People often speak loosely about youths being “addicted” to their cellphones or iPods but research carried out at the University of Maryland had students using the word themselves when they wrote about how they felt while abstaining from all media for a day.
Their accounts were peppered with terms associated with drug and alcohol addictions: In withdrawal, Frantically craving, Very anxious, Extremely antsy, Miserable, Jittery, Crazy. Many admitted they were “incredibly addicted”.
"I clearly am addicted and the dependency is sickening," said one person in the study. "I feel like most people these days are in a similar situation, for between having a Blackberry, a laptop, a television, and an iPod, people have become unable to shed their media skin."
The study, “24 Hours: Unplugged”, was carried out by the university’s International Centre for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA) amongst 200 students aged 18 to 21 doing a core course in media literacy. After their 24 hours of abstinence they were asked to blog on private class websites about their experiences (including any failures to last the distance) and they wrote more than 110,000 words between them.
They wrote at length about how cut off they felt from friends and family without their instant communication devices. Said one student:
"Texting and IM-ing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort," wrote one student. "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."
The stand-out methods of communication were texting and using Facebook; calling and email were “distant seconds” as ways of staying in touch with friends. Students’ lives are so “wired together” that opting out of those media would be “tantamount to renouncing a social life.”
There is no consolation for the news media, even big brands, in the study. Students have no brand loyalty in this arena and get their news in a haphazard way through friends, family, and networking sites, as part of a continuous flow of “information” that includes football scores and what happened on favourite TV programmes.
They apparently do care about what happens in the world at large as well as among friends and family. “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," said a researcher who formerly worked as a journalist on The Washington Post.
No wonder the news and opinion media are taking Facebook and Twitter into their loop.
The study authors conclude that American college students are not just unwilling, but functionally unable to be without their media links to the world.
Is this something to be alarmed about, or not? We know that forming and maintaining friendships is terribly important to adolescents, so it is not surprising that they go overboard on staying connected. The fact of living in a huge institution could also drive them to greater dependency on their personal network. And it’s not all bad; we hear occasionally that young people are into idealistic causes such as saving the planet, and this is facilitated by new media.
All the same, by going around constantly glued to the smartphone or iPod they are going to miss out on a kind of socialisation that prepares them for the world of work and citizenship: learning to converse with and get along with the wide range of people that life puts in one’s way, and taking a more systematic interest in current events. This would feed into the delayed transition to adulthood that already marks the younger generations.
Can the trend be stopped? Probably not. Maybe the older gens have to get smarter and make sure they get their own messages onto Facebook.