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Students' week without social media.

Testing a way of life that excludes texting

Shoreline, Wash., high schoolers (from left) Jesse Hoefer, Nicholi Wytovicz, Mara Harris, Samuel Chudler, and Corey Smith videodocumented the digital-blackout project with confessional interviews among students and staff. (Erika Schultz/Seattle Times)
Shoreline, Wash., high schoolers (from left) Jesse Hoefer, Nicholi Wytovicz, Mara Harris, Samuel Chudler, and Corey Smith videodocumented the digital-blackout project with confessional interviews among students and staff. (Erika Schultz/Seattle Times)Read more

SEATTLE - Starting one recent Monday, Tanner LeCount, 16, began calling his mother instead of texting her to let her know what he was doing. Eimanne El Zein, 17, gave up Facebook for runs with her dogs. Nicholi Wytovicz, 16, replaced status updates with chores and homework.

Whose children are these?

For one week, high-school students were testing a life where text messages and Facebook don't exist. As part of a project dubbed the Social Experiment, more than 600 students gave up texting, e-mail, Facebook and Twitter for a weeklong social-media blackout. It ended Dec. 12.

Under the rules, students could call each other. Until the experiment began, many of them never had.

Cole Sweeten, 17, found out some of his friends are awfully awkward on the phone. "They don't know what to say," he said.

But the Shorewood High School junior likes getting calls. He prefers a real "Hey, how are you?" to a "Hello" text with a smiley face.

"People sound different when they're on the phone," he said. "It's emotion, not just little lines."

The idea for the Social Experiment started with Trent Mitchell, a video-production teacher at Shorecrest High School. In early October, he saw The Social Network, a movie about the founding of Facebook. Mitchell wondered whether his students, who often walked into class heads down, typing away on their phones, could cut themselves off from text and Facebook.

Mitchell, 36, talked to his video-production class and told the students that he did not think they could tear themselves away from social media. Then he polled them. Half the students said they could do it; the other half thought it was the worst idea they'd ever heard, he said.

Mitchell pulled in friend and teacher Marty Ballew, Shorewood's video-production teacher, and together, they created the Social Experiment. The theme: What was life like in 1995?

"Things are so much different than when we went to school," said Ballew, 37. "It's kind of unfathomable, the leap we've taken from the early '90s to now."

To promote the project, students made video trailers spoofing The Social Network and the Harry Potter series. Video students are documenting the process with confessional videos and interviews with students and staff, some of whom also volunteered to cut themselves off.

Some students went to extremes to make sure they didn't break the rules. Five Shorewood students handed their cellphones over to Ballew. One girl gave him her Facebook password and asked him to change it for the week to avoid temptation.

The experiment was based mostly on an honor system, but spies roamed the halls, sending text messages to students and instant messages to people breaking the rules on Facebook. Answer the text (some students did) and you might get the response: "You're out of the Social Experiment!"

Students who made it through the week were entered in a drawing for a gift card, Mitchell said.

"Some are doing it for a gift card," Mitchell said at mid-experiment. "Some are seriously challenging themselves."

Count Sweeten among the latter. He deleted texts as they came in, but it could be hard to remember he wasn't supposed to answer text messages. On the second day, he heard the familiar buzz-buzz, grabbed his phone, ready to hit the button to read the new text message, when he remembered. "No!" he shouted, and dropped the phone to the floor.

Last year, El Zein was sending or receiving 200 texts per day, or about 6,000 per month. It was enough to get her phone confiscated by her parents for a week. This year, she said, she has averaged 20 to 50 a day, until the experiment week, that is.

It was "weird" not checking her e-mail, text and Facebook as soon as she woke up. But each day got easier. She has gotten more exercise, for one thing.

"I run my dogs, other things I like to do but don't always do because I spend all my time on Facebook," she said, as the experiment was ongoing.

Wytovicz has done chores with his free time, an idea that sounds like it came from his parents but he claims he wanted to do it. He also figured out activities such as shooting hoops or watching basketball were better distractions than ones that take 10 or 15 minutes, he said.

"Do something that fills time in large segments," he advised.

Tanner's mother, Pam LeCount, said cutting out text messages changed how she talks to him during the day. She missed getting quick responses from him. But she also liked getting calls from Tanner and having conversations with him.

"I've had more calls from him in these last four days than in six months," she said.