"I sat in my bed and stared blankly." "My nerves were overwhelmed." "I had a raised heart rate, increased anxiety and was panicking." "It felt as though I was being tortured." "Emptiness overwhelmed me."
How would you feel if you had to go without media for 24 hours? A thousand students in ten countries on five continents -- from Chile to China, Lebanon to the USA, Uganda to the United Kingdom -- abstained from using any media for a full day. No Internet, no newspapers, no magazines, no TV, no mobile phones, no iPods, no movies, no Facebook, no Twitter, no chat, no Playstation, no Wii, no video games.
The five statements above? All from the college students who went unplugged -- in Hong Kong, Chile, England, the US and Mexico.
Take a look at the world UNPLUGGED, a new study about how 17-25 year olds use media. The project led by the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland, together with 11 partner universities at the Salzburg Academy of Media & Global Change in Salzburg, Austria, concluded that students' 'addiction' to media may not be clinically diagnosed, but the cravings sure seem real - as do the anxiety and the depression.
Here's another a sampling of the almost half a million words written by the students about abstaining from all media for a day. (In the aggregate the students wrote about as many words as Leo Tolstoy did in War and Peace.):
- "I felt incomplete." (Mexico)
- "I felt so lonely." (Uganda)
- "I felt desperate." (Chile)
- "I panicked." (Slovakia)
- "I feel like a slave to media." (China)
- "I felt like a drug addict." (US)
- "Media is my drug." (UK)
- "I am addicted to technology." (Argentina)
- "I am an addict." (Lebanon)
Why did students report such distress? Over and over the students said that media -- especially their mobile phones -- have literally become integral to their personal identities. Going without media, therefore, meant that the students not only had to confront their media habits, but their sense of self. Who were they, if they weren't plugged in?
Remember the rogue computer HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey who ultimately is disconnected by the lone surviving human on the spaceship? As Dave the astronaut removes HAL's memory banks one by one, HAL says plaintively: "I'm afraid. I'm afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it." Students who took part in this global media study acted a lot like HAL. When asked to unplug, admitted a student from Mexico, "I felt psychological effects like I was feeling incomplete." Without my cell phone, said the student, "I could not live or doing anything without it."
For young adults, media are no longer external actors that deliver news and information; they are the circuitry of this generation's increasingly bionic make-up. For students to unplug from media, was comparable in effect to telling HAL to shut himself down. Media, and especially social media are not just ways for students to communicate -- they shape how others think of them and how they think about themselves.