Teen disconnected from technology — and liked it

“I had nothing to do, so I just went outside and started doing things,’’ says Deisha Brown Campbell of life without her cellphone and computer. A week unplugged has turned into a new lifestyle. “I had nothing to do, so I just went outside and started doing things,’’ says Deisha Brown Campbell of life without her cellphone and computer. A week unplugged has turned into a new lifestyle. (John Blanding/Globe Staff)
By Natalie Southwick
Globe Correspondent / June 27, 2010

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Most 13-year-olds don’t get interventions. Deisha Brown Campbell had hers on television.

Deisha, a Dorchester resident, is one of three middle schoolers featured in tonight’s episode of “Nick News With Linda Ellerbee.’’ The show, “Middle School Unplugged,’’ follows three young people as they try to make it through a week with no technology. For Deisha, at the time a seventh-grader at Boston Collegiate Charter School, this meant giving up her mother’s laptop, her beloved radio, television, and, worst of all, her bright yellow Samsung phone — a Christmas gift from her father.

She had had the phone for only four months, but the two were already inseparable.

“Sometimes I didn’t even notice she was gone,’’ says her mother, Nancy Brown Campbell. “I’d go look and she’d be in her room texting or on the computer.’’

“I knew I was addicted, but I didn’t want to seem like it,’’ Deisha says. But in the show’s opening segment, she acknowledges, “I text more than I talk.’’

According to Ellerbee, the show’s host and executive producer, the idea was to make members of this hyper-connected generation think about their technology habits.

“We thought, what if this generation had to unplug?’’ says Ellerbee. “[We wanted] kids to ask themselves: Are you getting too lost inside the toy box?’’

Deisha accepted the challenge. Ever the optimist, she thought giving up her gadgets would be easy. Her mother wasn’t so convinced.

“I didn’t think she was going to make it,’’ says Brown Campbell. “I thought she was going to break down and beg.’’

The first day was the hardest. After school, Deisha sat in her silent room, wondering how she would survive seven days. With some prodding from her mother, she began looking for ways to stay busy.

“I had nothing to do, so I just went outside and started doing things,’’ she says.

As the week continued, she discovered hidden — and forgotten — talents: cooking, singing, playing the guitar. She spent more time with friends, riding her bike, and playing with her three younger brothers. And she didn’t stop communicating — she just started doing it in person.

“I ended up being the talkative one,’’ she says, laughing. “My family basically got sick of me because I was always around, talking.’’

Deisha’s mother welcomed the chance to spend more time with her. “Normally she’s texting, so she’s in her own little world,’’ she says. “This time she had no option but to tune in.’’

Deisha was one of millions of teenagers who have traded family time for their electronic friends.

According to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center’s Pew Internet & American Life Project, 72 percent of all American teenagers text, and 31 percent of teens send or receive more than 100 text messages each day. In comparison, 65 percent of adults text, and on average they send or receive just 10 messages per day.

Like Brown Campbell, many parents worry that this electronic flood might be preventing their children from forming and sustaining relationships without technology and its around-the-clock demands.

“We’re trying to spend time with more people all at once, but what is too much contact?’’ asks Amanda Lenhart, a senior research specialist for the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “Is it taking away from time spent face to face?’’

Lenhart thinks the main issue is not who is using the technology, but how — what she calls “technology etiquette.’’

Ellerbee agrees. “Right now we’re just wallowing in the fact that we can do it, so we do it,’’ she says. “At some point we’ll figure out when and how is appropriate to do it.’’

Deisha’s choice to unplug helped her define what she thinks is appropriate: no phone at all. At the end of the week, she got her phone back, and immediately handed it over to her mother.

“I noticed how much fun I was having without it,’’ she says.

Without it, she has poured her energy into her passion for writing. She just finished her first book, “Don’t Forget to Tuck Me In,’’ which she says is about “a modern girl with working parents who waits to be tucked in at night.’’ Her mother has promised to help her publish it.

Her decision has influenced her family, too. On a recent afternoon, there were four wireless land-line phones visible in their kitchen alone, and a TV screen dominated the living room. But Brown Campbell insists that they are downgrading. The old television, which broke, took up an entire wall, she says.

Both mother and daughter say the most important lesson of Deisha’s experience is the value of time spent together.

“I learned to separate family time from the cellphone,’’ says Brown Campbell. Now, when her BlackBerry buzzes while she’s out at lunch with her children, she waits until later to respond.

Deisha approves of the change in her formerly “textaholic’’ mother. “You don’t need technology,’’ says Deisha. “You want it, but it’s not that important, and once you get rid of it you’ll have a great time.’’

She realizes she’ll need a phone to stay in touch with her parents when she’s older, but, for the moment, she’s happy being a little disconnected, technologically.

Of course, there are exceptions. Deisha still can’t clean her room without listening to her radio. And the entire family, including Deisha’s grandmother, will gather in the living room tonight to watch her give up her phone on the very television she was forbidden from watching.

Deisha hopes that other teenagers and adults will be inspired to think about their own technological dependence. After all, she’s not the only teen in America who could use a little break.

“My friends think I’m crazy,’’ she says. But she thinks they could learn something from her experience.

“They should do a week, too,’’ she suggests. “They all need an intervention.’’

Natalie Southwick can be reached at


On: Nickelodeon

Time: Tonight, 9-9:30