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It’s not addiction, it’s just modern life

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A media-themed study at the University of Maryland just recently did an experiment where they took away all media access from a group of college students for 24 hours. That meant no Internet, no phone, no music, no movies, no TV, no form of media at all. Horrifying, you say? That’s what the college kids thought too.

The study found the students reported almost overwhelming feelings of anxiety, loss, and disconnectedness. When their 24 hours was up, they were asked to blog about their feelings during the media-less day on a website for the experiment. They rushed back to the connection they’d been without, pouring out more than 100,000 words among 200 participants and detailing the chilling experience. They used words like “frantic,” “miserable,” “crazy,” “jittery”… The strong emotional reactions were not lost on the researchers, and they began talking the language of addiction about these people. They say that today’s college kids are “addicted” to social media and entertainment. The researchers and subjects alike seem to think there is something wrong with them for this constant social media need.

I have to disagree. Social media, including Facebook, Twitter, IMing, texting and blogging, are how we keep in touch with the world now. They are our connection to our friends and often family. Part of it is the speed of modern life; I have to make a huge effort to connect with friends who aren’t online (and yes, I have a few), and the result is that I keep in better contact with the ones who are all over the Internet. The same is true of family; I exchange more information with my parents and even my extended family over Facebook and texting than I ever did in the days when phone calls were the preferred method of family communication.

College kids aren’t addicted to social media; the previous generation would have felt equally adrift and anxious without access to the TV and the telephone. For the generation before that, the equivalent would be to suddenly take away all their friends and family for a day. People are social creatures, not solitary wanderers; most of us need to be connected with other people to feel that everything is right with the world.

Still, despite their strong reactions to the loss of all media, the students said there were a few advantages to being unplugged for a day. They reported they were forced to actually do their course work, which made them feel more productive and more focused. Some of them also reported they did things like go to the gym, cook healthy meals, and spend more face time with friends than they usually would.

It’s clear that being constantly online does have some drawbacks to a balanced lifestyle, but the thing that these students haven’t learned yet is that life outside of college will demand more balance automatically. In a few years, they’ll figure out that constant IMing, texting and Facebooking will have to be moderated in order to have a productive workday, keep a clean house, or achieve financial, personal and relationship goals. But that doesn’t mean that going unplugged permanently is going to be the lifestyle wave of the future. Times have changed, and tomorrow’s entrepreneurs, workers, and adults are going to be doing all those social media things whether the older generations like or understand it or not.

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  1. Deb
    April 27, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    Well said, Kim! Doesn’t the anxiety of disconnectedness reinforce that social media has in some sense deepened our connections to one another?

    • Kim
      April 27, 2010 at 10:28 pm

      I think you’re right… Seems like we went through a period of feeling very isolated because of all the sitting at computers we do… Social media filled that need and is now our new way to connect 🙂

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