When Unplugging Leads to Anxiety and Depression: A HealthCentral Explainer


[social media digital dependence infographic](http://www.healthcentral.com/common/includes/guides/guides/depression/digitaldependence.pdf?1337271267)

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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.

So what’s the significance?

The study may be significant to multiple channels, including schools, technology, and news organizations.  Schools need to understand the importance of educating students about the role media plays in their lives, as well as to teach the critical thinking skills necessary to determine credibility, importance of information,  and facts versus fiction, and to intelligently navigate the many resources available without becoming distracted and overwhelmed.

What the technology industry can take away from this study is that people place high value on having the latest hardware and apps for connecting as conveniently as possible with their peers.  Facebook and Twitter may be dominating the social media sphere for now, but whoever can tap into the next big digital preference is going to sweep the market and advance media tools and technology.  Remember MySpace?

Journalists and news outlets are facing a revolution.  News no longer strictly applies to politics and current events; now it includes the everyday events and attitudes of personal friends.  Young people don’t care that much where their information comes from, but rather how quickly they know something and from which friend they heard it.  Because students are so focused on obtaining news quickly, they tend to devour the information and continue to move on to more and more stories without taking time to reflect on what they’re consuming.  This underscores the need for news curators to filter the constant flow of information for the convenience of the audience.  Sorting through all the headlines and re-tweets is a growing challenge that is creating a new journalistic opportunity.

RELATED SLIDESHOW: 9 Ways Social Media is Impacting Teens


The World Unplugged. (n.d). Retrieved from http://theworldunplugged.wordpress.com/addictions/conclusions/

A Day Without Media. (n.d). Retrieved from http://withoutmedia.wordpress.com/