Phones are making us more disconnected than ever. These UMD students want to change that

A University of Minnesota Duluth student signs up for Connection Day
A University of Minnesota Duluth student signs up for Connection Day Tuesday, in which students pledged to take one action to connect with a fellow student.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

If you’re reading this on your phone — stop.

Look up.

Who’s nearby? Any kids, partners, coworkers or friends who might be trying to talk to you? And how many times have you checked your phone today, anyway?

Those are the questions that a small group of college students in Duluth are asking their classmates to consider. On Tuesday, they hosted an event at the University of Minnesota Duluth student center. They’re calling it Connection Day — a way to encourage their peers to disconnect from their phones and connect with each other.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

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It all started in a writing class.

The assignment was open-ended: Kelly Gilomen, Kendra Kvebak and three classmates were told to come up with an idea to explore as a group. After some discussion, they landed on something they all had extensive experience with: How they use their smartphones.

They’d begun noticing how easy it had become to be alone, in a classroom full of students. They’d each had moments when connection seemed confusingly elusive.

For Gilomen, it was a couple years ago, when she transferred to UMD from Winona State University. As a new student, it was really tough to meet people.

"Every class, it was the same thing,” she said, “where I would try to make new friends, and the person next to me is on their phone. And it's really frustrating, because you're ready to put yourself out there."

But that often felt one-sided, she said.

Kvebak could relate. She's a junior, studying to become a Spanish teacher and a coach. She remembered one class in particular: She'd arrive a few minutes early, and nearly everyone was on their phone. So she found herself doing the same.

"I'd go on my phone, and the girl that would sit next to me would go on hers, and we wouldn't talk,” she said. “There'd be days where we wouldn't say a word to each other."

As Kvebak and Gilomen talked in that writing class last semester, they began to realize that their smartphones, which had become so indispensable to their daily lives, were also having a real impact on the quality of their relationships.

Trevor Peterson, another member of their group, has had similar experiences.

"Sometimes, when I'm driving with friends in the car, I'll be telling a story or something, just talking,” he said. “And then, two minutes later, when the story is done, I just stop to silence. And it's like, ‘You guys there?’ And they're on their phones, like, 'Oh, sorry, I was on my phone.’ So that has happened multiple times, and it's frustrating."

So the team started researching the issue. They asked 75 of their UMD classmates about their cellphone habits. What they found mirrored national studies: College students, on average, spend eight to 10 hours a day on their phones.

UMD students at a lounge playing scrabble.
Paige Wagner, Kelly Gilomen, Trevor Peterson and Kendra Kvebak organized Connection Day at the University of Minnesota Duluth on Tuesday. They encouraged students to connect with one another face-to-face, rather than through their digital devices.
Courtesy of Cheryl Reitan, University of Minnesota Duluth

In their informal survey, Gilomen said, 4 out of every 5 students said taking a break from their phone would improve their mental health. And the same number of students said their phones had made them less likely to strike up a conversation with someone else who had their phone out.

"That really identified phones as being a barrier for talking to people,” she said. “You're literally putting your phone in front of you, saying, ‘I don't want to talk to anybody else.’ And that's how people are interpreting it."

There's actually a term for that, said Jim Roberts, a Baylor University marketing professor who studies cellphone addiction. It's called "phubbing."

"[It] stands for ‘phone snubbing,’” Roberts said. “And we're getting phone snubbed all the time."

It was Roberts’ research — which showed that male college students use their phones about eight hours a day and female students use their phones about 10 hours daily — that the students cited in their work. He’s found that cellphone use can have negative consequences for college students' sleep, academic performance and relationships.

"We feel ostracized when people would rather spend their time or focus their attention on their phones rather than us,” Roberts said. “And so that really undermines the quality of relationships that we have with other people. And I think that's what the students are complaining about."

But instead of just complaining, this group did something about it.

On Connection Day, they encouraged their fellow students to wear name tags and commit to doing one thing that day to connect with someone else. They wrote their pledges on a giant sheet of paper set up in the student union.

"One person said, ‘Smile and say hi to multiple people,’” Gilomen said.

Another committed to not wearing headphones all the time. “That's a good one,” Gilomen said. “That would definitely help me get more people at the table, since everyone has their headphones in."

Eric Bergquist, 22, a management major from Woodville, Wis., pledged he would say hello to a stranger. “Because that can change somebody’s day,” he said. “Our generation should reach out and try to say ‘Hi’ more often.”

Ethan Christopherson, a junior from Crookston, also stopped by to sign up. He said his generation tends to hide behind their screens.

"They’re actually more comfortable with sending a Snapchat or a direct message on Instagram, rather than going up to somebody,” he said. “They’d rather start a friendship that way, as opposed to shaking their hand, or getting to know them through some other way."

Giloman attributed that generational impulse to growing up with cellphones. Since middle school, she said, they’ve depended on screens as a crutch when they’re around people they don’t know. She said she sees it in her job.

“I work at the coffee shop on campus, and what always happens is that some of the faculty will always start to strike up conversation while they're waiting for the drinks,” she said. “And the people my age are just looking at their phone. And for me, I mean, I'd much prefer to talk to somebody and get to know them and, you know, not just be a robot that gave them coffee.”

Gilomen has tried to practice what she preached this semester. When she arrives at class, she makes a point of keeping her phone in her bag. And she’s noticed a big change. Typically, she said, classrooms are eerily quiet before class begins.

“But when you start to talk to somebody, the people around you start to talk to other people, too. And then all of a sudden, this super quiet classroom is full of life.”

The Connection Day organizers say they've mostly gotten supportive feedback, although they say some have accused them of being "preachy."

But they insist they're not anti-cellphone. They just want people to put down their phones for a second and say hi to the person next to them — to be aware of the impact their digital devices have on their face-to-face connections.

“We need social connection to survive and thrive as humans. It's a basic necessity like drinking water,” said Peterson. “We’re not trying to limit cellphones,” he said. Instead, they want their classmates to “acknowledge your cellphone use, and acknowledge how it affects your social connections.”