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Fighting a social media addiction

Jenna Johnson

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."

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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.

wordle A Wordle data visualization of the over 100,000 words the students in the study wrote about their experiences. See larger image.

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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By Jenna Johnson  |  April 26, 2010; 10:11 AM ET
Categories:  Networking  | Tags: University of Maryland  
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I wouldn't really consider newspapers, tv, radios, and ipods to be "social" media. They are simply media. Yes there are now social aspects to these various types of media that are now leveraging the power of social networking tools and web 2.0, but they aren't all social media in the correct definition of the term. You should re-title this article to be something like "UMD Students Unplug". It is misleading. This study is a lot more interesting than simply staying off of facebook and twitter for 24 hours. Your title dimishes the true breadth of the study.

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | April 26, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

The poll question is too simplistic. I could live without "social media" -- I grew up without it, spent most of my adult life without it. But the fact is, pretty much everyone is "plugged in" now and not being plugged in does have consequences. And do they mean "social media" or do they mean "technology?" It isn't the same. The attorneys at my office are required to have BlackBerrys; being unplugged isn't an option if they want their jobs. In fact, I have to have internet access for my job (and occasionally it was MySpace, because I had an account (because my kids had accounts) and knew how it worked in the early days). I'm not addicted, and could live without it without withdrawal symptoms, but the fact is, I can't afford to be unplugged. My kids send texts, and have Facebook accounts. My Firm has a Twitter account. I have to answer (and send) work related emails, sometimes from home. I do have a nook, but not an iPod or iPhone (or Droid, etc.). I don't have internet on my phone. I don't have music on my nook, at least not yet. I don't have a laptop or netbook. So, yes, I could put down the technology, but then the question becomes how far back do you want to go? Typewriters? No phones at all? Gaslights? Candles? Outhouses? We're all addicted to technology, but we just don't recognize the items that have become the norm AS technology. And if you don't think so, join a scout troop and try to get the some of the parents and kids interested in camping. (In tents with sleeping bags? Outside? No running water? BUGS?)

Posted by: IndolentCin | April 26, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse

I too was a little confused about this. Were the Terp kids cutting off social media such as Facebook/Twitter or everything electronic and going neo-Amish for 24 hours?

I couldn't hanlde ditching my iPod, like the guy with the football player before a game, but I could certainly handle ditching social media for 24 hours, email being the trickiest to give up.

But as soon as the clock struck 24:01, I'd be online catching up with what I missed...

Posted by: Georgetwoner | April 26, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

You got it covered. It pay the bills. I have enough trouble keeping up with people off the screen. The screen people need screened. That's your job.

Posted by: tossnokia | April 26, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

The micro-serfs will revolt in time.

Posted by: tossnokia | April 26, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse

Crack addicts. Babies with pacifiers desperate for instant gratification. Bored with life at such an early age. How sad for them.

Posted by: cbl55 | April 26, 2010 7:04 PM | Report abuse

Just proves that people 25 and younger are REALLY BAD at HUMAN interaction...sad, SAD development!

Posted by: sigmagrrl | April 26, 2010 8:19 PM | Report abuse

I try to take at least one vacation a year where I turn myself off for the entire trip. I use the computer to check in for the flights but leave the computer at home or off otherwise. Often when flying I'll use noise reduction headphones attached to nothing just to dull the noise of the plane.

So I could and do go without for a week to 10 days a year and its incredibly liberating. I come back far more relaxed then i do from trips where I'm still partially connected. I highly recommend it.

Posted by: archers44 | April 26, 2010 9:34 PM | Report abuse

Is it really that difficult to walk to class without music? Kinda scary that college kids need this stimulation to be able to interact with their environment in a "normal mood". You shouldn't have to get pumped up to sit through a lecture. It's someone else talking. Learn to live without and soon you'll learn to live.

-College Student, age 20, walks 1 mile to class every day without touching any electronics to clear mind before busy day

Posted by: vwallace | April 26, 2010 10:42 PM | Report abuse

Those aged 18-20 are also adults and not "kids" or "teens", meaning they shouldn't be called those words. It's good that the young women and young men from the University of Maryland took the challenge of going without social media for a day. I'm not too different from them as I go to the computer every day or almost every day for years. The addiction is fine as long as it doesn't heavily interfere with life.

Posted by: LibertyForAll | April 26, 2010 10:54 PM | Report abuse

Mathew Ingram Researchers “Addicted” to Bogus Internet Studies,

As far as this study particular goes, the random sample was a class of 200 students in a required core course in media studies, and the research question was an assignment was to give up ALL media (newspapers, magazines, tv, ipods, cell phones, the computer you would use to submit this assignment …) and posting a description of the experience to the course blog (oops, social media) was a part of the assignment.

Left of of the study report was the course that had so far been framing the students thoughts about media …

As a class assignment, probably fun. As research … not a good example to show to your students.

Posted by: sjc802 | April 27, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

I consider those who think these kids are spoiled to be technologically adverse. I would guess when the color TV came out, your parents told you how lucky you were to even have a TV - and there you sat glued while people criticized you on your dependence.

I just finished a case study at the University of Miami where I actually found a way for professors to actively communicate with students in live-time using Twitter. Questions and comments could be made without interrupting the lecture. The down side: only young professors would use it.

There's no way this generation gap is ever to be filled if people don't start harnessing this technology.


Posted by: Chase_Fitzgerald | April 27, 2010 5:44 PM | Report abuse

The screened will revolts. It is only a matter of time. I would know if I were a biology major. Micro-indentured servants will not abide.

Posted by: itswhatyoudo | April 27, 2010 8:41 PM | Report abuse

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