Fighting a social media addiction
Here was the challenge given to 200 University of Maryland students from a variety of majors: Abstain from social media for 24 hours.
That meant no iPhone or text messaging. No laptops or netbooks. No Gchatting or Twittering. No e-mail and absolutely no Facebook. Ah, a return to simplicity.
But just read the blogs these students wrote after the traumatic experience -- it's very easy to confuse these students with crack addicts who went cold-turkey, smokers not given the comfort of a patch while quitting, alcoholics forced to dry up. The university's new release on the study last week reported that some descriptions popped up over and over: "In withdrawal. Frantically craving. Very anxious. Extremely antsy. Miserable. Jittery. Crazy."
"I clearly am addicted and the dependency is sickening," one student said. Another student had to fight the urge to check e-mail: "I noticed physically, that I began to fidget, as if I was addicted to my iPod and other media devices, and maybe I am."
The study -- "24 Hours: Unplugged" -- was conducted by the university's International Center for Media & the Public Agenda in late February and early March. Researchers found that American college students struggle to function without their media connection to the world.
"We were surprised by how many students admitted that they were 'incredibly addicted' to media," said Susan D. Moeller, a journalism professor and director of the center, said in the university's news report on the study.
Students found themselves surrounded by new technology and blaring TVs, even when they were trying to avoid them. And it was boring to walk around without a soundtrack being piped into their ears from an MP3 player.
"It was really hard for me to go without listening to my iPod during the day because it's kind of my way to zone out of everything and everyone when I walk to class," a student wrote. "It gets my mind right. Listening to music before I go to class or take an exam is my way of getting amped up like a football player before a game. It sounds weird but music really helps to set my mood or fix my mood and without it I had to rely on other people to keep me in a good mood."
But it's not just the entertainment value. When cut off from social media, many students felt cut off from other humans and lived in isolation. The study found that the friendships and relationships these 18- to 21-year-olds were dependent on technology.
"Going without media meant, in their world, going without their friends and family," Moeller said.
One student wrote that texting and instant messaging friends gives a feeling of comfort: "When I did not have those two luxuries, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life. Although I go to a school with thousands of students, the fact that I was not able to communicate with anyone via technology was almost unbearable."
Being cut off from the wired world also meant being cut off from news and information -- not that any of them were regularly watching the news on TV, picking up a newspaper, listening to the news on the radio or visiting a news Web site.
One student who failed the assignment and cracked open a laptop during the 24-hour-ban learned about the violent earthquake in Chile from "an informal blog post on Tumblr." Another student suddenly had less information than everyone else about a range of subjects, including sports and news and cultural references.
While students had an insatiable appetite for news, they relied on a broad range of sources, showing little loyalty to any, the university's news report said.
"They care about what is going on among their friends and families and even in the world at large," said researcher Raymond McCaffrey, a Ph.D. student who used to work at The Washington Post. "But most of all they care about being cut off from that instantaneous flow of information that comes from all sides and does not seemed tied to any single device or application or news outlet."
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