A Bold Decision
At the end of his first semester at Penn, a student whom I’ll call Daniel was disappointed to learn that his GPA was a lackluster 2.95. Following the Study Hacks orthodoxy that study habits should be based on evidence — not random decisions or peer pressure — Daniel asked himself a crucial question: What are the better students doing that I’m not?
When he surveyed his classmates, he noted something interesting: “the high-scoring kids weren’t on Facebook.”
Emboldened by this observation, Daniel decided to do the unthinkable: he deactivated his Facebook account.
His GPA jumped to an exceptional 3.95.
In this post, I want to share the details of Daniel’s story — revealing what actually happens when you quit one of the most ubiquitous technologies of your generation. I’ll then make the argument that although most students don’t need to leave Facebook, every student should at least give the idea serious consideration.
The Reality of a Post-Facebook Existence
Daniel’s decision to leave Facebook wasn’t easy.
“I was worried that I would be out of the loop,” he admits. “That I would miss event invitations, not know what was going on with my friends, or be able to effectively lead the organizations I run.”
What really happened?
“Well, as expected, I did miss some invitations to events,” Daniel recalls. “But my friends would forward me invites, and I never missed anything crucial.”
“I also didn’t lose any friends, or even really lose touch with anyone. I still had e-mail and a phone, and I see these people every day.”
Daniel’s mom, not surprisingly, was “ecstatic” about the decision, while many of his friends were shocked. “After my deactivation,” he recalls, “I started getting texts that demanded: WHY DID YOU DEFRIEND ME!? WHERE IS YOUR FACEBOOK!?”
But pretty soon people stopped caring. They had their own lives to lead.
The Monastic Pleasure of Post-Facebook Studying
In contrast to the mild negative effects to his social life, the benefits to Daniel’s academic life were significant.
He was initially worried about “symptom substitution” — the idea that with Facebook gone he would simply find another online distraction to fuel his procrastination.
But this didn’t happen.
“After clicking around the web for a bit, I would become incredibly bored,” Daniel recalls. There’s something about the “endless trickle of messages” served up by Facebook that proves especially addictive. Without that steady supply of attention crack, it became easy for Daniel to “swear off the Internet.”
Consider, for example, a calculus final he faced during his first Facebook-free semester.
“With the time and concentration I regained, I was able to hunt down and complete problems from 20 different practice final exams, and then get tutoring on any issues that remained.”
The average grade on the exam was a 34. Daniel scored an 80.
He has since persuaded several friends to follow his lead in deactivating their accounts, and they’re enjoying similar boosts to their performance.
A Different Way to Think About the Technology in Your Life
I recently received an e-mail from a high school student who estimated that her Internet-obsession was slowing down her work by “a factor of 5.” When I suggested that she ask her parents to unplug the modem until her homework was done, she balked.
“I can’t do that,” she exclaimed. “I have to hand in assignments for one of my classes online, and there are really good web-based dictionaries I use for my Spanish homework.”
Take a moment to ponder this reaction.
This student was experiencing extreme suffering and poor performance because of the Internet. Yet, she judged the trivial inconvenience of plugging in a modem before submitting a completed assignment, or using a slightly less effective paper dictionary for her Spanish homework, as outweighing the exceptional benefits that would be yielded by going offline.
To me, this reaction captures the problem with ubiquitous technologies, like Facebook, that make claims on your attention. To many people, the burden of proof falls on the Luddite — you better have a pretty damn good reason for eschewing this technology! Like the girl from above, or Daniel’s shocked classmates, any inconvenience generated by opting out of a popular technology can be a sufficient argument for maintaining the status quo.
I argue the you should reverse this logic: before adopting a technology that can make a regular claim on your attention, insist that its benefits unambiguously outweigh its negatives.
It’s important that I’m clear: for many students, this assessment would lead them to keep Facebook in their lives — they get social and entertainment benefits from the service, and because they have no problem turning it off while working, they suffer few negative consequences.
For students like Daniel, however, who discover that the technology is wreaking serious havoc, there should be no hesitation to quit.
This same philosophy led many professional thinkers and writers, including Alan Lightman, Donald Knuth, Neal Stephenson, and Leo Babauta to quit e-mail. In their line of work, the benefits of e-mail were swamped by the negative effects. Their criteria was not, “is there anything bad that would happen if I quit e-mail?”, it was, instead, “do the benefits outweigh the negatives?”
My bottom line here is simple: Technologies are great, but if you want to keep control of your time and attention have the self-confidence to insist that they earn their keep before you make them a regular part of your life.
(Image by Etienne)