A new study illustrates that isolation from social media can result in despair and a sense of disconnection from personal and global current events. However, many in the field question whether those withdrawals constitute the symptoms of "addiction."
What happens when people are plunged into a state of media deprivation? The International Center for Media & the Public Agenda
at the University of Maryland
sought to find out. The study asked 200 participants - all students of the University of Maryland - to give up all media for 24 hours. After their 24-hour media fast, the students were then asked to blog on private class websites about their experience of media deprivation, being fully honest about their success or failure to not utilize any form of media for a day.
The resultant blog output - more than 110,000 words in aggregate, or roughly equivalent to a 400-page novel - revealed some fascinating insights into the effect of media abstinence. "We were surprised by how many students admitted that they were 'incredibly addicted' to media," notes 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. "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."
"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, email and Facebook, meant that they couldn't connect with friends who lived close by, much less those far away."
According to a press release issued by the Center, the students were overwhelmingly not the sort of people who get their news from television or from newspapers. However, the students had a fair amount of knowledge of current events and news stories anyway. How was this information received? In a disaggregated way, and not typically from the news outlet that broke or committed resources to a story; instead, they got their news in bits and pieces from resources like Facebook status updates and Tumblr posts. A fact that should serve as an eye-opener for journalists and the social media savvy: the participants showed no significant loyalty to any particular 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," the study notes
. "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 email accounts, Facebook and Twitter."
The study opens with a bold assertion: "American college students today are addicted to media." It goes on to explain that the students described their feelings during the media fast "in literally the same terms associated with drug and alcohol addictions: In withdrawal, Frantically craving, Very anxious, Extremely antsy, Miserable, Jittery, Crazy." Most anyone who's ever lost their phone or had their office WiFi go on the fritz can relate to these feelings. However, does that constitute "addiction?"
YouJustGetMe has discussed the rejection by many researchers of the validity of "Internet Addiction,"
before, including a meta-analysis of literature over the past ten years
which concluded that researchers have not established the validity of the diagnosis. Many in the field assert that the ICMPA study (which has not yet been published in an academic journal, instead being sent out as a press release) still does not achieve this goal. "The study did not show that students were 'addicted' to social media or Facebook," asserts Dr. John Grohol of blog World of Psychology
. "What it showed was that students have a close and mostly-positive relationship to their technology tools -- which is the very point of tools, to help us do things in better, quicker ways." Zack Whittaker, a blogger with ZDNet
, also strongly asserts that the engagement with the tools of technology doesn't constitute addiction. "We do spend far more time on Facebook and accessing the Web for leisure use and socializing," he explains, "but that is part of the natural progression of tertiary, noncompulsory education socialization."
However, even if the study comes to an incorrect conclusion about the "addictive" qualities of media, the data is still vastly important for consideration by those in the fields of social media, journalism, and psychology. It provides a glimpse into the media consumption habits of a generation who have the tools to cobble together their information about current events on a personal and global scale, while simultaneously possessing the tools to disseminate the news that they find to people in their social networks. Hopefully, the publication of the full study in an academic journal will help researchers in these fields to understand the activities of an information-saturated generation.