Bowdoin students' Facebook 'detox' brings clarity
BRUNSWICK — All 14 of Dhiraj Murthy's students have pages on Facebook, the popular social networking Web site that may have replaced the mini-refrigerator as the No. 1 necessity for 18- to 24-year-olds.
For that reason Murthy, an associate professor of sociology at Bowdoin College, thought asking his students to give up Facebook for at least 24 hours might generate some interesting discussion for a seminar called "In the Facebook Age."
The experiment was simple: students couldn't update their Facebook status or post photos on their "wall." No online chatting, no checking "news" feeds from their sprawling network of "friends." No Facebook. Period.
Murthy then asked his students to blog about the experience.
Several students described the experiment as "Facebook detox" or going "Facebook-free" and "cold-turkey," words typically reserved for drug-recovery programs.
While some students were cavalier about quitting Facebook, most returned from the experience with a new understanding of how the site has been woven into their lives.
"All of the students responded differently," Murthy said. "But what was fascinating was reading their reflections. Only by going off Facebook did some of them realize how much of an impact it has become to them."
Facebook was created by college students, so it makes sense that students are a large segment of its 175 million active users. Some estimates have put college students using Facebook at nearly 8 million. But the trendiness of social media sites suggest Facebook's popularity with college students could level off, especially since Facebook's fastest growing demographic last year was the 35 and older set – in other words, parents.
But right now Facebook remains as popular as ever on college campuses (users grew by 18 percent last year). Murthy, who is planning to hold his Facebook seminar next semester, can attest to that. He said Facebook has become habitual for some of his students.
"One of the larger points of the exercise was how much electronic media has become embedded in their lives," Murthy said.
At least one student admitted to waking up one morning during the experiment and automatically typing the Facebook address into her Web browser. Another wondered if his friends were posting embarrassing photos on his wall, while yet another admitted that a weekend road trip to Yale University helped him get through the detox.
"Being separated from Facebook didn't seem like a big deal at the time," said freshman Antonio Watson, "but after I stopped my detox, I noticed that I was back to going on Facebook about 10 times a day. I don't have a ton of exciting things to do on Facebook, but I go on it so frequently because it's there and convenient for when I want to procrastinate from getting work done."
In fact, Facebook's role as a time-killer was a prominent theme. For freshman Christina Matulis, going cold-turkey hammered home that realization.
"For me, on a daily basis Facebook is a huge distraction and means of procrastination," Matulis said. "Do I really need to be updated on the daily lives of 'friends' who I know only through brief middle school interactions? Do I need to spend part of my day examining endless albums of photos? While doing so may prove amusing, for the most part these actions ... are irrelevant to my current life and solely function as a homework distraction."
During the detox period, Matulis said she didn't experience a pressing need to visit the site.
"Instead, come Sunday evening when I had not logged on to Facebook for a full 24 hours, I felt a bit refreshed, realizing that I had not missed out on anything important, and I had a remarkably productive and enjoyable day," she said.
Murthy's exercise also explored how students viewed their online relationships versus the ones forged in real life. What happens, he wondered, when the two worlds collide?
"I was really interested in what is at the heart of communities and relationships," Murthy said. "Is an online relationship intimate or fake?"
Some of Murthy's students reported that offline communities occupied a special place that social media sites like Facebook couldn't replace.
"There are some friends I only feel comfortable talking to through Facebook," Hillary Smyth said. "Then there are others who I feel awkward speaking to online. These relationships are both real, but they have different qualities."
Watson said he used Facebook to meet people at Bowdoin before arriving on campus. He said the experience established preconceived notions, notions that were proven wrong when he met his new Facebook friends in real life.
"In my opinion, real-life interactions are more telling about a person than an online profile," Watson said.
Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org.