Why Students Want Wi-Fi-Free Zones

Students seek out Wi-Fi-free zones. They crave them. Word gets out about where they are, and people flock.

Author Donna Freitas's YA novel about technology in the real and virtual world publishes this month.

Students want Wi-Fi dead zones. Especially in school libraries. Yes, you heard me right. On college campuses, they search for them. Crave them. Word gets out about where they are, and people flock. I know this because beginning in the fall of 2013 and through summer of 2015, I did a national study on college students and social media, conducting 184 randomly sampled, in-depth interviews at 13 colleges and universities across the United States. An additional 884 students at nine institutions participated in an online survey with essay questions. The results are fascinating. Over and over, at every university, I heard stories like this: “There’s this one spot in the third floor sub-basement of the library? By the wall past the elevators? I always go there to study, because the Wi-Fi doesn’t reach. You have to get there early—it’s always jammed.” Many young adults today cannot tear themselves from their screens, no matter what or who is around them. (Let’s be honest: not-so-young adults can’t, either.) And many of us—adults, teachers, librarians, and mentors—assume that teens and young adults have no desire to look up. That they have zero wish to unplug, to be disconnected and offline for a while. We think that they trade the real for the allure of the virtual because they really don’t want to miss out on what’s happening online. Our assumptions are mistaken. If you are a librarian reading this and worry about that great studying spot beyond the stacks that, alas, has no Internet, please worry no longer. Trust me: kids seek out that dead zone. Across all of my interviews, the inability to study, to learn anything—to read for even five minutes uninterrupted—came up as an affliction from which all students suffer. Which make those spots without Wi-Fi very valuable real estate. I’ve stopped thinking of these spaces as dead zones and have come to see them as oases. In fact, I believe that we librarians, teachers, and educators in general—basically anyone dedicated to learning, studying, and reading—need to become intentional about these Wi-Fi-free places. Rather than extending the Wi-Fi so there’s nary a place where it doesn’t reach, we need to create and clearly identify these places for the kids and teens who populate our libraries and classrooms. We must advertise, so everyone knows how to find them. Turn them into true oases, with places to sit and dream and stare out the window. What’s more, we need to diversify those spaces for a variety of kid and teen needs.

Three kinds of WI-Fi-free SPACES

I propose that schools and libraries designate three kinds of spots that are Wi-Fi-free: social spaces, learning/teaching ones, and study areas. They can be permanent or rotating (for instance, two hours each on Tuesdays and Thursdays). They can be created by cutting Wi-Fi's reach or requiring people to hand over their phones to enter. It could be a corner by the windows or a spot where students like to lounge and chat, an entire room, or a few comfy chairs. Blocking access in certain spaces allows students to socialize without temptation. To read without interruption. To enjoy storytime without the distraction of social media. To learn, concentrate, and listen the old-fashioned way. Such spaces diversify the school, the library landscape, and the social and learning experiences of all community members. Access to technology in libraries and schools is critical. But tech should not rule children and teens to the point where they feel powerless.

Power over tech

Teens and young adults often do feel powerless in the face of technology, in particular their smartphones. They told me so. When I started my study on social media, I immediately learned that smartphones were crucial to the conversation. Students wanted to talk about them—and couldn’t stop. They loved them, hated them, loved them despite hating them, named them (one called hers, simply, “Meg”), charged them during the interview, showed them to me proudly, put them in a place out of sight so they wouldn’t touch them. One young woman got mugged for her smartphone and chased down her attackers to get it back. In that moment, “My smartphone was worth more than my life,” she said. A male student explained that leaving his house without his phone was like leaving behind his heart or his brain. The main reason for the intensity of their attachment, of course, is social media. Smartphones are students’ gateway to an up-to-the minute social media fix. So they are always on everyone’s person: in a pocket or purse, if not in hand. Which is how I came to the conclusion that Wi-Fi-free spots are now central to the emotional, intellectual, and social health of kids and teens today.

Taking a break

Nearly every student I interviewed recounted at least one blissful smartphone vacation:  that time they went on a volunteer trip, a hiking trip, a study-abroad experience, or vacation where phones became useless. After their initial anger and even fear at suddenly not having access and, yes, the possibility of missing out on constant social media and texting updates, too—nearly everyone came to love the freedom of being unplugged. It changed the ways they socialized for the better, and it was liberating to not be “on call” 24/7. Many dreaded their return to “normal life”—normal life being dominated by the need to be always available (in the online survey, 69 percent of students said it is an expectation to be available 24/7 because of smartphones). One young woman, a lifeguard and surfer, recounted the time when she dropped her phone into the ocean. At first she was traumatized, but after a day, “My mind felt so clear,” she said. She felt “relaxed” for the first time in ages. College students have tricks and deals they make with themselves to curb usage in daily life: leaving chargers at home so when the battery runs out, that’s it; giving their smartphone to a friend and telling them not to give it back until they’ve finished a paper; leaving their smartphone in their rooms one day a week. One woman loves going to church, because it’s the only hour when she forbids herself from grabbing her phone. Few wished smartphones away entirely, and most couldn’t imagine life without them (though many fantasized about life before smartphones). But students don’t like feeling ruled by them. This is the problem: they do feel ruled by smartphones. They lack the willpower to say no, and this upsets them deeply. Many feel angry at themselves for not having more willpower. They feel inept, even ashamed, at this failure. With smartphone angst comes the corresponding resistance and angst around social media. Students regularly quit certain platforms for a few weeks or even months (68 percent in the online survey). Students rarely quit for good, though a few did. Most reactivate their accounts once they can have a healthier relationship to social media. One young woman who took a Facebook hiatus said that before, she felt that Facebook was using her. She returned to it only after she felt in control. She wanted to use Facebook—not vice versa. The bottom line: young adults don’t like feeling dominated by their smartphones. They’re very aware that when they can’t resist their powerful call, they miss out on reality. People. Nature. Beauty. Random chance meetings. Conversation. Learning. Reading. Eye contact. Rest. This is where we need to step in and help. Becoming intentional about Wi-Fi-free oases is a simple (and inexpensive!) way we can respond to our students’ need to unplug. By recognizing this need, we set up young people to better succeed as readers, thinkers, writers, and friends. Unplugged space needs to become intentional within our communities, not that accidental study spot in that tiny, dark corner of the library third floor sub-basement. That’s simply not enough to contain all those students desperate to finally get some studying done.
Donna Freitas is a professor and novelist. Her book based on this research, The Happiness Effect: How Social Media Is Driving a Generation To Appear Perfect at Any Cost, will be out this winter from Oxford University Press. A related YA series about technology and two worlds—one real, one virtual—debuts in June from HarperTeen, first with Unplugged, followed by The Body Market in February 2017, and The Mind Virus in September 2017. Contact Donna via email, or please visit her website, donnafreitas.com.
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dan cawley

Donna, congratulations on taking such a brave stance. I look forward to reading the book which discusses your methodology. if the data proves factual, it will turn the library world upside-down. I, for one, look forward to some Wi-Fi free flocking.

Posted : Jun 02, 2016 11:19

Ira David Socol

Wild, broad claims that all other data about students and WiFi are wrong would be best presented with some bit of evidence beyond, "I've heard." There might be some truth here, but without any links to the research, without any discussion of methodology, I'm not sure how a library publication accepted this. I have also talked in depth to hundreds of students on many university campuses. I've heard lots of requests for better WiFi, but no requests for "WiFi Free Zones." So... what have we proved here?

Posted : Jun 01, 2016 05:37

Donna Freitas

Thank you for your comments and for reading this article. There is nothing wild about these claims at all--and they are based on careful research, with randomly sampled college student participants from all over the U.S.. A short article is not the place to go into depth on methodology--for that, you'll have to wait for the extensive appendix that will be published in the forthcoming book on this study. And to be clear: at no point does my research show that students *don't* want wifi--of course they want wifi! However, the ever-presence of wifi everywhere they go often means that they never unplug, and this definitely bothers the average student (and for many of them, it bothers them a lot). In fact, in the online survey, "lack of willpower" was a source of tremendous frustration with most students, and then, the group of students who felt they *didn't* need breaks from their smartphones, often said so in the context of claiming that, "while *some* people don't have any willpower to take breaks, *I* don't need all those tricks to unplug since I have this amazing thing called *willpower*." There was a sense of pride in this, because they are aware that everyone around them is struggling to get studying done without handing off that phone or making sure it's out of reach. I am simply suggesting--based on all of my data--that we should consider empowering students with more options in their learning environments, wifi-free oases being one possible option for studying and socializing both. In my humble opinion, providing kids and teens options is never a bad thing!

Posted : Jun 01, 2016 09:59

Darren Adams

If we create these "dead zones" for students are we helping them grow or are we simply treating a symptom by "requiring people to hand over their phones to enter"? Would we be better served by focusing on training and encouraging them in areas of discipline, fortitude, and resisting instant gratification? If they lack the motivation and discipline to use the tools already available (airplane mode) how are they going to muster the motivation and discipline to seek out these "dead zones"? If we are serious about helping these students gain power over their temptations then our focus needs to be on the students, their character, and how we can help them attain or improve upon themselves in the areas of willpower, discipline, etc. "Dead zones" may be a starting point or a stepping stone but I don't think it should be seen as the solution. We will know that we have a solution when we see people being changed, not when we've simply taken the phone away.

Posted : Jun 02, 2016 11:43



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