Addicted to Social Media?

    April 13, 2011
    Josh Wolford

I can’t remember the last time I went without my smartphone. Camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains, miles away from civilization, I still walked far enough out to get a signal and some edge service. Don’t judge, I really wanted to check Facebook it was the NCAA tournament and my Cats were playing. Apparently, I’m not alone in my inability to disconnect. A new study shows that students experience withdrawal similar to drug addiction when separated from the internet – for just one day.

A global media study called “The World Unplugged” asked 1,000 students aged 17-23 to abstain from any form of media for a whole 24 hours. The study, run by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (University of Maryland), compiled surveys from young adults in ten countries around the world, including Lebanon, China, Uganda, Argentina and the U.S.

The researchers found that if the students were able to completely abstain (a big if), then they reported anxiety, cravings and depression. They felt disconnected from the outside world, and felt as though they had lost a part of themselves by extension. A student from the United Kingdom said that he “was an addict.” An American student said that he “was itching, like a crackhead because [he] couldn’t use his phone.” A student from Slovakia said they “sometimes felt dead.”

How addicted are you to social media? Tell us what you think

Whoa. Weighty stuff. I wouldn’t be too quick to toss this up to juvenile dramatics, however. I’m not sure that many of the reactions to a no-media day would be any different coming from 40-something business professionals. The researchers documented the responses in what they call the “addiction grid.”

Some major observations made by the study:

  • A clear majority were unable to fully complete the 24 hour ban. Whether this was due to a lack of fortitude, or the students “had” to use media for work, most countries in the study failed to abstain completely.
  • The study found that the students described their digital selves and extensions of their real selves, but were unable to differentiate one from the other. A Mexican student said, “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 students reported that Facebook is essential to maintaining any sort of social life. Without it, you have no chance to tether yourself to a group of friends.
  • The study found that the term “news” has been completely skewed by the reliance on social media. Students reported that they had no idea what was going on in the world, but not because they couldn’t check CNN or BBC, but because they couldn’t see what their friends were saying on Facebook and Twitter. “News” to them is anything that happens, globally of locally. They also rely more on social media sites to provide their news as opposed to going out and finding it themselves.
  • 140 characters is enough. The students were happy to give and receive information in the quick hit format.
  • They didn’t miss email as much as social networking sites, but they don’t think email is dead.  It is just for “older” demographics and for work.

The study apparently caused some students to lament their addictions to media, and espouse the benefits of “unplugging.” Directly from the study;

“We live too quickly,” said a student in Slovakia. “We call our friends or chat with them when we need them – that is the way we have gotten used to relationships.” And the problems for some students went beyond loneliness. Some came to recognize that ‘virtual’ connections had been substituting for real ones – their relationship to media was one of the closest “friendships” they had.

Although some students felt the benefits of unplugging, most felt anxiety, boredom, isolation and distress.

Whats does the study teach, according to the researchers? That young people are pretty much unable to control their everyday lives without social media. The study also has some unintended benefits for developers of media technology and advertisers. According to the researchers, the kids were “media agnostic” for the most part.

Young people around the world care most about whatever latest hardware or app can connect them most quickly to the people they most value. The students may have settled in for the foreseeable future with familiar social networks (Facebook, Twitter), they may have definite preferences about their favorite brands of phones (Blackberry v. iPhone), but the next “better” thing will get quickly picked up by the early adopters, and either steal market share or entirely displace older tools and technologies.

Whether addiction to technology is a real condition or not, people seem to feel addicted. And really, that’s all that matters.

Have you ever tried to sustain long periods of time without the internet? Let us know.