BCIT business students unplug for Africa

For the first time in ages, April Yau had coffee with her sister.

Face to face.

After all, Yau couldn't text her like she normally does. She's one of a number of business students at B.C. Institute of Technology who have unplugged from social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, and text messaging this week.

Dubbed "Unplug for Africa," the experiment aims to make students aware of how excessive use of smart phones and technology can affect productivity while also raising money for Red Cross relief efforts in Africa.

It's all about trying to find a balance, said Geoffrey Bird, a marketing instructor in BCIT's School of Business, who came up with the idea.

The project was prompted by conversations Bird had with several industry professionals who told him when they hire young adults "they're seeing their employees spend a heck of a lot of time on Facebook and using social media when they should be working."

He also found inspiration for the unplugging challenge from Digital Diet by Daniel Sieberg and an episode of Modern Family in which the family challenged itself to unplug from social media.

Bird has seen the problem first-hand. He frequently sees students texting when they should be engaged in a lecture or checking out Facebook when they should be working on an assignment in the computer lab.

He's since discovered studies that found young adults send, on average, 109 text messages per day. And 30 per cent of North American young adults believe Internet access is just as important as food, shelter and water.

During the recent outage when the BBM network, a type of text-messaging between Blackberry users, was down for days, "it was a major tragedy in their lives," Bird said of his students. Meanwhile, "look what's happening on the other side of the world."

That's where the fundraising for African relief efforts comes in.

Participants in the challenge are still allowed to use email and the Internet for research, and Skype to connect with family abroad, but all other social media is off limits.

After the first day, Bird was already getting some positive feedback. "One student said she cleaned her room. She had extra time and made use of it."

April Yau, 25, who estimates her social media usage before the experiment at five to six hours a day, is happy to report she's been studying more for her exams and she's

had more face-to-face conversations with people.

Yau sees it as a personal challenge, to gain more control over that aspect of her life. So far she's been surprised that she's not as stressed out as expected.

Then again, "I feel out of touch with the world," she said, noting she gets most of her news from Twitter feeds.

And she's doing her best not to look at her phone which is trying to tell her she has text messages waiting to be read.

"The blinking light on my phone is definitely a stress."

As of Tuesday, Yau had already raised about $500 in pledges, mainly from friends and family who don't think she'll make it to the end of the week.

"They know how attached I am to [my phone]," she said with a laugh. "It's almost like a bet."

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