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Do you have a panicked feeling when you leave your smart phone behind? How about that strange realization that you have photographed and shared your dinner with the world before you’ve even taken a bite? If so, you may be one of the millions addicted to the virtual world of smart phones, iPads, and social media. Some recent studies have addressed “‘Facebook depression” and how taking a break from e-mail can reduce anxiety, stress and improve concentration. A new study at the University of Maryland, however, suggests there’s an opposite effect for teens that go without digital technology.
How did they do the study?
The idea behind the study was to see if the test group of 200 students (those enrolled in a “Media Literacy” course) could go a solid 24 hours unplugged from the digital world. They had the freedom to complete the test in any 24-hour period within a nine-day window between February 24th and March 4th 2010. Coincidentally, several major news stories cropped up during this period, including the Chilean earthquake and the close of the Vancouver Olympics. Participants varied on whether they chose their 24 media-free hours to be over a weekend or during the week, but overall that decision had little affect on the result. Once the 24 hours were up, the students were asked to blog on a private class webpage about their experience--both to trumpet their successes and to admit to any failures. For a youth culture accustomed to expressing their thoughts in fewer than 140 characters, the students collectively wrote more than 110,000 words, amounting to slightly more than Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban!
What did they find?
Social media addiction may not have a clinical diagnosis, but the cravings and feelings of anxiousness and depression caused by going without media are real. Participants admitted that they were ‘incredibly addicted’ to media and felt that living without it equated to living without friends, family, and even themselves. They viewed social media as an extension of self, without which they felt incomplete. And that led to feelings of depression and anxiety. Additionally, some complained of boredom due to lack of virtual access to their friends or to their music libraries stored on ‘smart’ devices.
A particularly interesting find suggested that students were not attached, through their devices, to specific news programs, personalities, or platforms. Rather, they tended to trust friends’ shared stories, regardless of the source, opting to curate their news via social media relationships. Also, the students had some difficulty distinguishing between factual news and opinion pieces.
The study was an eye-opener for the students, leading them to reassess how much they let media consume them. Still, most confessed that they would be unlikely to change their habits because social media had become such a big part of their daily lives.