Catch our latest webinar on-demand and learn how contextual marketing is taking campuses by storm. Watch now
native logo

Phone blackouts: what does social media anxiety mean for unplugged events?

Students exist amidst a culture of documentation – and it’s affecting how they experience events. We take a look at how “unplugged” events are having a moment – and explore what this might look like in a Students’ Union context. 

Three in four UK concertgoers take photos while at a gig, Virgin Media has found. This is hardly a new phenomenon – a gig pic is a great way to take an individual memento away from a collective experience. For new students, who are at a pivotal moment in their lives, Freshers week is certainly worth a few photos. 

But it’s complicated. From watching a gig through someone else’s phone screen to appearing involuntarily in the background of other people’s club snaps, our culture of documentation has its downsides. And with multiple incidents of people being filmed in public without their consent, some events are opting to go completely unplugged.

Unplugged events: from Abba to Bridgerton

Take Abba Voyage, for example. The holographic performance is making history for its tech advancements – but also for its tech restrictions. The event asks attendees to  “kindly put your phones and cameras away, help ABBA keep the mystery of Voyage alive, and please enjoy.” 

Secret Cinema’s hugely popular Bridgerton Ball, too, asked that guests lock their phones away for the duration of the event – perhaps in part because regency-era ballers are less likely to be sporting an iphone. And musician Jack White makes it a requirement for phones to be locked away at all of his gigs, saying: “Our eyes open a bit wider and our senses are slightly more heightened when we lose the technology crutch we’ve become accustomed to.” 

It’s a trend that has been alive and well at club nights for a while now – many clubs across Europe, including London’s Fabric, insist on a sticker over the phone camera on the door.

On a Students’ Union level

But as concerns about privacy and safety grow, phone use at events is an issue that’s landed squarely on the doorstep of Students’ Unions, too. Josh Goddard – Head of Events & Marketing at Roehampton SU – has seen first-hand how mobile phones are becoming “the death of the dancefloor” at student events. In Roehampton’s union-wide research – The Big Survey – early trends indicate that students have an “overwhelming fear” of reputational damage as a result of event filming. 

“This is resulting in students being less likely to want to be involved in events that may be perceived as a higher risk activity”, says Josh. “They are worried it could impact them later on in life if pictured or recorded drinking”. 

In a sense, this is a cultural shift – the youngest cohorts of students are digital natives, and they understand all too well the problems social media can pose. “Gone are the days that students waited eagerly for the album to be uploaded on an event organiser’s Facebook page to tag themselves and their friends”, Josh continues. “The thought of this is now terrifying for students knowing that social media – and a potential viral post – could haunt them forever.” 

Many of the solutions being piloted by non-student gigs and club nights could be trialled here – from stickers for phone cameras to banning phones altogether. But by nature, Students’ Unions can also take a more community-based approach. Roehampton has opted for a private Dropbox to upload event images, rather than a public social media page, in order to afford students the privacy they deserve. Josh acknowledges that it makes students feel safer – but does also impact marketing more generally. 

Final word

As they’ve developed, smartphones have become an acceptable – even integral – part of nightlife culture. Where once, older generations found fault with the sea of smartphones in gig crowds, or the constant culture of documentation, the push to unplug is now coming from younger attendees. In all aspects of nightlife, they want to feel more in control – and the prospect of being filmed without consent takes away from that feeling. As Freshers 2023 approaches at a rapid rate, it’s certainly food for thought.

Do you work for a Students’ Union? Check out our campus events packages that are now live for Freshers 2023.