Step into the Center for Digital Wellness and you’ll likely hear people chatting and that’s about it. Because that’s what the Wi-Fi disabled room at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, is for re-connecting and interacting with your fellow humans no screens, gizmos, or gadgets in the way.
You might find the center’s founder, Sylvia Frejd, a minister and counselor by training, in the conversation corner with the fireplace lit, or at the so-called “kitchen table,” ready for a chat and face-to-face interaction. “Look up,” she advises students and faculty and staff often walking with their heads down in their phones. “Experience the world around you.”
It’s no wonder she’s known as the “digital wellness lady.”
Most recently, Frejd challenged students to take a 24-hour digital fast in conjunction with the National Day of Unplugging, which is no easy feat. “Some students look at us like ‘I could never do that,'” she said.
Some of the feedback she got back about the day was positive: how enjoyable it was; how stress levels dropped; how it felt like a refreshing recharge. Others told her how challenging it was and how they couldn’t do it. That’s OK, she said in a phone call last week at least they are trying.
She knows it’s hard to go cold turkey from checking our phones constantly, so she offers some tips and advice to work up to a full day gadget-free. She suggests “mini habit changes,” like keeping the phone in the backseat while driving; keeping the phone off the table during meals or committing to a digital-free meeting or conversation with a friend.
Too much of a good thing
Frejd said many students leave home for college lacking real-life conversation skills. That’s compounded by the freedom of being on their own for the first time with what feels like unlimited access to mindless video game sessions, long Netflix binges and endless scrolling through Instagram. “A lot of students havent developed those muscles for face-to-face conversation,” she said.
To get those muscles working, she opened the wellness center at the Christian university in the fall of 2014, shortly after co-authoring the book, The Digital Invasion: How Technology Is Shaping You and Your Relationships. She says the center’s name is purposely positive and not something like “the Center for Internet Addiction.” “We love our technology,” she acknowledges, but it can go too far. The center has plastered the campus with posters and chalk messages on the ground. Supporters have even set up pop-up tents around campus to encourage passersby to “look up” and staged a dining hall flash mob.
She has students referred to her who are on academic probation because of a social media or video game addiction. She said many can’t turn off streaming videos. She talks them through their addictions which she says usually stem from anxiety. Research shows one of the biggest mental health issues at college campuses is anxiety, usually in the form of social anxiety.
Learning to unplug
Shaquille Cook, 23, graduated from Liberty University two years ago and still works at the school as an adviser but in a recent phone call he was still as excited about the digital detox program as when he was a student-worker at the center. Before he graduated with a degree in psychology in 2015, he wrote a review on the center’s Facebook page: “This center is focused on preparing people for a healthy digital life as well as being aware of others by not being distracted by being on cell phones all day. Love this place!!!!!!!”
And he still does. The center taught him how to live a more meaningful life. “The best benefit that I got from it was I was purposefully engaging with people.” His trips on the bus usually were devoted to checking Facebook and the news on his phone and listening to music while plugged into his headphones. But because of the center, he realized, “Theres a whole bus full of people I could engage with.” Most importantly, he’s maintained this lifestyle.
Cook said he’s “intentional and engaged with my surroundings” as much as possible, but he knows this is a struggle for a lot of people. Many have trouble making eye contact, having real conversations, and staying away from the allure of social media pings, notifications and online popularity. “Do not trade your Facebook friends for your real friends,” he said. “Be engaged with real conversation.”
“My job is getting harder and harder,” Frejd said.
The digital detox concept is nothing new with expensive gadget-free retreats and movements to unplug, but Frejd is trying to tap into the early stages of our phone dependency by working with new students. She hopes her ideas can permeate to even younger students whom she speaks with at middle school and high school presentations. With young people getting their first cellphones closer to 10 years old, according to recent findings, they are “even more immersed in that technology.”
“My job is getting harder and harder,” she said.
Her digital crusade all started after looking at her personal life with her kids constantly playing video games and retorting back that she was always on her laptop. So she started researching how to manage her digital life.
After she worked on the book about the impact of our devices on our relationships, she went all in on teaching students, adults, and parents on how to handle the digital overload keeping us from talking to each other or exploring nature. People tell Frejd, Wow we need this. So she continues teaching prevention, awareness, and education. “I keep talking about it,” she said.
While Liberty University claims to be the only college campus with a dedicated center like this, colleges are well aware of the pitfalls of social media and smartphone addictions and have been for years. Frejd said she’s contacted by other schools often who want to implement this type of dedicated space for their internet-dependent students.
It’s not all meaningful conversations and phone-free walks through the quad for Frejd. “People catch me” on the phone, she said, and they say her well-worn phrase back to her: “Digital wellness lady, look up!” She knows she’ll continue to get busted for her own bad habits they are very hard to break. Like she said, “We all need to work harder at it.”