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Originally published December 11, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified December 12, 2010 at 8:10 AM

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Teens go old school, quit social media

No texting, no Facebook. What's a teen to do? When Shorewood and Shorecrest High School students participated in an experiment to give up their text, e-mail, Facebook and Twitter for a weeklong social media blackout, they found themselves resorting to activities like chores, homework and actually talking on their cellphones.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Since Monday, Tanner LeCount, 16, has been calling his mom instead of texting her to let her know what he's doing. Eimanne El Zein, 17, has given up Facebook for runs with her dogs. Nicholi Wytovicz, 16, has replaced status updates with chores and homework.

Whose children are these?

For the past week, Shoreline high-school students have been testing a life where text messages and Facebook don't exist. As part of a project dubbed The Social Experiment, more than 600 students have given up texting, e-mail, Facebook and Twitter for a weeklong social-media blackout. It ends Sunday night.

Under the rules, students can call each other but until the experiment began Monday, many of them never did.

Cole Sweeten, 17, found out some of his friends are awfully awkward on the phone.

"They don't know what to say," he said.

But the Shorewood junior likes getting calls. He prefers a real "Hey, how are you?" to a "Hello" text with a smiley face.

"People sound different when they're on the phone," he said. "It's emotion, not just little lines."

The idea for The Social Experiment started with Trent Mitchell, a video-production teacher at Shorecrest. In early October, he saw the movie "The Social Network," a story about the founding of Facebook. Mitchell wondered if his students, who often walked into class heads down, typing away on their phones, could cut themselves off from text and Facebook.

Mitchell, 36, who remembers when big, clunky car phones were the rage in the 1990s, talked to his video-production class and told the students that he didn't think they could tear themselves away from social media. Then he polled them. Half the students said they could do it; the other half thought it was the worst idea they'd ever heard, he said.

Mitchell pulled in friend and teacher Marty Ballew, Shorewood's video-production teacher, and together, they created The Social Experiment. The theme?

What was life like in 1995?

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"Things are so much different than when we went to school," said Ballew, 37. "It's kind of unfathomable, the leap we've taken from the early '90s to now."

To promote the project, students made video trailers spoofing "The Social Network" and the Harry Potter series. Video students are documenting the process with confessional videos and interviews with students and staff, some of whom also volunteered to cut themselves off. The schools will combine the results for a final documentary film on the experiment.

Some students went to extremes to make sure they didn't break the rules. Five Shorewood students handed their cellphones over to Ballew. One girl gave him her Facebook password and asked him to change it for the week to avoid temptation.

The experiment was based mostly on an honor system, but secret spies roamed the halls, sending text messages to students and instant messages to people breaking the rules on Facebook. Answer the text (some students did) and you might get the response: "You're out of the Social Experiment!"

Kids who make it through the week will be entered in a drawing for a gift card, Mitchell said.

"Some are doing it for a gift card," Mitchell said. "Some are seriously challenging themselves."

Count Sweeten among the latter. He has been deleting texts as they come in, but it can be hard to remember he's not supposed to answer text messages. On the second day, he heard the familiar buzz-buzz, grabbed his phone, ready to hit the button to read the new text message, when he remembered. "No!" he shouted, and dropped the phone to the floor.

"I miss texting," Sweeten said.

Last year, El Zein was sending or receiving 200 texts per day, or about 6,000 per month. It was enough to get her phone confiscated by her parents for a week. This year, she said, she has averaged 20 to 50 a day, until the past week that is.

It's been "weird" not checking her e-mail, text and Facebook as soon as she wakes up. But each day has been getting easier. She has gotten more exercise, for one thing.

"I run my dogs, other things I like to do but don't always do because I spend all my time on Facebook," she said.

Wytovicz has done chores with his free time, an idea that sounds like it came from his parents, but he claims he wanted to do it. He also figured out activities such as shooting hoops or watching basketball are better distractions than ones that take 10 or 15 minutes, he said.

"Do something that fills time in large segments," he advised.

Tanner's mom, Pam LeCount, said cutting out text messages changed how she talks to him during the day. She missed getting quick responses from him. But she also liked getting calls from Tanner and having conversations with him.

"I've had more calls from him in these last four days than in six months," she said.

Nicole Tsong: 206-464-2150 or ntsong@seattletimes.com

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