“I was itching, like a crackhead, because I could not use my phone.” That’s how one college student described an attempt to go 24 hours without accessing any sort of electronic media. The student was one of a 1,000 college students who, as part of an international study, were voluntarily attempting to abstain from media for a full day and then record their experiences.
The trial was conducted by the University of Maryland’s International Center for Media & the Public Affairs (ICMPA) and the Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change. Researchers looked at students on five continents in countries that included Chile, Uganda, the U.K., the U.S.A., China, Lebanon, Argentina, Mexico and Slovakia. What they found is basically this: if you’re under the age of 25, anywhere in the world, you’re likely addicted to some form of media, whether it be Facebook, a smartphone, TV or instant messaging.
While media addiction may not be a clinical diagnosis (yet), the language used by the media-deprived students clearly suggested no small measure of physical dependency. A student in the U.K. confessed, “Media is my drug; without it I was lost. How could I survive 24 hours without it?” A student in China wrote, “I sat in my bed and stared blankly. I had nothing to do.” A student in Mexico reflected, “It was an unpleasant surprise to realize that I am in a state of constant distraction, as if my real life and my virtual life were coexisting in different planes, but in equal time.”
The study found that a majority of students in every country simply were not able to go without media for 24 hours; many gave in to their habit by checking their phones or their e-mail.
Two major sources of addiction for the students were Facebook and mobile phones. “It was amazing to me though how easily programmed my fingers were to instantly start typing “f-a-c-e” in the search bar. It’s now muscle memory, or instinctual, to log into Facebook as the first step of Internet browsing,” admitted a student in the U.S. A student in China recalled, “I would feel irritable, tense, restless and anxious when I could not use my mobile phone. When I couldn’t communicate with my friends, I felt so lonely, as if I was in a small cage in a solitary island.”
As students pushed through their media-less days, a minority were able to cope by engaging in more face-to-face exchanges with friends and family. “I interacted with my parents more than the usual. I fully heard what they said to me without being distracted with my BlackBerry. I helped to cook and even to wash the dishes,” one student in Mexico reported.