Study: Disconnected students suffer severe withdrawal

April 26th, 2010 by Chris Hogg Leave a reply »

According to a new study, American college students have become highly addicted to media. When they’re forced to abstain from consuming media, students literally used the same terms associated with drug and alcohol addiction to describe their withdrawal.

Hearing someone describe their feelings as “in withdrawal” or “frantically craving” or “extremely antsy,” you’d think they were taking about kicking an alcohol or drug addiction. In this case, however, we’re talking about students’ obsession with consuming media.

In a study titled “24 Hours: Unplugged” by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland, 200 students were asked to go one full day without accessing media sites.

After the day of being unplugged, students were asked to write about their experiences and report about their successes and failures. In total, the students submitted more than 110,000 words to describe their withdrawal, the same word count as a 400-page novel.

“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.”

While it may be no surprise to some that young people today are obsessed with media, the study went as far as saying “most college students are not just unwilling, but functionally unable to be without their media links to the world. ”
“We were surprised by how many students admitted that they were ‘incredibly addicted’ to media,” said Project director Susan D. Moeller, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland in a news release. “But we noticed that what they wrote at length about was how they hated losing their personal connections. Going without media meant, in their world, going without their friends and family.”

Among the complaints, the study said students complained about how boring it was go anywhere and do anything without being plugged into music on their MP3 players. Students also said it was nearly impossible to avoid the TVs on in the background at all times in their friends’ rooms.

“What they spoke about in the strongest terms was how their lack of access to text messaging, phone calling, instant messaging, email and Facebook, meant that they couldn’t connect with friends who lived close by, much less those far away,” said Moeller.

The study showed students aged 18 to 21 are constantly sending text messages or spending time on Facebook. In fact, according to a recent study by Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, “text messaging has become the primary way that teens reach their friends, surpassing face-to-face contact, email, instant messaging and voice calling as the go-to daily communication tool for this age group.” According to Pew, half of teens send 50 or more text messages a day (or 1,500 texts a month) and one in three send more than 100 texts a day, or more than 3,000 text messages every month.

According to the “24 Hours: Unplugged” study, making phone calls and sending emails was a distant second in terms of how students connect with each other. The study also indicated students’ lives are so interconnected through the fabric of social media and communication platforms that being disconnected results in having virtually no social life.

“Texting and IM-ing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort,” said one student. “When I did not have those two luxuries, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life.”

Does being connected make students more informed?

The debate around media addiction continues, with proponents saying being constantly connected makes people better informed. Opponents, on the other hand, say media addiction is not a good thing for today’s youth.

According to this study, student after student demonstrated knowledge of specific news events despite the fact they do not regularly watch TV or read newspapers. The study says students often learn about news events through their social networks and that helps them to stay informed.

The study reports that students get information in a wave sent via their social stream. If a shared link or piece of information piques their interest, a student will pursue more info on that subject or news item, often through text messages, blogs, email, Facebook or Twitter.

One such example involved a student who was part of this study. During the 24-hour period, that student was reportedly unable to abstain from media. Despite the failed experiment, the student walked away with a positive feeling.

“To be entirely honest I am glad I failed the assignment,” wrote the student, “because if I hadn’t opened my computer when I did I would not have known about the violent earthquake in Chile from an informal blog post on Tumblr.”

Social networks also reportedly help students stay in the loop in what’s happening closer to home.

“Students expressed tremendous anxiety about being cut-off from information,” said Ph.D. student Raymond McCaffrey, a former writer and editor at The Washington Post, and a current researcher on the study. “One student said he realized that he suddenly ‘had less information than everyone else, whether it be news, class information, scores, or what happened on Family Guy.”

Students and loyalty to news brands

The study also offers some revealing information for anyone in media: Students have no real loyalty to a particular news program or outlet.

According to the study, they have casual relationships with the originators of news and rarely distinguish between news and general information. In fact, students are virtually unaware of branded news.


The major conclusions of this study indicate “the portability of all that media stuff has changed students’ relationship not just to news and information, but to family and friends. It has, in other words, caused them to make different and distinctive social, and arguably moral, decisions.”

Furthermore, the study concludes that while students want to know what’s happening to friends and families as well as their communities and the world at large, they care most about being cut off from the real-world, instant flow of information that comes from everywhere around them ? it’s not tied to a particular device, news outlet or platform.

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