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Why I Traded My Smartphone for an Ax

At 15, Caleb Silverberg made the most important decision of his life. He ditched technology and headed to the forest.

During the pandemic, I became a slave to screens. Online classes were followed by scrolling Instagram or playing Fortnite for hours, ignoring hunger pangs while I immersed myself in a world of pixels.

My Saturdays were pretty grim: I’d wake up and drag myself to the couch where my Xbox had been waiting for me all night long. The closed shades blocked the beaming sun and any hope of enjoying it—swimming in the ocean, biking in the mountains, hiking with my dogs.

At 15 years old, I looked in the mirror and saw a shell of myself. My face was pale. My eyes were hollow. I needed a radical change.

I vaguely remembered one of my older sister’s friends describing her unique high school, Midland, an experiential boarding school located in the Los Padres National Forest. The school was founded in 1932 under the belief of “Needs Not Wants.” In the forest, cell phones and video games are forbidden, and replaced with a job to keep the place running: washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, or sanitizing the mess hall. Students depend on one another. 

Once I heard of this technology-free oasis, I immediately applied to attend high school there. A few months later, the morning of April 12, 2021, I received the best news of my life. At 7:30 a.m., an email popped into my inbox with the subject line “Welcome To Midland!”

I screamed, “Mom, I got in!” She ran over, still in her bathrobe, to congratulate me.

September 2, 2021, was my first day at Midland, when I traded my smartphone for an ax.

At Midland, students must chop firewood to generate hot water for their showers and heat for their cabins and classrooms. If no one chops the wood or makes the fire, there’s a cold shower, a freezing bed, or a chilly classroom. No punishment by a teacher or adult. Just the disappointment of your peers. Your friends.

Armed with my ax, I found myself liberated from the constant allure of technology. I discovered the joys of engaging in face-to-face conversations and savoring moments without the urge to post them on social media. 

I embraced living off the land—a self-sustaining farm operated by Midland students and faculty. In the spring, I regularly ventured to the garden to devour handfuls of fresh strawberries. At dinners, I savored the recently butchered beef from Midland’s grass-fed cows. I began lifting weights to regain the pounds I had lost while gaming and neglecting my hunger. Living in nature without Instagram or Fortnite or TikTok provided me with an opportunity to reconnect with the world and rediscover the value of genuine human connection.

Screen addictions like mine are a ubiquitous problem today. Excessive screen time is associated with ADHD, myopia (nearsightedness), and depression. Since the release of smartphones in 2005, the rate of Americans reporting symptoms of major depression increased by 52 percent. This is something I’ve witnessed firsthand in my peer group.

Many teens find it difficult to socialize with their peers in person, and instead rely on virtual interactions via Instagram and Snapchat. At many traditional high schools, no one stops to say hello in the hallways. Instead, the halls are filled with the tinny sound of AirPods blasting rap songs beneath the silence.

Before Midland, whenever I sat on the couch, engrossed in TikTok or Instagram, my parents would caution me: “Caleb, your brain is going to melt if you keep staring at that screen!” I dismissed their concerns at first. But eventually, I experienced life without an electronic device glued to my hand and learned they were right all along. 

I am now going into my junior year at Midland School. Whenever I am home, I find myself on my phone much less, and then only to catch up on my favorite TV shows and to talk to the numerous lifelong friends I have made at school. Midland helped me change how I live my life. I’m no longer dependent on a smartphone.

I have been privileged to attend Midland. But anyone can benefit from its lessons. To my generation, I would like to offer a 5,000-year-old solution to our twenty-first-century dilemma. Shabbat is the weekly sabbath in Judaic custom where individuals take 24 hours to rest and relax. This weekly reset allows our bodies and minds to recharge. 

I envision three potential levels of a “Technology Shabbat.” The first is an immersive, Midland-like experience—living without a cell phone. The second is similar to the traditional weekly sabbath, taking one full day a week to turn off your phone. The third is putting the phone away while in educational settings like classrooms.

I went from obsessing over a smartphone to swinging an ax, and learned the power of liberation from a screen. I hope others my age can make the same journey from phone to fulfillment. All it takes is pulling the plug. 

Caleb is a 17-year-old rising junior at Midland School from Santa Barbara, California, and one of two runners up in our first-ever Free Press high school essay contest. For this piece, he has won a $1,000 cash prize and a lifetime subscription to The Free Press. Read our other runner-up, Isabel Hogben, on teen porn addiction

Tomorrow, we’ll announce the winner of our contest. And if you want to support our mission of fostering the next generation of independent journalists, become a Free Press subscriber today:

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