Be Here Now: Unplugging Abroad

On all of our Carpe Diem gap year programs, we politely ask that students leave their cell phones, computers, and any other wi-fi devices at home for the duration.


The above response, though imaginary, is not far removed from what we sometimes receive. In the environment of today, “unplugging” is often seen as a radical gesture, something for neo-Luddites or social hermits. Staying “connected” is often seen as a necessity and an expectation.

But in this age of social media, rampant texting and ridiculous punctuation, what is the actual quality of our connections?

The benefits and advantages of the various technological gizmos are well-evident and well-advertised. Before smart phones, who didn’t spend a lot more time getting lost, for example? In fact, some of us remember a less technologically advanced world in which we physically travelled to the library to seek information from books, using something called a “card catalog”, which was basically a file cabinet filled with index cards arranged alphabetically, referencing the Dewey decimal system….Um, never mind.

There’s an indisputable convenience and utility to internet devices. However, it’s increasingly becoming evident that this comes at a cost. In short: we’re distracted by our devices; we’re addicted to them; and we have the collective attention span of a hyperactive squirrel.

Rather than listing a bunch of frightening statistics, I encourage you to just look around you, wherever you find yourself, on the bus maybe, or the subway, or the grocery store, or out on the street. More than likely you’ll see a bunch of people looking at screens rather than directly engaging with each other. I see this every day. I’m writing this from a coffee shop.  It’s filled with people, alone or together, staring at screens.

There are obvious health dangers, both mental and physical, to this collective technological obsession. As a motorcycle enthusiast with a keen eye for safety, I am consistently shaking my fist angrily at terrifying drivers who are distractedly texting while they are driving (if this is you, please, please stop, I beg of you – you’re going to seriously hurt somebody).

According to Digital Detox, an organization promoting the cause of unplugging, the lack of real connection in the internet age is linked to a rise in loneliness, depression, jealousy and fear. Tempering our use of the internet and technological gizmos could be one of the best things we can do to promote our own mental health and well-being.

While I’m quoting, and blogging, I’d like to take the opportunity to quote a couple of my great heroes, Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chödrön.

In his book Silence, Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

“Never in the history of humankind have we had so many means of communication – cell phones, texting, e-mail, online social media – but we are more distant from each other than ever.  There is remarkably little true communication between family members, between members of society, between nations.”

In her book, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, Pema Chödrön speaks to her granddaughter’s generation, the generation that we work with here at Carpe Diem:

“My granddaughter’s university professor asked her students to leave their cell phones behind when they came to class. My granddaughter was amazed at how much more present and alert she was as a result. She observed that her whole generation was getting in-depth, intensive training in being distracted. To me, this underscores how important it is for her generation, and the generations that follow, and the generations that came before, to counter this trend by getting intensive training in staying present.”

Though we do receive critiques and challenges to our wifi policy, I also talk with many insightful young people who recognize the value of unplugging in this way, to promote presence and awareness. This is the premise for our wifi policy.

In my own experience, I find that having a personal retreat from phones/email/social media/the internet for even a couple of days is altogether refreshing and liberating. I see such retreats as a means to reconnect with genuine presence, mindfulness and awareness, and I do so as often as I can without getting myself into trouble. How wonderful to have a three-month experience in which to be fully present for yourself and for for others, for all that happens in your Carpe Diem semester.

So what do you say? Chuck your phone for awhile, come along and join us.