I’m hiking up a trail, wearing a pack that weighs 30 pounds. It’s only been half an hour, and I’m already breathing heavily and sticky with sweat. I’m surrounded by people I’ve never met before, locked in a struggle of willpower as we trudge up against the mountain that stands before us. This is the first week of my semester at a boarding school in North Carolina. While there, I’ll go on backpacking, paddling, and rock-climbing trips, in addition to taking regular classes. It’s a rare opportunity since I’m only a sophomore in high school. But, behind the incredible experiences and the chance to learn new skills, there’s one big catch: no cell phones or internet for all three months.
Like a large percentage of teenagers, my days used to revolve around my phone and television. Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and Netflix are available at the click of a button, along with unlimited exposure to everything the internet has to offer. According to Pew Research Center, this easy access has led to more than a fifth of teens being on their phones “almost constantly.” Personally, I’d find myself scrolling through YouTube videos for hours, or looking through photos of people I’ve never even met. It may sound unhealthy, and that’s because it was.
I’m growing up in a generation that relies on technology for everything. I’m forming my opinions and values based on my experiences, which are either filtered through the internet, or created by it. My phone had become a constant companion, and no one seemed to know for sure what that would mean for my development.
I believe that internet accessibility can have a positive impact. Khan Academy, for instance, provides courses on every topic imaginable for free. If that doesn’t work, there are millions of apps to create and experience anything. The internet allows someone my age to follow any major news investigations and movements, such as #MeToo. I can see the headlines of the latest celebrity or politician arrested for sexual assault allegations minutes afterward. So what’s wrong?
The problem is that I’ve become desensitized to the stories that should be powerful. When I see the latest accusation, I’m not walking out of school and protesting, nor sitting back and eating popcorn. Instead, I treat it like television. Just like a show, the emotions that come along with the intensity are momentary. With my face locked on a screen, I don’t have to be responsible for anything that happens. The steady stream of information coming from my phone means that the significance is lost, and given the same value rating as the latest season of “Stranger Things.”
As I get older and begin to lose my dreamy, care-free spirit, the feeling of freedom without responsibility is lustrous, and so my screen remains the desirable alternative to the cold realities of adulthood. Along with this, the entertainment industry continues to optimize an immersive experience, providing a realistic escape from reality. Specifically, video game companies prioritize graphics that look more lifelike and develop virtual reality systems that isolate the user from the real world.
Adults may see this as a necessary escape from the stress of their everyday lives, but it can be dangerous for someone like me, who uses this escape to avoid the discomfort of growing and changing. In an awkward situation, my natural inclination is to turn to my phone. Instead of being vulnerable to new experiences, I go with what’s familiar. So, the upsides of unlimited access to the internet are not often used by us teens, because we would rather play a game or watch a show. However it happens, we end up becoming obsessed with our devices.
I have come to recognize that I don’t need technology all the time, and have, with the help of my parents, made steps to reduce my media consumption and experience life without the constant distraction. I don’t think that would’ve been possible for me without a change of perspective. It began about a year ago when I noticed that my phone was having a negative impact on my social skills. Instead of hanging out with friends, I’d be playing video games. When I did go out, my attention was on my phone, instead of the real world. This was when I investigated ways to move away from technology and made the decision to leave my phone behind and embark into the unknown.
Without my phone, I could no longer hide behind my internet identity. I couldn’t be anything except myself for what felt like the first time. It was hard to accept that I wasn’t the person I acted like online because that’s who I’d been pretending to be for so long. I felt the vulnerability that had been missing because I could no longer distract myself from my feelings or the world around me. It taught me that real growth comes from awkwardness and discomfort because that’s when I had to learn how to adapt. If I hadn’t gone to The Outdoor Academy, I don’t know how long it would’ve taken for me to realize that.
Returning home proved to be difficult, and it took awhile to learn to be myself at a school that knew me as someone else. Again, I had to learn how to adapt. This time, it was all about striking a balance with technology. Five months later, I feel more confident and self-aware than ever.
And, surprisingly, I still have a smartphone.
Henry (pictured), 16, is a junior at Decatur High School and VOX Media Café reporter this summer.