According to a new global study of university students by the International Center for Media & the Public Affairs (ICMPA) in partnership with the Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change, we are facing a serious challenge to turn off!
The setup was simple:
About 1000 students from the Middle East, United States, China, Latin America, Africa and Europe were asked not to use any form of (digital) media for 24 hours and then report their experience.
How many do you think were successful? How many did not manage to stay offline? Read this article and then go ahead and check out the awesome website of the study for more details:
High Failure Rates
A clear majority of students in each country admitted that they weren’t able to do the exercise.
They just couldn’t do it. Here are a few things that they said:
- “To be honest I couldn’t help it. I broke the promise again.” – Slovakia
- “I kept hearing the sound of my Blackberry messenger ringing over and over in my ears. It was haunting me.” – Lebanon
- “Unplugging my ethernet cable felt like turning off a life support system.” – UK
Many students felt overwhelming loneliness & emptiness
Being connected all the time, filling up your brain with information and “social updates” from your friends doesn’t seem so bad, until you suddenly take it away. A constant flow of information/entertainment covers boredom. Communication with friends caters to a basic human need of connectedness.
Put simply: Both brain and heart are deeply wired. Intellectual and emotional capacities are plugged. Once you stop feeding them electronically, they will rebel against the decreased input. And indeed, the study shows that students had a very hard time coping with this non-mediated space:
- “It felt as though I was being tortured.” – USA
- “The anxiety & loneliness inside me were growing. I could hardly concentrate” – China
- “I feel empty. I feel isolated.” – Argentinia
- “Emptiness, emptiness overwhelms me” – UK
- “The silence was killing me” – Chile
Benefits of Switching Off
On top of everything mentioned before, significant numbers of student reported great benefits from their media-abstinence. They suddenly became aware of how much they could do their time, were able to focus better and get more out of their relationships.
- “Ultimately, it proved rather liberating and peaceful to simply lead a life with no intervention from any media.” – UK
- “I’ve lived with the same people for three years now, they’re my best friends, and I think that this is one of the best days we’ve spent with together. I was able to really see them, without any distractions, and we were able to revert to simple pleasures.” – US
- “This experiment also gave me an opportunity to live in a more silent world where I could find more peace. I shut down all media devices and stayed away from them so I could enjoy a one-day peace not connected to anyone.” – Hong Kong
When I look at this study of which I only mentioned a small portion here, two things become clear:
- Students today are becoming increasingly wired. Media has become part of their identity, it is an extension of themselves.
- The reported experiences of craving and benefits were strikingly similar all around the globe.
We may speak different languages. We live in different countries. But the technology we use plugs us into a new cultural conformity.
The great thing about this is that those students (aged from 17-23) will have no problem communicating to each other. In a mediated world, English is increasingly becoming the norm. But even more importantly, the have a common interest beyond their cultural tradition, religion, politics, etc: Their fascination and obsession with media.
The devices they use are the same. The operating systems on those devices are the same. Using these technologies creates certain intellectual and emotional grooves in their heads and hearts which can potentially override cultural or traditional behaviour patterns.
Also: Although Internet or Media addiction “may not be clinically diagnosed” the symptoms that appear when you tell students to be abstinent, are very real. Students dream of using media while they’re asleep, they feel “like on a lonely island” without being connected, there’s a sense of depression and emptiness but also one of relief, realizing that there are benefits.
Whether we like it or not. This is the current state of affairs.
It doesn’t seem as if millions of students are decreasing their media usage. On the contrary. An “over-use” (in the eyes of older generations) is becoming more and more the norm.
People will try to fight it. But there is no way back.
We have to find new ways of integration that neither abstinence or over-use can fulfil.
“Everything in measures” – my parents always told me. The difficulty with the media of our times is that by nature it is characterized by a constant over-stimulation. Again, drop the prefix if you’re part of the younger generation. The extreme stimulation to you, is normal.
The implications here are huge, of course. Everything else besides Digital Media has to be at least as stimulating in order to catch the attention of growing generations. Especially if you look at school curiculums, you just know that they’re in for a hard time.
But not just this. Look at “boring” office-jobs, visiting the family, taking a hike in nature, etc.
In a culture of over-stimulation, all those experiences will be rated as less interesting, less exciting.
What to do?
My advice: More than anything else, develop an awareness of your media habits and the emotions attached to it. The more you’ll be aware of the situation, the easier it’ll be to make a change or adjustments when necessary.
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