3 Strategies For Teaching Digital Wellness In Higher Education

  • Alanna
  • 12 September 2017
  • 01:43 PM

Every semester, professor Dr. Josie Ahlquist challenges her Leadership in the Digital Age students at Florida State University with a unique task. “Unplug from social-based platforms for 7 days,” she says to a class of hesitant college students. Allowing room for negotiation, Dr. Ahlquist has seen her challenges run for as few as two days and as many as seven, and she requests that students document their experience throughout. The results showcase a facinating journey of self-discovery and reflection as these students shed social media for the duration of the challenge. 

It might seem an easy request to some of us: disconnecting from technology over the span of just two to seven days could be something you unintentionally do during a few days vacation, only noticing your absence upon returning to your inboxes and newsfeeds. But Dr. Ahlquist has found that asking students to make the conscious and self-motivated effort to disconnect from just their social networks, when they otherwise would be connected, proves to be a highly reflective and eye-opening learning experience.

It's from this experience that Dr. Ahlquist confirms that it goes much deeper than simply asking students to 'unplug'. “It’s giving them permission to disconnect,” she says. In this article, we explore three key digital wellness strategies around teaching college students to disconnect, and why it matters.

1. Detox From Social Media Slowly and With Intention

Dr. Ahlquist respects the need for digital tools in everyday life and has no intention of robbing college students of their To-Do list apps, Google Maps, or even email. “I ask students to unplug specifically from social-based platforms,” she says, describing that students still have access to their devices during the unplug challenge. Her intention is primarily focused on helping bring awareness to how frequently we reach for our devices to check notifications or browse on social media. “You’re going to notice you’re grabbing for your phone, you’ll start to be aware of it, and you’ll begin to take note,” she says to her students.

This strategy helps her students become more intentional about the way they use their devices and check notifications, whereas a full ‘digital detox’ might not achieve a similar result. 

Dr. Ahlquist says that this strategy helps her students become more intentional about the way they use their devices and check notifications, whereas a full ‘digital detox’ might not achieve a similar result.

Intentionally disconnecting from social media alone takes a reflex that many of us haven’t built, much of it thanks to well-designed technology that pulls our attention away impulsively. “People don’t stop to think sometimes,” she says. “We have so many things that can just block us from focusing on ‘us’.” Her challenge, she says, helps students build that reflex.

2. Empower Students to Learn the Lesson

In Jean Twenge’s controversial Atlantic piece, Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?, Twenge argues that devices and social media are largely responsible for some rising troubling trends among teens. But Dr. Ahlquist sees things differently. “I hear a lot of people talking poorly of millennials,” she says. “But they’re really doing amazing things. We need to approach them with hope, empathy, and empowerment.”

It’s for that reason that she sees her unplug challenge as an opportunity for students to learn a lesson, rather than bombard them with scientific facts or statistics that might not be relatable. “We don’t want them to feel bad about their behaviour,” she argues, “and we shouldn’t judge them based on their digital presence.”

"We don’t want them to feel bad about their behaviour, and we shouldn’t judge them based on their digital presence."

Instead, Dr. Ahlquist says college students will learn from the experience and discover the important lessons on their own — some may even end up confirming the points that many digital wellness advocates, like Twenge, are trying to make. “Wow, when I’m unplugged it’s actually a beautiful experience,” Dr. Ahlquist describes one student saying to her, emphasizing that what matters more is that students discover something about themselves that they weren't expecting.

In her blog post describing the class experience, Dr. Ahlquist shares one student's powerful self-reflection:

"Day one, and I wake up from the dead of sleep with one thought, and I am shocked by the toxicity of this thought. “I need to check my Instagram feed.” Instead of asking myself how I am feeling or asking myself what I need to get done this morning before leaving the house, I tell myself that it is important to check my instagram feed. I tell myself that it is important for me to look at images of what people did last night. People that I barely know, acquaintances, and people that I have never even met mostly." 

"Day one, and I wake up from the dead of sleep with one thought, and I am shocked by the toxicity of this thought: 'I need to check my Instagram feed.'"

3. Explore Digital Wellness With Your Students

Dr. Ahlquist agrees that the Atlantic story has point a view, which is why she considers these types of resources when framing a two-way discussion around technology use. “Technology needs to be purposeful,” she agrees, suggesting that educators not adopt technology simply for its own sake; rather, they should openly discuss implementation ideas with students. "It should be tied to the learning objectives of your course and even to the mission of the university. Not every department needs a Twitter account.”

"Students might want more boundaries around technology than you realize. They might want laptops gone."

Dr. Ahlquist describes that part of the problem is a culture that tends to do things because others are too; for example, educators might be adopting classroom technology without really knowing its value or purpose. She advocates instead that students be involved in the discussion and asked what they want. “Students might want more boundaries around technology than you realize. They might want laptops gone,” she argues.

That’s why Dr. Ahlquist co-creates her technology policies with her students and doesn’t make assumptions about what they might or might not want.

"We can reinforce a campus community that isn’t just everyone looking down at their phones."

Dr. Ahlquist says that teaching digital wellness begins with this type of open discussion about students’ expectations around technology, which can ultimately change which technologies are implemented and why.

She believes that starting a dialogue around what’s happening in society could even help us reimagine our relationship with the tech we use. “It has to be built into our values as a society that it’s okay to unplug,” she says, highlighting that teachers are at the forefront of this mission. “We can reinforce a campus community that isn’t just everyone looking down at their phones.”


Dr. Josie Ahlquist has trained thousands of professionals and students around the globe on how to thrive online and in life. As a speaker, researcher and author on digital leadership she takes a personal approach to transforming how we view technology through the lens of empathy and empowerment that will result in stronger companies, communities, schools and future leaders. She is also the founder of the Digital Leadership Network and is a Research Associate and Instructor with Florida State University and its Leadership Learning and Research Center. Connect with Josie on Twitter here or listen to her podcast, Josie & the Podcast.