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Professor Promotes ‘Digital Detox’ at Liberty University

by Gregory Clay

Need to get unplugged and tune out but just can’t take that first step? Is an addiction to your cell phone and other mobile and gaming devices becoming a major hindrance to your college goals? And are you on a guilt trip about it?

Well, it sounds like you could use a little “digital detox.”

Dr. Sylvia Frejd and Shaquille Cook

Enter Dr. Sylvia Frejd, a professor, life coach and counselor at Liberty University, a self-described private, nonprofit Christian school, located in Lynchburg, Virginia.

In 2014, Frejd established the Center for Digital Wellness at Liberty.

She even trademarked the center’s name with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, making it the only center with that name on a college campus. Her mission is “to make technology serve us; not us serve technology.” She also wants students to engage in critical thinking.

Some of her analytics are startling.

Frejd talks about EI, or emotional intelligence, and refers to studies conducted at the University of Michigan and elsewhere.

“Since 2000, empathy is down 40 percent among college students; narcissism is up 30 percent,” explains Frejd, who has a Ph.D. in ministry leadership, though she isn’t a minister.

And then there is the anecdotal evidence.

“We’ve had cases of students failing out of school because of addiction to video-gaming,” Frejd says.

That’s one of the reasons why Frejd, 54, implemented a 10-point program to help students in her detox program. Here are some of the steps:

Step 1: It’s not ‘I tweet, therefore I am.’ Think twice before you post,tweet, text, or upload.

Step 4: Invest in relationships. Real people trump virtual people.

Step 7: Get out in nature. Take walks, hike, feel the sun and breathe fresh air for a change.

Shaquille Cook, a 24-year-old adviser in the College of Applied Studies and Academic Success (CASAS) at Liberty, served at Frejd’s Wellness Center as part of his work-study program in 2015. One of his duties was assisting a team producing the study guide for the digital wellness program.

“She’s very creative,” Cook says of Frejd. “She knows how to reach people where they are.”

An example Cook cites is Frejd’s red-poster campaign.

“She got her marketing team to make these red posters, about two feet by two feet, to place on the ground,” Cook says. “The posters had the inscription, ‘Look Up! Start a conversation.’ Think about it: Students are walking around campus looking down at their screens anyway. So, she had the posters put on the ground where they would see them.”

The posters were placed on the campus sidewalks, at campus bus stops and on walkways in front of the classroom buildings and the dining hall.

Frejd’s campaign is an effort to prevent the campus from becoming a haven for misanthropes.

Though there could be more to the digital addiction story.

On April 9, 2017, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, who also occasionally investigates issues and trends for “60 Minutes” on CBS, narrated a segment focusing on the technology behind the technology, about how high-tech firms program our smart devices to allegedly make us addicted to them.

Tristan Harris, a former Google product manager, told the world that the apps and content on cell phones are deliberately programmed to become habit forming. Harris compared cell phone usage to slot machines in Las Vegas.

“Every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, ‘What did I get?’” he said.

People check to see if they got a whole new passel of “likes” on Facebook and Instagram or positive reinforcement through the emotions of emojis.

As Harris said, “There’s a whole playbook of techniques to get you using the product for as long as possible.”

Why?

They want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time. Because that’s how they make their money,” Harris said.

Tech companies play the “like” game to ultimately win the “money” game.

The “brain-hacking” phenomenon in technology has been called modern-day “digital cocaine.”

An even better comparison could be likening digital dependence to a sort of new-age nicotine, the addiction-causing substance found in cigarettes. In fact, the Big Tobacco tug-of-war with science, which fomented in the 1950s, intensified in the 1960s, as science confirmed cigarette smoking’s link to cancer.

In 1965, Congress passed legislation requiring the now-familiar warning on cigarette packages, though it took six years to become reality. The original warning stated: “Warning: The Surgeon General Has Determined That Cigarette Smoking Is Dangerous to Your Health.” In 1970, Congress passed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, thereby banning cigarette commercials on television and radio.

In 1988, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a report: “The Health Consequences of Smoking: Nicotine Addiction — A Report of the Surgeon General.” The report described the pharmacological basis of tobacco addiction.

This historical context opens up a whole new set of questions and issues in the digital health realm.

“Is it ethical to use the vulnerabilities in our brains to make us even more vulnerable?” Frejd asks. “Technology has rewired our brains.”

Frejd also speaks of digital power as it relates to gender persona.

“Starting with girls age 13, some of them are saying, ‘Let’s see how many “likes” I get.’” she says. “That will determine how I feel about myself today.”

She adds: “Some of our girls are buying ‘likes’ on Facebook. Some girls want 300 ‘likes’ a day.”

And college campuses?

“Our college women do it too,” Frejd says.

Here’s an example: Have you ever noticed how groups of four to eight young people — often college age — act in restaurants, bars or coffee shops? Often, something is missing.

They may be speaking to each other and they may be together, but then again they are not so together.

They often stare down at their mobile devices.

There’s a name for this pack mentality involving screens.

“I call it absence-presence,” Frejd says.

Yes, that’s FaceTime vs. face time. Frejd’s advice is that there should be three digital-free spaces in home life — the kitchen, the dining room and the car.

However, there’s a catch.

“The kids I talk to say their parents are getting sucked in, too,” Frejd says. “You can’t expect your kids to be digital-free, if you, the parents, aren’t.”

In fact a national survey of more than 2,300 parents conducted by the Development School of Communication at Northwestern University determined that “parents’ media behavior appears to be a key driver in determining their family’s orientation toward screen media.” Young children of parents who spent 11 hours on their devices spent 4.5 hours per day glued to screens. Kids of parents who spent two hours on media spent only 1.5 hours per day on electronics.

This means parenting just got tougher.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that parents don’t introduce digital devices to children under the age of 2, says Frejd. “ADD and ADHD are increasing in our small children,” she adds.

Many parents are clearly worried. In fact, there is a nonacademic facility called the Technology Wellness Center in Scottsdale, Arizona, that helps parents who are concerned about the impact of the overuse of technology on their children, especially adolescents.

Frejd speaks to middle school and high school students around the country. She also crisscrosses the nation, delivering guest lectures on digital discipline at various colleges.

As for herself, Frejd exercises daily discipline by taking walks on campus and leaving all digital devices at her office. She warns against taking cellphones to restrooms.

Another pitfall of digital dependence is sleeping disorder. Some folk can’t sleep without checking their phones one last time. And another last time. And another. Before you know it, there is no last time.

And what about how digital addiction can impact one’s marriage, job, or household? Well, this lifestyle can certainly present challenges for current college students once they graduate and settle into their own post-campus relationships, workplaces and homes.

That’s why there needs to be a last call in the bedroom, for college students as well as others. As Frejd says, “At night, take the cellphone out of plain sight.”

Frejd is known to have fireside chats with students at her Center for Digital Wellness at Liberty.

And her detox booklet expounds on the message.

“The booklet challenges you,” Cook explains. At the end of each chapter is an exercise for the week. “It teaches you to start conversations with people — while riding buses, standing in lines, eating at restaurants, for example. It gets back to organic, intentional relationships.”

Essentially the goal is a return to face-to-face engagement.

“I feel like I’m here to preserve humanity,” Frejd says.

And not surprisingly, her license plate has the inscription: “Digital Well.”

  • This story also appears in the June 1,2017 print edition of Diverse.
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