Shoaler Voices

A Break-Up with Technology: The Star Island Phenomenon

Written by Liz MacLean

A Much Needed Technology Break-Up (For the Day, Anyway)

Once the boat had docked and the masses of people unloaded, I walked up the front lawn and checked my phone. No service. For many of my friends, this would lead to heart palpitations and a minor anxiety attack. Going without a phone for the whole afternoon? It was nearly unthinkable. But I simply placed my phone on airplane mode, shoved it in the bottom of my bag  (away from my water bottle), and set off toward the snack bar.

After working for two summers in Star Island’s Portsmouth office, I finally got the chance to go out to the island. My dad joined me for the trip, and equipped with sunscreen and a camera, we explored the island I had heard so much about.

I had seen pictures on the website, learned almost everything about the conferences and programs, and delivered hundreds of packages to the Portsmouth dock, but had yet to experience Star Island and discover why so many people called it their summer home away from home.

As I headed up the path toward the iconic Star gazebo, I noticed a group of kids sitting on benches and rocks, painting the landscape around them. I quickly got out my camera and began snapping pictures. Completely focused on their paintings with an intensity I hadn’t seen before, these eight- and ten-year-olds studied the ocean, lighthouse, and hotel while they used watercolors to recreate the images on small canvases.

Some of the kids chatted quietly and others sat alone, bent over their paintings, unaware of the flies buzzing around their heads or me aiming my camera lens. As I reached into my bag to capture this moment on my phone camera too, I realized why the scene was so strange to me: none of these kids were fixated to a phone or staring at an iPad screen. Instead, they held beautiful paintings of the island and memories they put to paper themselves. I quickly stashed my phone in my bag and proceeded along the path toward a small beach to see if this strange occurrence could be found on other parts of the island.

Below a cluster of boulders, on the beach, a child ate a bagel while his parents stuck their feet in the water. A girl drew in the sand with her toes and a boy clambered across the rocks. No technology here.

Even in the hotel lobby, where I thought people would go to take a break from the intense sun and check their email or Facebook notifications, there was a lack of electronics. Two teenagers played chess while a group of kids started a game of Bananagrams. On the front porch, a little girl colored a picture of a boat while her older sister made a bracelet out of colored yarn.

As the day went on, I felt more and more relaxed. I had no desire to check my phone for texts or contribute a picture on social media. I just wanted to explore the trails that lead around the island, take pictures of the ocean that was so incredibly blue, and sit in a rocking chair, watching families tie dye t-shirts on the front lawn.

I couldn’t remember the last time I had been without my phone for five hours during the day. This may seem absurd for many people, but young adults today seem to be spending more time looking at a screen than looking at their friends’ faces. At college, I’ve noticed everyone has their phone on them at all times and is constantly checking their email and social media pages. We live in a keep-moving-don’t-stop-always-know-what’s-happening society, and when you can’t get a break from the endless stream of information, it can be physically and mentally exhausting.

That’s when I understood the Star phenomenon. It’s not another vacation spot with unlimited wifi and free movie streaming and social media contests. It’s a place to get away from those tiny white screens that are a distraction from the surrounding people and natural beauty.

As I took some final pictures of the grand Oceanic Hotel and tried to imprint the island on my memory, I studied the faces of the other Shoalers. Their eyes were not squinting at a screen, but instead, wide open in amazement as they discussed that day’s lecture, squeezed shut in laughter as they played a board game in the grass, and relaxed as they sipped lime rickeys on the porch, studying the sailboats that drifted through the harbor.

Whether Star Island is a time-honored tradition or a new experience, it offers one thing among many that everyone can benefit from: a much-needed break from the electronic world, a place where reflection and discovery is cultivated, and a chance to reconnect with nature.

Photo by Norman MacLean