Long Day’s Journey: Abstaining from Media (or Trying to)

What happens when 1,000 students in colleges across the globe go without media for twenty-four hours? The results of a recent study were similar no matter what the continent: young people felt anxiety and loneliness. Most admitted they couldn’t abstain for the whole day.

These are findings of “The World Unplugged,” a survey conducted late last year by the University of Maryland’s International Center for Media & the Public Agenda, in partnership with the Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change. The study involved students from twelve universities in ten countries across North America, South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Findings include:

• Students’ “addiction” to media may not be clinically diagnosed, but the cravings are real. students repeatedly used the term “addiction” to speak about their dependence on media, the study reported. “media is my drug; without it I was lost,” said one student from the UK.

• Being tethered to digital technology 24/7 is not just a habit but is essential to the way students manage friendships and social lives. How they use media shapes how others think of them and how they think about themselves, the report said. increasingly no young person who wants a social life can afford not to be active on Facebook, and being active on the site means living one’s life on the site, the report remarked.

• Students construct different “brand” identities for themselves by using separate communication tools to reach different types of people. According to the report, these digital natives can rattle off a long list of communication platforms they use simultaneously but in different ways: they call their mothers, they text and Skype chat close friends, they Facebook with their social groups, they email their professors and employers.

• For many students, going without media ripped back the curtain on a hidden loneliness. For some students the problem went beyond that. some recognized that online connections had been substituting for real friendships.

• What is “news”? To students, news means “anything that just happened” – worldwide events and friends’ everyday thoughts. Also: “We no longer search for news, the news finds us,” and “140 characters of news is all I need.” in every country, students felt inundated by the information and news items coming to them via their mobile phones or the internet. As a result, most students reported that they rarely go prospecting for “hard” news at mainstream or legacy news sites, the report stated.

• Across the world, students depend on music not only to make their commutes more tolerable, but to regulate their moods. over and over again students wrote that music both enhances – and shuts out – the environment in which they exist.

• “Simplify, simplify.” Some students turned out to be Transcendentalists-in-the-making: they “were able to revert to simple pleasures” when they gave up all media for twenty-four hours. many admitted they hadn’t been fully aware of how much time they committed to social networking. students commented on the qualitative differences in even close relationships during the period they went unplugged. “i interacted with my parents more than the usual,” reported a student in Mexico. “I fully heard what they said to me without being distracted with my blackberry.”

Other conclusions from the report:

• Lessons for students: “the depths of the ‘addiction’ that students reported prompted some to confess that they had learned that they needed to curb their media habits. Most students doubted they would have much success, but they acknowledged that their reliance on media was to some degree self-imposed and actually inhibited their ability to manage their lives as fully as they hoped – to make proactive rather than reactive choices about work and play.

• For universities: “students need to be taught about the role of media in their lives – how to distinguish between fact and fiction, credible and non-credible sources, important and unimportant information, and how to mindfully navigate multiple platforms for multiple personal and professional purposes without becoming toxically overwhelmed and distracted.”

• A final point: “there is a tremendous need for news curation: people and tools to make sense of the 24/7 influx of information. contributing to the glut problem is that among the messages even from trusted reporters and sources there is always dreck in the mix: breaking news folded in together with (tweeted) asides about where to meet for lunch. How to sort through it all in a digestible way and have the way be part of a social network will be an increasingly greater challenge and opportunity.” 

Source: This account was adapted from www.theworldunpluged.wordpress.com