Offline October eschews social media's miasma

Posted: November 4, 2017 at 2:01 a.m.

Anyone trying to reach Cason Kurowski and his family at night in their home outside Denver needs to remember one thing.

Unlike most high-school juniors, Kurowski doesn't keep his smartphone within an arm's length of his pillow. In fact, the whole family leaves mobile phones downstairs at night, including his parents.

"It's amazing how much it helps me get a better night's sleep, since my phone isn't going off all the time," he said, reached on his smartphone after classes at Heritage High School in Littleton, Colo.

Wait, there's more. Back in September, Kurowski and some friends made strategic -- some would say radical -- tech changes after the news of two teenagers' suicides, in two days, at area schools. Some students in this circle were friends with a Heritage student who committed suicide last year.

After several planning sessions, they launched OfflineOctober.com and urged friends to delete four specific apps -- Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter -- from their phones for a month. The goal, Kurowski explained, was to stop "hiding behind screens. ... We wanted to try spending more time face to face, instead of just looking at phones."

The project grew through word of mouth, calls, emails, texts and, ironically, social media. Local news coverage helped spread the slogan: "Don't post a story. Live one." Students started planning informal gatherings to cook, play games, go hiking or just hang out.

At some point, their work caught the eye of someone whose support could help take the movement to another level: the leader of the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver.

Archbishop Samuel Aquila knew all about the suicides, of course, with 72 Colorado students taking their own lives in 2015 and another 68 in 2016. He was intrigued by the Offline October response.

"One theme that I see running through the stories of teens who struggle with suicidal thoughts is the pervasive influence of social media on their identity and sense of self-worth," said Aquila in his regular Denver Catholic column. "The teenage years have always been a time of uncertainty, as physiological and emotional development take place."

It's controversial, of course, to link smartphones, social media and suicide. But the painful reality is that bullying is often linked to suicide, wrote the archbishop, and bullies now use social-media apps -- along with the nearly 80 percent of ordinary teenagers whose daily lives include regular, or obsessive, use of Snapchat and Instagram.

Bullying always "attacks the basic dignity of another human being through demeaning the person," wrote the archbishop. With smartphones everywhere, "bullies gained access to their peers on a scale never seen before. Not only did fallen human nature obtain a virtual megaphone it could use 24/7, but the anonymity offered by some apps removed the accountability provided by platforms that require users to identify themselves.

"The introduction of these apps has also led to a new phenomenon in which ... teens resort to 'digital self-harm' by posting anonymous hateful messages about themselves for their friends to see. This allows them to get attention from their friends while also airing their internal feelings."

Support from the Denver archdiocese could help Offline October make the leap to other cities and states through Catholic churches and schools, building on the grassroots effort that began this year among Colorado students, said Joe Roberts, junior class president at Heritage and one of the project's co-founders.

It's perfectly understandable that many students have expressed anxiety about taking part, he said, since "it's hard for some of them to even consider giving up the big social-media apps that kind of run our lives." However, it has been encouraging to receive online messages from students, and their parents, sharing stories about how curbing their social-media habits have improved communication in their homes, including smartphone-free breakfasts and dinners.

Roberts said plans are already underway for next year's Offline October.

"If one person does this, you have a chance to get a chain reaction going among your other friends," he said. "Everybody kind of has a fear of being left out of things. ... What we're saying is that we can be there for each other -- face to face. We can do real things, not just look at pictures of what other people say they're doing."

Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King's College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Religion on 11/04/2017