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Getting Students to Disconnect: Study Abroad Without Technology

Off the grid study abroad

A group of high school students crouches on hands and knees, digging into the earth near the muddy banks of a gently-flowing stream. It's a bright morning in the Costa Rican rainforest and warm sunlight drifts through the dense green of the canopy overhead. It's still too early in the day for rain to fall.

It's an itinerary that includes adventure, adrenaline, perseverance and natural wonders -- everything except technology.

The six teenagers from the United States are lost in a gentle buzz of conversation as they uproot seedlings from the jungle floor. Later in the afternoon, they will treat the seedlings and place them in bags of soil to be replanted in areas that need to be reforested. This hands-on service project is teaching them about the ecology of the tropical rainforest while at the same time helping the local community.

For the next two weeks, the group will work together as a team as they hike through the rainforest to a remote village where they will stay with local families to practice their Spanish language skills, learn about local traditions and rappel an 80-foot waterfall. It's an itinerary that includes adventure, adrenaline, perseverance and natural wonders -- everything except technology.

Students Disconnect From Technology while Studying Abroad

The students are on a course with Outward Bound Costa Rica, a program provider that challenges students to push their limits and step outside their comfort zones while participating in unique activities in Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua. Their programs are technology-free and students are required to lock up their phones and all technological devices -- apart from cameras -- during their course.

On this morning, the first of their course, the students are just beginning to explore how it feels to be free of iPhones, computers, and social media.

“I’ve had the urge to look at my phone when things got quiet,” said Natalie Cook, a 17-year-old from Bloomington, Indiana. “It was interesting to have to come up with something else to do instead. I’m excited about that and seeing what it’s like,” she added.

Outward Bound Leadership Course in Costa Rica

“It feels awesome to not have a phone,” chimed in Sosi Mehren, a 16-year-old from Tucson, Arizona. “I did an Outward Bound course before where I couldn’t use technology. After the course I turned on my phone at the airport and everything was moving so fast. I loved the feeling of coming back to technology and it moving so fast.”

Zach Mumford has been an instructor at Outward Bound Costa Rica for the past three years. He says students are usually a bit hesitant to be free from technology, but as their time without it progresses, they begin to notice the positive changes.

“A lot of our students say, especially later on in the course, that it’s nice to not worry about technology,” he said. “Throughout the week, they start taking more interest in what we are doing because they can’t disappear into their own little world that's in their phone.”

Zach also noted the types of conversations the students have without technology is different than most groups of teenagers who are surrounded by cell phone distractions.

“The students converse a lot more than they normally would,” he said. “They talk and talk and this makes connections more meaningful to them.”

“Unplugging and disconnecting made me focus more on being present about the little things I do every day,” said Rachel Albright, a college student from Louisville, Colorado.

Rachel recently completed the 65-day technology-free Outdoor Leader Semester course with Outward Bound where she explored new natural environments, trained in outdoor certifications, and gained real leadership experience. This summer, she returned to Costa Rica to be an intern instructor with the organization. Helping students discover the benefits of unplugging from technology is one of the things she is looking forward to most about being an instructor.

“It's so important to take the time to think about what you are doing and focus on the moment,” she stated. “When I got home from my course I noticed that I didn’t use my phone nearly as much as I used to. In the past I would go on my phone when I was bored and scroll through Facebook. I was putting in way too much time looking at nothing and wasting my time. My time in Costa Rica taught me to not worry about the future, which is something I do when I’m online, and to just be present.”

An Increase in Unhealthy Relationships with Technology

While devices such as computers, iPads, and cell phones make it easier for the world to be connected, research is showing people are increasingly developing unhealthy relationships with technology.

In a recent study published by the Pew Research Center, 84% of cell phone users claimed they could not go a single day without their device.

When I got home from my course I noticed that I didn’t use my phone nearly as much as I used to... My time in Costa Rica taught me to not worry about the future and to just be present.

The study also found that mobile device owners check their devices every 6.5 minutes and that 88% of U.S. consumers use mobile devices as a second screen even while watching television.

Now more than ever, removing students from technology is a dramatic shift in their day to day life.

Social Media Dependency

In today’s era of social media, technology dependency is not tied exclusively to mobile devices, but instead extends to applications and programs such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. While social media platforms make it easier for friends and loved ones to stay engaged with one another in real-time and visual ways like never before, the phenomenon of social comparison is having negative effects on the human mind.

A new study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology finds a correlation between Facebook usage and teen depression. While using Facebook, people are consciously or unconsciously comparing themselves to the information friends are sharing.

Studying abroad without technology

"One danger is that Facebook often gives us information about our friends that we are not normally privy to, which gives us even more opportunities to socially compare," said University of Houston researcher Mai-Ly Steers.

"You can't really control the impulse to compare because you never know what your friends are going to post. In addition, most of our Facebook friends tend to post about the good things that occur in their lives, while leaving out the bad. If we're comparing ourselves to our friends' 'highlight reels,' this may lead us to think their lives are better than they actually are and conversely, make us feel worse about our own lives."

Social media platforms that are “Like” based, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter also lend themselves to addiction.

Research on social media addiction shows that seeing “likes” on Facebook triggers the areas in the brains as drugs. Users between the ages of 15 and 19 spend at least 3 hours a day on social media, and 18 percent of social media users can’t go a few hours without checking Facebook.

The gratification of receiving positive social media feedback from these platforms is so strong that many users place great importance on validating their self-esteem, self-worth and experiences based on measures of peer feedback. More and more, students are addicted to this feedback on social media for justification of their experiences.

Studying Abroad Awakens the Senses

Studying abroad is a unique opportunity for students to have their senses engaged like never before. The sight of the Eiffel Tower jutting up in the Parisian skyline, the smell of homemade ramen being prepared fresh in Japan, the sound of the grasslands of an African Savannah rustles in Kenyan wind, the taste of warm empanadas, fresh out of an Argentinean oven, and the touch of soft grey fur of a koala in Australia, are all powerful moments students abroad may experience.

These sensory experiences have the potential to form life-long memories and change students’ worldview -- far more so than staring at a smartphone, to say the least.

Yet, relying too heavily on technology while studying abroad can dampen the impact of these new sensory experiences and prevent their full potential to take hold. While studying abroad, it can also be especially tempting to overuse technology and social media.

Many students experience homesickness and discomfort while learning about a new culture and adapting to a new environment. It can be easy to use social media and applications like Skype to be in constant contact with family and friends and use this as a crutch for the discomfort.

In the wake of these technological social changes, students who study abroad on programs that force them to disconnect are finding they have richer experiences and connect with their new surroundings on a deeper level. Many of these programs are outdoor based and take students to remote areas where technology is not available -- but maybe it's something even urban based study abroad programs should consider implementing.

The Benefits of Spending Time in Nature

Amidst a sea of technology-based research, studies are showing that the antidote to phenomenon such as social comparison and technology dependency may be as simple as spending time in nature.

Disconnect

Hearing natural sounds is shown to decrease stress by raising serotonin levels. Taking walks outdoors can clear the mind and alleviate symptoms of depression.

Harvard Medical School also reports that spending more time outside has numerous health benefits including increased concentration, raised vitamin D levels that can help ward off diseases such as cancer, heart attacks and osteoporosis, faster healing rates for injuries, and increased light exposure, which helps regulate happiness levels.

In Tune with the Sounds of the Rainforest

As Rachel stands in the middle of the rainforest overseeing her student group as they cheerfully uproot seedlings, it's hard not to feel the sense of calm and peace nature brings.

“Being technology-free during my course in Costa Rica allowed me to have the experience without plastering it all over social media and worrying about impressing anyone,” Rachel says. “I’m excited for this group of students to have the same opportunity.”

That experiences abroad can be made even more meaningful without technology is overtly apparent on this bright jungle morning in Central America. What’s beautiful about Costa Rica can’t be seen on a screen or even necessarily the photos you share on Instagram. Because what’s really beautiful about the country is the way the air feels, the lush landscapes, the warmth of its people, the flavors of traditional dishes such as gallo pinto, and the quiet moments on the trail that heighten the awareness of just how magic it is to be alive.

Study Abroad Programs That Force Students to Disconnect

Programs like the ones offered by Outward Bound Costa Rica are becoming an increasingly popular option for students as the negative effects of technology and social media come to light. Looking for a technology-free program abroad? Start here with some of our highlighted choices.

Outward Bound

Outward Bound

With 40 schools around the world, Outward Bound programs fosters personal growth and development of social skills by using challenging expeditions in the outdoors. Outward Bound offers summer expeditions for high school students and Gap year and semester programs for college aged students.

Rustic Pathways

Rustic Pathways

Rustic Pathways seeks to empower students through innovative and responsible experiences that also positively impact lives and communities around the world. More than 90 programs in 18 countries are offered for college and high school students.

Carpe Diem Education

Carpe Diem Education

Carpe Diem Education runs three-month and yearlong gap year programs focused on community, cultural immersion, service learning and adventure. Programs are offered in the United States, South America, Central America, Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific. Programs are available for college and high school students.

Frontier

Frontier

Frontier offers more than 300 volunteer based programs in 60 countries. Participants work to safeguard biodiversity, build sustainable communities and inspire locals on meaningful travel experiences. Both college and high school students can participate in these programs.

Global Routes

Global Routes

Global Routes programs focus on bringing people with different world views together through community service projects and teaching in Belize, Brazil, Cambodia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, India, Kenya, Morocco, Nepal, Peru, Tanzania and Thailand. Programs are offered available for both high school and college students.

WorldStamp

WorldStamp

WorldStamp offers gap year programs that are volunteer based and encourages students to engage meaningfully with local communities through service work, cultural immersion, environmental conservation and adventure. Programs are offered for college-aged students in India, Guatemala and Costa Rica.

QuestOverseas

QuestOverseas

QuestOverseas connects students with projects that serve communities in South America and Africa, while providing valuable experiential learning opportunities for college aged students. Adventure activities are also a large part of these opportunities.

National Outdoor Leadership School

NOLS

NOLS runs a number of wilderness training and expedition programs in remote places both within the U.S. and worldwide. Their programs teach participants the importance of leadership, outdoor skills, and environmental sustainability -- all while leaving their cell phones behind.

Photo Credits: Baron Dubrovnik, Kay Durden, and providers mentioned.
Lauren Salisbury

A California native, Lauren Salisbury has found the best way to get to know a region of the world is to live there, and with that in mind has worked in four countries, including the United States, Australia, Spain and Costa Rica. Lauren earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland and is now living in the Costa Rican rainforest, working as Social Media & Marketing Manager for Outward Bound. Lauren documents her travel adventures on her blog SomethingInHerRamblings.com.