Last year, the International Center for Media & the Public Affairs (ICMPA) teamed up with the Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change to conduct a study called Unplugged. They got around 1,000 university students from 10 countries over five continents to go 24 hours without media. No television, no radio, no Internet, no cell phones. Students came from Mexico, Uganda, Lebanon, the United States, Chile, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, China, Argentina and Slovakia. What resulted was a diverse group reporting remarkably uniform responses to this exercise in 21st century sensory deprivation.
A majority of students regardless of country couldn't successfully unplug for 24 hours. Either they cheated on their own or found it impossible to avoid the atmospheric nature of media. Students reported feeling depressed, anxious, lonely, bored and sad without technology in general. In particular, they were lost without their cell phones, which function as both "Swiss Army knife and security blanket" for this digital generation.
One of the 15 highlights on the study website caught my attention. It was down the list at No. 11: "140 characters of news is all I need." Students said they had neither the time nor interest to follow up on news that didn't impact them because the sheer flood of information was so great. They admitted they are headline skimmers, rarely diving below the surface into deeper informational or evaluative waters unless somehow pinged personally.
This disturbed me on a couple of levels. First, I like words. 140 words aren't that much -- not nearly enough to get complex ideas across. How do you convey complicated themes, nuances, pros and cons, in just 140 characters? I understand 140 is the latest challenging endeavor but there the goal is clever brevity. Some things worthy of attention simply take more time to develop.
Speaking of development, that's the second thing that disturbed me. Headline skimming instead of analytic deepwater diving might just have an affect on brain development, especially in teenagers. It used to be thought that the brain was pretty much done developing by early childhood. Not anymore. "Maturation does not stop at age 10, but continues into the teen years and even the 20's," says Dr. Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist with the National Institute of Mental Health in a "Newsweek" article on the teenage brain. In a PBS interview, Dr. Giedd explained the brain has a "use it or lose it" function where neural connections are concerned. "So, if a teen is doing music or sports or academics, those are the cells and connections that will be hard-wired. If they're lying on the couch or playing video games or watching MTV, those are the cells and connections that are going [to] survive."
Today's teens and college students are certainly using their skimming cells and connections. They are using their grey matter to navigate cyber channels and digital data-streams. But what's the lose-it part of that equation for this technology-tethered generation? What do they lose if they cannot be bothered to delve into complex thought unless someone tweets their interest? Unused neural pathways, according to Dr. Giedd, wither away in a process called pruning. What pruning takes place when all you have time for is digital skimming?
The students in this study knew a lot about technology, but they had forgotten what it's like to plan ahead and organize your day. They'd forgotten the simple pleasures of taking a walk, in silence with just yourself, or with actual people by your side, talking not texting. They had forgotten how to fill up time without the constant white-noise of technology and some discovered just how lonely their lives really were.
Highlight No. 3 in this study was "Students reported that media -- especially their mobile phones -- have literally become an extension of themselves. Going without media, therefore, made it seem like they had lost a part of themselves." I understand there are important connections being made through all of this technology. I just hope the most important, albeit complex and complicated connection there is -- the one to self -- doesn't get pruned in the process.
Follow Dr. Gregory Jantz, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gregoryjantzphd