any parent would have is is my kid okay?” Helena said, noting that if she doesn’t answer her parents right away, they become upset at her. Junior Amanda Sejda described a similar experience: “At 21 years old, I still feel like I should be texting my mom before I go anywhere, just in case.” The students agreed that the pressure to respond to their parents immediately stressed them out. “It’s a little too much,” Helena said. “They need to trust that we’re okay.”


Taking time to unplug completely reframes things.

As a part of their course, Professor Siani’s students took the No App for Life challenge, in which participants limit their use of digital devices in favor of IRL, face-to-face interaction for one week. Participants are encouraged to document their feelings about going tech-free, as well as any difficult or meaningful moments. During the challenge, Joni’s students discovered that they were less dependent on social media than they realized, and that they got a lot more out of being screen-free! As alumna Mikela Stephenson put it, she can just put down her phone and feel okay now.

For Amanda, the challenge seemed impossible at first. “When I first began class, I had a set mindset. Everyone was hopeless, we can’t be fixed, it’s too far,” she explained. As the challenge progressed, though, Amanda came to a startling realization. “I discovered I was disconnecting myself from the relationships that I needed to be happy…I feel like I unlocked some secret that not everybody has.”

Helena was initially nervous about how unplugging would affect her, both professionally and artistically. For her job, she always made herself available outside of work hours. And as a spoken word artist, she uses Instagram to book events and promote herself. But to her surprise, nothing bad happened when Helena unplugged! In fact, she says that the space that she created for herself during the challenge helped her as an artist. “[Unplugging] felt good. I was burning out, and I needed it,” she said.

Action Network Live! is a project of CCFC’s Children’s Screen Time Action Network, and brings together experts, parents, and caregivers to talk about critical issues around kids and technology. Watch past webinars, learn more about joining the Network, or sign up for our email list to be notified about upcoming events!