How time abroad is a chance to disconnect
By: Christophe Chabaudie
There are countless memorable moments to remember and cherish as a teen, especially when participating in a study abroad experience. Sending the occasional postcards or letters has transformed into a world where teens travelling are connected nonstop. This is connection simultaneously with the world around them and the world at home. Throughout the years, the dynamic of international travel has changed and obstacles have arisen along the way. Unfortunately, these obstacles can easily complicate the complete embrace of an immersion experience abroad. As teens have never been so connected with the friends they leave behind, distance no longer offers them a chance to disconnect. Excessive use and technology-addiction are now phrases commonly used while recent research begins to shown the extent of the problem (1). In a recent study among young college students, female respondents admitted spending an average of 600 minutes a day compared to 459 minutes for males. This trend has grown and evolved along with technology throughout the last decade moreover there is no reason to think that students who study abroad will change any of their usual behaviour when it comes to their phone use. In a recent move to globalize their services and make them affordable while their customers travel, some US carriers have made the world look smaller (2). There is no longer the deterrent of risking the nightmarishly expensive phone bill any longer after taking an international trip. There are countless conveniences from allowing students to stay connected to family and home, but hyper-connectivity carries negative aspects that reach beyond the individual participant and should be properly discussed and understood by any teen heading on an immersion trip abroad. We find it is particularly important for program directors or staff to address this issue as it can completely alter and disrupt the group dynamic.
The fast pace and rich content of an immersion experience abroad doesn’t encourage participants to spend much time on their device. They promptly understand that travelling abroad means making new friends, meeting other participants, and local teens as well. There are many opportunities offered to interact and create a brand new peer group. It is important to realize that the perception of a teen’s personality from these new friends can be very different than that of their traditional peer group. One could reasonably state that there is no need to post every five minutes on social networks and be on-line at all times. Participants should keep in mind that during their time abroad there is no pressure to constantly post on social networks. Meanwhile at home friends and family will enjoy if some stories are saved for after a program has finished.
This realization is an important turning point for some students as most teens who have owned a phone all of their life have grown emotionally attached to their devices. The University of New Queensland in Australia has conducted research about phone use among teens and young adults. Many of the individuals surveyed considered their phones to be part of their self-concept. Mobile phone involvement meant keeping a phone nearby, thinking frequently or feeling distressed about it, and interrupting activities or conversations to respond to your phone (3).
Studying abroad offers an exceptional opportunity when it comes to addressing this problem. Any adult who has known “normal interaction" before smart phones were ubiquitous can relate. We need to make sure our teen participants understand a few basics from the beginning. First, carrying an expensive device unfortunately makes them vulnerable to theft, during a time that they are already vulnerable simply for being in a foreign environment. Phone robberies are the first cause of petty crimes abroad and students should realize that having a cell phone at all times means you can lose it or be targeted by opportunistic thieves. Magellan Study Abroad runs programs in fun cities, they are small and safe - we have selected them for a reason. What we can not guarantee is that irresponsible behaviour such as carrying an expensive electronic device (cell phone or tablet) will not trigger an unexpected chain of events (loss, theft, breakage).
Aside from loss and theft, there are great chances that phones will always “act out” at the most inconvenient time. Hyper-connected students get phone calls during class time, meals with the homestay family, during museum visits and all sorts of activities which a phone typically isn’t needed at all. With friends on a completely different time zone it is easy for students to be engaged all day (and night) if they actually put the effort in. Our program directors and staff warn them about this risk, which eventually could affect the time dedicated to resting, for themselves and their roommate(s). We encourage those who have the most serious signs of addiction to think about the signals that are sent to all other participants and the world in general: “I am texting on my device because I am too busy to get to know you – or to talk with you” and “I already have enough friends and they keep me busy day and night.” Every minute spent connected usually translates into minutes lost from enjoying the fine details of an incredible adventure abroad. You can post an occasional anecdote or picture but in no way should students feel the need to broadcast constantly on their social networks.
We help our immersion program participants with the following recommendations:
- Limit the Facetime or phone calls on the personal device brought from the US to only specific times in the evening. Free-time during the day shouldn’t mean time on the phone, but fun time with your peers engaging in activities to enjoy.
- It is better to carry, at all times, the most basic local phone (less than $30 of hardware) that is used to be in touch with other participants and the program director and staff. This is the only phone parents should use in case of an emergency.
- The personal phone from the US shouldn’t leave the safety of the homestay home.
- Bring a real camera. “My smart phone takes great photos” is not a valid excuse to bring it everywhere.
- Remember that times with the homestay family interacting in their native language is the most valuable gift of all. Do not trade it for time alone in your room chatting in English about your high school activities and teachers with your friends back home.
Aside from the personal enrichment and language acquisition they will experience abroad, students may soon realize that they have a chance to reassess their relationship with their cell phones. It is fairly easy to draw a clear line between life back home and the experience students have embarked on. Once they are warned about the dangers and excesses of hyper-connectivity, students are prompt to adopt a more positive approach to their experience abroad. Eventually they are the only person who can decide to make it great and memorable. We have rapidly noticed notable and positive changes in students who grasp this opportunity. Recent study shows, within younger demographics, the same behavioral change. (4)
Our staff is properly prepared to deal with a myriad of individual situations in a very professional manner. We have had great success over the last years because we have chosen to address such problems instead of pretending it doesn’t exist and avoiding it all together. Our participants have always been grateful as they have understood they have the ultimate power to decide the degree of exposure they want for their life changing immersion experience. The degree they are ready to embrace it is symbolized by the phone they brought all the way from home. This phone can easily become their worst asset. Luckily enough a different and richer experience is just an “off button” away.
1. “The invisible addiction: Cell-phone activities and addiction among male and female college students” by James A. Roberts, Luc Honore Petnji Yaya and Chris Manolis. Journal of Behavioral Addictions. June 7, 2014
2. “T-Mobile details free global data and texting for Simple Choice Customers”. http://www.engadget.com/2013/10/09/t-mobile-free-global-data October 9, 2013
3. “Keeping in Constant Touch: The Predictors of Young Australians’ Mobile Phone Involvement” by Shari P. Walsh, Katherine M. White, Stephen Cox, Ross McD. Young School of Psychology and Counselling. Queensland University of Technology. Australia. 2010
4. “Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues” by Yalda T. Uhls, Minas Michikyan, Jordan Morris, Debra Garcia, Gary W. Small, Eleni Zgourou, Patricia M. Greenfield. Computers in Human Behaviour. August 2014
A Passport To Endless Opportunities: Interview with our executive director.
Keeping the Pulse on Operations: Our hands-on approach allows us to organize the best experience for our students.
Study Abroad Destinations for Teens: The Seemingly Overwhelming Selection The Spanish Speaking World Offers.