Students across northern Colorado were tired of having to constantly check their smart phones for texts and notifications. They knew the negative effects that can come from too much time online.
After the Littleton community experienced a number of teen suicides last year, local students created Offline October to foster more face-to-face conversations and give young people opportunities to spend time together in person.
St. Mary Catholic School in Littleton is one of several schools participating in this second annual project.
“Our student council students suggested that we promote Offline October in order for students to verbally interact more and to see the positives of face-to-face conversations,” said Anne Wagner, Licensed School Counselor at St. Mary’s.
“So many times, the students will be texting each other when they are together at ball games, parties and weekend events,” she continued. “We hope that students will be reminded that personal interaction is refreshing and builds better friendships and community.”
St. Mary’s eighth grader Lizzy Marcoux introduced the idea of Offline October to her fellow student council members, who agreed it was a great idea for their middle school. But when they presented the project to the rest of the students, they found an audience that was hesitant to participate.
“Not many people wanted to do it in the beginning,” said eighth grader Leo Buck.
The group decided to add an incentive — the class with the most sheets signed by their parents saying they completed Offline October would get to have a celebration at the end of it.
Buck and his peers’ dedication came from the potential positives they believed could result from their school participating in the project.
“I did it because of the leadership role that we have,” said Buck. “I thought if I did it, then I would be a model for other kids to try to do it as well. I also thought it would help me stay more focused on school work and homework, so I can get that done more efficiently.”
Jackson Alexander, an eighth grader who has a smart phone but doesn’t use social media, agreed.
“Once you get on your phone, you don’t want to get off to do your homework because that doesn’t sound very fun,” he said.
Marcoux, who uses Snapchat and Instagram, described the feeling of being “addicted” to spending time on social media.
“I wouldn’t get my homework done until late at night,” she said. “[Offline October] helps me for school work.”
Buck admitted he might spend up to five hours a day using his phone — whether that’s on Instagram or listening to music.
Much of that time for young people involves communicating in a way different from past generations.
“A lot of people just use social media,” said Alexander. “It’s not even a real text, it’s a random photo that they send to each other. You feel like you have to respond right away.”
Social media can also open the doors to cyber bullying and hurt feelings.
“Sometimes, if people are talking about going to this thing or how much fun they had at something and you weren’t included or weren’t there, you feel left out,” said Marcoux
“That’s something I like about Offline October,” she said. “If I’m not invited, I don’t know about it, which is good because they’re not Snapchatting me about it.”
Alexander admitted that “sometimes it’s helpful to correspond with friends.” But other times, it “can be a little annoying because you’d rather do something else, but it’s hard to not look at your phone.”
Wagner explained that unlike adults, children don’t always have self-control to think critically about what they post online.
“Social media can be a fantastic tool for our world, but young children may not have the experience or savvy to know that their participation may follow them for life,” she said.
Jim Baker, Principal at St. Mary’s, believes there’s a reason many young people feel more isolated and depressed after spending time on their phones.
“I think it’s because it all cheapens life — all social media,” he said. “It makes us feel inferior. It’s surface level, borderline bragging. It’s really dangerous that way.”
Nearing the end of their offline journey, the students agreed about the positives of avoiding screens and social media for an entire month.
“I think it feels pretty good that I can have self-control over the temptation of using Instagram,” said Buck. “I think it’s nice being able to overcome the temptation.”
The experience will likely impact the students’ future screen time.
“I think I’m going to try to use it much less,” said Marcoux, who enjoyed “seeing how nice it was not being on it so much every day.”
Baker predicts that Offline October will have a major impact on the students’ real-life connections to their loved ones.
He hopes “that they can develop that sense that a relationship develops because I put something into it. Relationships don’t just magically appear. It’s because I choose to be present with another person.
“My greatest hope would be that they’d have some awareness of how important relationships are,” he said.