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Helping Students Unplug

Helping Students Unplug

Note from the Editor: For the month of May, we’re focusing in on the idea of cultivating spiritual formation in the lives of our students. We’ve spent April reflecting on the spiritual disciplines that have been of personal benefit (Intentional Space, Welcoming Prayer, Solitude, and Sabbath), but now we want to ask the question, “What can we do to help our students grow in their own spiritual walk?” Specifically, we want to focus on the ways in which we can either equip students with helpful disciplines or create environments in which they can practice them. Join us as we reflect on the integration of spiritual formation and student ministry.

The other day I saw the best commercial. It was for (I want it on the record that I am receiving no compensation from for this impromptu mention of their website). A dad books cabin in the woods for his kids. I think he picked that particular location so they wouldn’t be able to get a signal on their cell phones. It shows the kids sitting around a table staring at their hands wondering, “What are these things at the end of my arms?” Their hands are being held in the permanent shape of a cell phone and without that device they aren’t quite sure what to do with said hands. Dad to the rescue – cut to a snowball fight outside. 🙂

You can watch it for yourself here:

I lead guided silent retreats. Yes…silent retreats. And by silent, I mean no cell phones, even on vibrate. Although the silent part of the retreat is important, there is also something very significant about being ‘unplugged’. It allows us to turn over control of the world – or at least our world – to God and do our best to be present only to God.

When I talk about unplugging for the day, I can almost see people begin to visibly shake when I ask them to turn their phone off. Most of the time I have to say that if they absolutely must, they may check their phone during the lunch break and that seems to reduce the shaking to a mere tremor. And, as much as we adults are tied to our phone and computers, students are even more so. It seems that the majority of their social life comes through electronic devices.


I want to offer a spiritual practice that you may just be able to offer to students – the practice of ‘unplugging’. It a very practical discipline that is offered by Adele Calhoun in her wonderful book called the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. What follows are some suggestions for how to do this.

Invite Teens to do an Assessment of Their Tech Use

  • Most of us spend far more time on our devices than we know. Calhoun suggests that you keep track of how much time you spend on the computer or texting on your phone each day. Then add that up to see how much of your week is ‘virtual’.
  • Then make note of how much uninterrupted time you spend in the actual presence of family or friends for a day and then for a week. Compare the two.
  • Might God be inviting you to re-prioritize your time? Perhaps begin by cutting out one hour of computer time and spending it with a real person.

Create Tech-free Space in Your Teens Lives.

  • Create a habit within your small group where everyone puts their cellphone into a pile and doesn’t touch it until the end. We’re saying that the people right in front of us matter and are worthy of our attention. We’re also saying that we trust God to take care of whatever’s happening outside this circle right now whether I know about it or not.
  • Plan a no-email day or even – gasp, gasp… a week! Let people know that you will meet with them in person or talk on the phone.
  • Invite students to embrace going “old-school.” What might it feel like for you to receive a handwritten note from a friend? Consider writing a one. Notice what surfaces while you are writing.


 Foster Face-to-face time to build True Community.

  • Finally – stop and think about which relationships in your life need face-to-face time. Commit to really being present to several people this week.
  • For students, this might mean taking time at the kick-off of a new small group year to teach them how to actively listen and maintain good eye-contact.
  • When offering illustrations or applications in teaching, be mindful of how many “tech solutions” you’re offering. For example, we might suggest encouraging a friend with a text message this week because we know it’s an easy and accessible step for students, but might we also encourage them to take it a step further and engage that friend face-to-face.

These are great suggestions for students – but also for leaders.   Consider trying each of these suggestions for yourself and then sharing what you noticed with your students. Don’t gloss it over – let them know that you can get shaky too when it comes to setting down your technology but that there are lovely benefits from truly engaging with other human beings.

Students learn more from watching than from being told. Show up for your students in a personal face-to-face way and model the practice of ‘unplugging’.

Deb Turnow
Executive Director at Kavanna House
Deb Turnow is the Executive Director of Kavanna House, a spiritual formation center in York, Pa. Prior to that role, she was the Director of Spiritual Direction at Living Word Community Church in York. She has a Bachelor Degree in Psychology from York College in Pennsylvania and a M.A. in Spiritual Formation and Leadership from Spring Arbor University. She is also a graduate of the Spiritual Guidance Program at Shalem Institute. She is currently studying at San Francisco Theological Seminary. She is a certified spiritual director and also provides supervision for spiritual directors. She and her husband Jeff, live in York, PA.