American college students are "addicted" to the instant connections and information afforded by social media, a new study suggests.
According to researchers, students describe their feelings when they have to abstain from using media in literally the same terms associated with drug and alcohol addictions: in withdrawal, frantically craving, very anxious, extremely antsy, miserable, jittery, and crazy.
In the study, University of Maryland researchers conclude that most college students are not just unwilling, but functionally unable to be without their media links to the world. However, the study was based upon self-report by students engaging in a set of unnatural and largely unrealistic behaviors.
"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."
In the new study, "24 Hours: Unplugged," 200 students at the College Park campus were asked to give up all media for 24 hours. After their 24 hours of abstinence, the students were then asked to blog on private class websites about their experiences, report their successes and admit to any failures.
The 200 students wrote more than 110,000 words: in aggregate, about the same number of words as a 400-page novel.
"We were surprised by how many students admitted that they were 'incredibly addicted' to media," noted project director Susan D. Moeller, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland and the director of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda which conducted the study.
"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."
Building upon that observation, an alternative explanation is that the students may have identified the "media" as what they were craving, but were actually missing the social connections afforded by the media. In other words, the students were "addicted" to the social ties — friendships and relationships — with others.
"The students did complain about how boring it was go anywhere and do anything without being plugged into music on their MP3 players," said Moeller.
"And many commented that it was almost impossible to avoid the TVs on in the background at all times in their friends' rooms. But what they spoke about in the strongest terms was how their lack of access to text messaging, phone calling, instant messaging, e-mail and Facebook, meant that they couldn't connect with friends who lived close by, much less those far away."
"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 student responses to the assignment showed not just that 18-21 year old college students are constantly texting and on Facebook — with calling and e-mail distant seconds as ways of staying in touch, especially with friends — but that students’ lives are wired together in such ways that opting out of that communication pattern would be tantamount to renouncing a social life.
Very few students in the study reported that they regularly watched news on television or read a local or national newspaper (although a few said they regularly read The Diamondback, the University of Maryland student newspaper).
They also didn't mention checking mainstream media news sites or listening to radio news while commuting in their cars. Yet student after student demonstrated knowledge of specific news stories.
How did they get the information? In a disaggregated way, and not typically from the news outlet that broke or committed resources to a story. "To be entirely honest I am glad I failed the assignment," wrote one 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."
"Students expressed tremendous anxiety about being cut-off from information,” observed 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.”
"They care about what is going on among their friends and families and even in the world at large," McCaffrey said. "But most of all they care about being cut off from that instantaneous flow of information that comes from all sides and does not seem tied to any single device or application or news outlet."
That's the real takeaway of this study for journalists: students showed no significant loyalty to a news program, news personality or even news platform. Students have only a casual relationship to the originators of news, and in fact rarely distinguished between news and more general information.
While many in the journalism profession are committing significant resources to deliver content across media platforms – print, broadcast, online, mobile — the young adults in this study appeared to be generally oblivious to branded news and information.
For most of the students reporting in the study, information of all kinds comes in an undifferentiated wave to them via social media. If a bit of information rises to a level of interest, the student will pursue it — but often by following the story via "unconventional" outlets, such as through text messages, their e-mail accounts, Facebook and Twitter.
Students said that only the most specific or significant news events — for example, a medal event at the Olympics — merited their tuning into to a mainstream outlet. Even news events that students cared about were often accessed via their personal interactions.
To learn about the Maryland vs. Virginia Tech basketball game, for example, one student told of "listening to someone narrate the game from a conversation they were having on their own phone" (although he would have preferred watching it on TV), and another student told of calling her father to learn more about the earthquake in Chile.