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Discovery Park at sunrise. Photo by Christina Hickman.

Why I Unplug

A young outdoor enthusiast explains why she finds value in leaving her phone turned off | by Lucy Brown

A few months ago, I gathered a group of five students from my high school to go for a hike in Discovery Park. It was a sunny Sunday in May, and there were lots of other people enjoying the outdoors. To anyone else, we may have seemed like a typical group of teenagers out for a hike. But there was one difference: We were completely phone-free.

Well, actually, we had all our phones with us, but they were sealed away in my backpack. Before we left the parking lot, everyone texted their parents with our location and ETA for being home. For the duration of our hike, just a short 3 hours, we agreed that no one would take out their phone once, not even for a picture.

I have taken issue with the pervasiveness of smartphones since I was in middle school. During this time, when my friends and family started to get smartphones, I noticed that my interactions and conversations were becoming impaired. Screens provide a huge distraction, and with their limitless stream of entertainment, I often felt pressured to be entertaining as a person. I would do anything to fill the void that would so frequently be used as an excuse for someone to check their phone.

The Unplug Club poses with their club t shirts. Photo courtesy Lucy Brown.

To try to combat this, I founded the Unplug Club at my school at the beginning of my sophomore year. Students gather once a week during lunch, and we put our phones in a basket. I brought in news articles, games or treats. Sometimes we just talked about our personal lives. Participation was low at first, but by my senior year, we had a regular group of about 10 students every week. Club members say they really appreciate our time together, that they feel less stressed, more connected to their peers and themselves, and much happier after going to a club meeting. This feels like a huge success to me.

During one of our club meetings, I suggested that we go for a hike. I’ve always loved the outdoors, but I was reminded of this after going on several WTA youth vacations and later becoming a youth ambassador. Those adventures reminded me of past years, of how good it feels to be in a group of people without the distraction of smartphones. Taking my club for a hike felt like the perfect opportunity to collectively experience how refreshing and grounding it feels to unplug in real life, outside the four walls of our meeting classroom.

The hike was awesome. We explored the wide variety of trails at Discovery Park, from sandy bluffs to lush forests, and even the beach. Our conversations were meaningful and laughter-inducing, but the most important part to me were the lulls. We let natural pauses exist without feeling the need to check our phones or distract ourselves, and we enjoyed it. Multiple kids said that the burden they sometimes feel to keep a conversation going was lifted.

Our conversations were meaningful and laughter-inducing, but the most important part to me were the lulls.

Being unplugged while outdoors is definitely a different experience from being unplugged indoors. For one, there is so much going on around us, and so much to look at, that it doesn’t really feel like we’re missing out on something that might be happening on our phones. You can look at the beautiful surroundings and observe the people and animals around you — just watch your step! There was also much more silence while we were outside. Since it’s human nature to ultimately want to connect with the people around you, the lulls of silence while in an indoor Unplug Club meeting are often not very long. In contrast, we sometimes went 15 minutes without talking while at Discovery Park.

Lucy is an avid hiker, and jumped at the chance to share her love of hiking with her schoolmate. Photo courtesy Lucy Brown.

While we meant to take a group picture before we left the park, we actually forgot about it. As much as I totally worship nature photography, it was so refreshing to be out in the world without feeling the need to capture every bit of our experience.

After the hike, the other members of my group reported feeling happier, peaceful and connected. One even said, “I wish I could do this every day!” Though he was referring to a longer hike, I think that we can make time for a similar experience if we want. We’re lucky to live in Washington with access to so many natural areas, even in the cities. Next time you find some time in your schedule to get outside, try leaving your phone at home!

Tips to Unplug

  • Leave your social media habits at home when you hike. Instead, immerse yourself in the outdoors. Similarly, avoid having your phone constantly at hand to take photos. Absorb the scenery and engage all your senses as you hike.
  • Schedule time to catch up with your friends or family instead of texting. If you want to go the extra mile, plan a walk or hike together!
  • Make small goals. Try going without checking social media for an amount of time that feels right to you.
  • When unplugged, note how much extra time you have on your hands, and pay attention the things you accomplish. Also think about how you feel.
  • Turn off your phone and put it far away. Studies have shown that even phones (with the ringer turned off) in a nearby room can be a distraction.