A Purchased World of Distractions

09/12/2014 10:17 am ET Updated Nov 12, 2014

Two sure signs that fall is upon us -- classes are back in session at Frostburg State University and Apple has announced its new slate of products for their consumers. I'm reminded of the overlap of these seemingly disparate items as I walk across campus and observe that the world of technology has created a world of distractions from what college and life have to offer.

On the first day of classes, it was hard for me to find any students on the sidewalks without headphones in their ears, looking down at the small screens in front of them. In our academic buildings, students had their phones plugged into recharging stations seeking a brief back-up charge to get them through their day. Everyplace I looked, without exception, students were plugged in, multi-tasking and distracted from the opportunities and people surrounding them.

Frostburg is not unusual in this regard. What I observed is a familiar scene at institutions and organizations across the country and is illustrative of a larger cultural -- and to some extent generational -- phenomenon. During my commencement address this past May, I alluded to this societal shift with our graduating seniors and asked them to reflect on the following question: how did we let engagement with others become less important than broadcasting a lesser version of that connection across multiple social media channels?

I had noticed that over their four years on campus, many of their screens had taken on a new life -- one that potentially felt more engaging than the world in front of them. Some of them had developed obsessions with texting, tweeting, Instagramming, Facebook posting, and watching YouTube clips. Social media had replaced conversations with their peers and participation in the here and now. A few had reduced some relationships to superficial replacements for genuine engagement, ones in which "liking" a post was nothing more than getting credit for following along with someone else's supposed life rather than truly providing them with affirmation or support or participating in their actual life.

It is my responsibility as a president to remind our students that our portable devices should never derail building relationships or limit the experiences that are the hallmarks of an in-person, on-campus higher education experience. Our students have the luxury of attending an excellent institution of higher education, and part of that excellence is derived from their participation and engagement with each other.

We live in a world that expects our students to connect. And that connection can take many forms, but the face-to-face human interactions necessary for developing the strong teamwork and problem solving skills sought-after by employers must be included within our students' repertoire. We can't only teach about interconnectivity; we need to ensure they master and value it on many levels and in many ways.

We need to expect more from our students and, in part, do so by engaging them in ways that appeal to them and build relationships in the ways they value. Both inside and outside of the classroom, academia has competition for our students' attention, and we must partner with our faculty and student affairs professionals to find creative ways to beat out the immediate gratification that comes from online distraction.

This is a need that is bigger than just our campuses. Our students are graduating from our institutions distracted from the world around them and then become members of communities that are also no longer as connected. We physically inhabit the same places but may as well live a thousand miles apart, no longer relating with each other on a deeper level. We are so obsessed with capturing the moment that we forget to live in it. People seem to be more concerned with the "selfie" than with being selfless.

My challenge for our graduating seniors was not much different from my suggestion for all students, families and community members: look up and become engaged. Leave your phone at home or turn it off. Have a day when you don't post anything or read any of your friends' posts and instead visit your friends. Form meaningful connections with the people in your life rather than brushing past them with your head turned down to the screen in your hands. Have a barbeque and introduce yourself to your neighbors.

I'm not suggesting our current and future students, graduates and community members give up on technology or social media entirely, nor should they. But we, collectively, must model how to use technology smartly and appropriately to create a personal and professional advantage, rather than letting it overtake the world in which we live. And those who can take the first steps include administrators and faculty members across the country.

So, before buying that new iPhone or other device, I ask that we all take the weekend to meet a neighbor, volunteer in the community or spend a day getting to know the people around you who also need to place a greater value on human interactions. And then, on Monday, reconsider that purchase and all that it entails.