College students around the world report that they are ‘addicted’ to media, describing in vivid terms their cravings, their anxieties and their depression when they have to abstain from using media. The findings are all part of a new global study released today by the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland. The center is affiliated with the Philip Merrill College of Journalism and university’s School of Public Policy.
As an American student noted: “I was itching, like a crackhead, because I could not use my phone.” “Media is my drug; without it I was lost. I am an addict,” said a student from the UK. A student from China said: “I can say without exaggeration, I was almost freaking out.” A student from Argentina observed: “Sometimes I felt ‘dead.'” And a student from Slovakia simply noted: “I felt sad, lonely and depressed.”
“The World Unplugged” study, concludes that most college students, whether in developed or developing countries, are strikingly similar in how they use media – and how ‘addicted’ they are to it. Student after student spoke about their generation’s utter dependency on media – especially the mobile phone. “My dependence on media is absolutely sickening,” said a student from Lebanon. “I felt like there was a problem with me,” wrote a student from Uganda. “Because I became so addicted,” observed a student from Hong Kong, “I have less time for my studies and face-to-face meetings with my friends.”
The ICMPA study, conducted with the assistance of the university partners of the Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change, asked around 1000 students in 10 countries on five continents to give up all media for 24 hours. After their daylong abstinence, the students recorded their experiences. In total, students wrote almost half a million words: in aggregate, about the same number of words as Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Students also completed a demographic survey.
The study shows: If you are under 25, it doesn’t matter if you live in the U.S. or Chile or China, Slovakia, Mexico or Lebanon: you not only can’t imagine life without your cell phone, laptop and mp3 player, you can’t function without them.
“Five hours in and my typically relaxed Sunday has had the adverse effect. Raised heart rate, increased anxiety. I’m panicking not knowing what is going on in not just the outside world but also my world. My friends, my family, my life.” – UK
No Idea of the Student’s Nationality
“Perhaps naively, we assumed that we would find substantial differences among the students who took part in this study,” noted project director Susan D. Moeller, a journalism and public policy professor at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism and the director of ICMPA. “After all, our partner universities come from very different regions – Chile, Slovakia and Hong Kong, for example – and from countries with great disparities in economic development, culture and political governance – for instance, Uganda, Lebanon and mainland China.”
“But it quickly became apparent from looking at the student demographics and the students’ narrative comments,” said Moeller, “that all the student-responders in this study are digital natives. It was then that we realized that digital natives have no passports: if we had covered up the place name of a student’s comment we would have had no idea of the student’s nationality.”
The ICMPA study documented that taken as country-based groups, the students reacted almost identically to going without media for 24 hours. Most students from all countries failed to go the full 24 hours without media, and they all used virtually the same words to describe their reactions, including: Fretful, Confused, Anxious, Irritable, Insecure, Nervous, Restless, Crazy, Addicted, Panicked, Jealous, Angry, Lonely, Dependent, Depressed, Jittery and Paranoid.
The study shows: Students were blind-sided by how much media have come to dominate their lives. They had thought of media as just a convenience; a way to communicate with friends and get news. After going without media, they came to recognize that they literally construct their identities through media. Going unplugged, therefore, was like losing part of themselves.
“I felt like a helpless man on a lonely deserted island in the big ocean.” – China
“It was striking to us,” said PhD student Sergei Golitsinski, a former reporter in St. Petersburg, Russia and a member of ICMPA’s research team, “how many students around the world wrote that going without media not only severed their connections to their friends, but challenged their sense of self. Who were they, if they weren’t plugged in? Media are not just tools for students to communicate – students reported that how they use media shapes the way others think of them and the way they think about themselves.”
“We were surprised, too,” noted Golitsinski, “that again and again students around the world said that media – and their phones, especially – were both emotionally and even physically comforting. In effect, cell phones have become this generation’s security blanket.”
“After a while I missed holding my cell phone so much that I actually left my battery in my bag and held my phone in my hand. It is almost like a comfort to hold and just know it was there.” – USA
The study shows: No matter where they live, students no longer search for news; the news finds them. They inhale, almost unconsciously, the news that is served up on the sidebar of their email account, that is on friends’ Facebook walls, that comes through on Twitter and via chat.
“We are used to having information about everything on the planet and this information we have to have in an unbelievable time. Our generation doesn’t need certified and acknowledged information. More important is quantity, not quality of news.” - Slovakia
News to Students Means “Anything That Just Happened”
“Students now get their news in chunks of 140 characters or from Facebook posts. Students want and get their news as it is breaking, with few filters,” observed PhD student Jessica Roberts, a former reporter at the Cape Times in South Africa, and a member of ICMPA’s research team.
In their reporting of their media habits, most students in the “Unplugged” study didn’t discriminate between news that The New York Times, the BBC or Al Jazeera might cover, and news that might only appear in a friend’s Facebook status update. Indeed, very few students mentioned any legacy or online news outlets by name.
“Students are interested in news,” said Roberts, “it’s just that students today are more inclusive about what they consider news than older adults are. ‘News’ to students means ‘anything that just happened’ – and students want to know it all immediately, whether it is a globally momentous story or only one of personal interest.”
“The world Unplugged” study is available online here.