Going 24 Hours Without Media

“I cannot imagine how life can be without using the media.” — Uganda
“Media is not just a convenience, it is literally a part of my life.” — USA

College students around the world are strikingly similar in how they use media – and how ‘addicted’ they are to it, according to a global study of university students by the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) in partnership with the Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change.

The ICMPA-Salzburg Academy study asked close to 1,000 students in ten countries on five continents – from Chile to China, Lebanon to the USA, Uganda to the United Kingdom – to abstain from using all media for a full day. After their 24 hours of abstinence, the students were then asked to report their successes and admit to any failures. In aggregate, the students from a dozen universities wrote close to half a million words – or about the same number of words as Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Take a look at what these university students from the United States, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Asia had to say about their struggles to go 24 hours without media. See the top fifteen highlights of the study below, and browse inside for more details.

Click here to read these highlights in Spanish/Clic aquí para leer estas destaca en español.

Here are the top 15 surprising facts from the study:

  • Students’ ‘addiction’ to media may not be clinically diagnosed, but the cravings sure seem real – as does the anxiety and the depression.
    • Students around the world repeatedly used the term ‘addiction’ to speak about their dependence on media. “Media is my drug; without it I was lost,” said one student from the UK. “I am an addict. How could I survive 24 hours without it?” Sharing analogies and metaphors made explicit the depths of their distress and likened their reactions to feelings of a drug withdrawal. As a student from the USA noted: “I was itching, like a crackhead, because I could not use my phone.” A student from Argentina observed: “Sometimes I felt ‘dead,‘” and a student from Slovakia simply noted: “I felt sad, lonely and depressed.” (Click here for more on ‘addiction,’ here for more on ‘depression,’ and here to see a poster of statements by students from around the world.)

  • A clear majority in every country admitted outright failure of their efforts to go unplugged.
    • The failure rate didn’t appear to have anything to do with the relative affluence of the country, or students’ personal access to a range of devices and technologies. What the reports documented was how essential AND pervasive digital technologies have become both for students individually and for their larger societies. “I didn’t use my cell phone all night. It was a difficult day… a horrible day,” said a student from Chile. “After this, I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT MEDIA! I need my social webs, my cell phone, my Mac, my mp3 always!” Students did distinguish, however, between voluntary failure in moments of weakness or because of their need to use media for work, and inadvertent lapses because of media’s omnipresence in their societies. (Click here for more on the failure rate, and here for more on the students’ inability to avoid media.)

  • 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 part of themselves.
    • Students around the world reported that media are integral to their personal identities. Said a student from Mexico: “It was an unpleasant surprise to realize that I am in a state of constant distraction, as if my real life and my virtual life were coexisting in different planes, but in equal time.” 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? As a student from China wrote, “I was unable to describe the feelings without media, just like something important was drawn out from my life.” (Click here for more on students’ confused sense of self.)

  • Students around the world reported that being tethered to digital technology 24/7 is not just a habit, it is essential to the way they construct and manage their friendships and social lives.
    • Students reported that how they use media shapes how others think of them and how they think about themselves. The leading social media site across all five continents in this study? Facebook. Facebook is growing in some countries by almost one percent a week; everyone is “on Facebook.” The consequences of that are two-fold: Increasingly no young person who wants a social life can afford NOT to be active on the site, and being active on the site means living one’s life on the site. “It was amazing to me though how easily programmed my fingers were to instantly start typing “f-a-c-e” in the search bar. It’s now muscle memory, or instinctual, to log into Facebook as the first step of Internet browsing,” admitted one USA-based student. “There is no doubt that Facebook is really high profile in our daily life,” said a student from Hong Kong. “Everybody uses it to contact other persons, also we use it to pay attention to others.” And a student from mainland China wrote: “I love to visit social networking sites such as Facebook… or some websites like that, to see what something new with my friends, what they’re saying, what they’re doing, what they’re thinking, or even to see some of their new pics.” (Click here for more about students’ use of Facebook.)

  • Students construct different ‘brand’ identities for themselves by using different communication tools to reach different types of people.
    • This savvy generation of digital natives can rattle off an arms-length list of communication platforms they use simultaneously but in different ways: They call their mothers, they text and Skype Chat close friends, they Facebook with their social groups, they email their professors and employers. Students consider and sort through all these permutations automatically, but the implications are real for how they construct their personas and social networks via Facebook, Twitter, Skype, QQ, RenRen, Weibo, Windows Messenger, MSN Messenger, BBM, etc., etc… Social media are not just ways for students to communicate – they shape how others think of them and how they think about themselves. (Click here for more about students’ texting and use of SMS technologies.)

  • For many students, going without media for 24 hours ripped back the curtain on their hidden loneliness.
    • When I couldn’t communicate with my friends” by mobile phone, reported a student from China, “I felt so lonely as if I was in a small cage on an island.” Students were blind-sided by how much their 24/7 access to media had come to dominate their relationships. “We live too quickly,” said a student in Slovakia. “We call our friends or chat with them when we need them – that is the way we have gotten used to relationships.” And the problems for some students went beyond loneliness. Some came to recognize that ‘virtual’ connections had been substituting for real ones – their relationship to media was one of the closest “friendships” they had. Wrote a student from Chile: “I felt lonely without multimedia. I arrived at the conclusion that media is a great companion.” (Click here for more on what students said about their feelings of isolation.)

  • Many students, from all continents, literally couldn’t imagine how to fill up their empty hours without media.
    • As a result, students from every country noted how desperately bored they were when they went unplugged. “I literally didn’t know what to do with myself,” said one student from the UK. “Going down to the kitchen to pointlessly look in the cupboards became a regular routine, as did getting a drink.” Particularly noteworthy was the short attention spans of the students – how quickly they became bored and lost interest in the alternative activities they did try. Some students became bored within a few hours; others in even less time than that. Said one student from China: “After 15 minutes without using media, my sole feeling about this can be expressed in one word: boring.” (Click here for more about how students’ sense of boredom.)

  • Mobile phones function both as this generation’s Swiss Army knife AND its security blanket.
    • It became clear in the hundreds of thousands of words the students wrote, that mobile phones are at the literal center of students’ lives. Not only are they the main way students in this study across all five continents communicate with their friends and family, phones are the main way in which students manage their lives. Wrote a student from Argentina: “I have a Blackberry phone that rings too many times a day – not just for phone calls or SMS but also for my two email accounts, Facebook and Twitter.” Students also noted that their phones offer connection and comfort – if cartoonist Charles Schultz had drawn the character Linus today, he would be carrying a mobile phone rather a blanket. As one US-based student wrote, “My phone is my only source of comfort.” And as a Hong-Kong-based student simply observed to defend her difficulty parting with her phone: “I am a person with a great need of security.” (Click here for more on students’ use of mobile phones.)

  • What is ‘news’? To students, ‘news’ means ‘anything that just happened’ – worldwide events AND friends’ everyday thoughts.
    • Because Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and their counterparts are increasingly the way students reported getting their news and information, students were cavalier about any need for traditional news outlets, and in fact very few students mentioned any legacy or online news organization by name. Students wanted “news,” yes, but the term was blurred in their minds, as the same social network platforms that carry their personal news, also are the ways in which students get the bulk of their daily “hard” news, too. Rhetorically speaking at least, most students around the world didn’t discriminate between news that The New York Times, the BBC or Al Jazeera might cover, and news that might only appear in a friend’s tweet or Facebook status update. (Click here for more on what students said about ‘news.’)

  • ‘We no longer search for news, the news finds us.’
    • No matter where the students were from, the amount of information coming to them via their mobile phones or the Internet – via text message, on Facebook, Twitter, chat, Skype IM, QQ, email, etc. – is overwhelming; students are inundated 24/7. As a result, most students reported that they rarely go prospecting for “hard” news at mainstream or legacy news sites. Instead they inhale, almost unconsciously, the news that is served up on the sidebar of their email account, that is on friends’ Facebook walls, that comes through on Twitter. (Click here for more on what students said about ‘news.’)

  • ‘140 characters of news is all I need.’
    • The non-stop deluge of information coming via mobile phones and online means that most students across the world have neither the time nor the interest to follow up on even quite important news stories – unless they are personally engaged. For daily news, students have become headline readers via their social networks. In most cases they only learn more about a story when the details or updates are also served up via text or tweet or post. (Click here for more on what students said about ‘news.’)

  • TV is all about escape.
    • Students reported that TV is a favorite way to relax without thinking too much; it provides familiar entertainment, and quite simply, it is another presence in the house and “white noise” as they go to sleep. While a few students spoke of favorite shows, almost none spoke about “destination TV”: TV shows that students made an effort to watch religiously. Students most commonly mentioned “finding something to watch” – which could be sports, popular shows, or classic programs – when they wanted to relax. Other students noted that TV was most often a group activity; they would only watch the TV when others were. Those students reported that for themselves they could take TV or leave it, but if their friends or family were sitting down and watching, it was hard for them to avoid. As a side note: Very few students mentioned TiVo or other ways to record programming – most students spoke about watching TV via a television set, although students did mention that to watch a specific program, they tuned into television via their computers. (Click here for more on what students said about TV.)

  • Across the world, students depend on music not only to make their commutes to school and work more tolerable, but to regulate their moods.
    • As a student from China reported: “I like enjoying music. It is my way to share the happiness and sorrows. The reason why I can keep smiling often is that I listen to music to relax. When I read books tiredly, music is a good way to upgrade my efficiency. When I run, music is a good way to enjoy the process of running. When I feel great pressure, music is a good way to ease my burden. Music is my true friend from the bottom of my heart.” Over and over again students wrote that music both enhances – and shuts out – the environment in which they exist: As one student from Hong Kong noted: “When I am alone, I usually prefer loud music that shuts the world away from me.” (Click here for more about students’ use of music in their lives.)

  • Email is not dead: it just skews older – and is for ‘work.’
    • Most students use Facebook and texting (and secondarily voice calls) to communicate with friends. Students use email to connect to their professors and their jobs. Email’s greater formality, and more flexible space for writing copy or attaching documents, has come to fit a “work” need better than students’ 24/7 on-demand “social” needs. (Click here for more on how students use email.)

  • ‘Simplify, simplify.’ Across the globe, some students turned out to be Transcendentalists-in-the-making: they noted that they ‘were able to revert to simple pleasures’ when they gave up all media for 24 hours.
    • Many students admitted that although they knew they could be distracted at times, they hadn’t been fully aware of how much time they committed to social networking and how poorly they actually were able to parallel process. “I usually study and chat or listen to music at the same time so I won’t be bored and feel asleep,” wrote a student from Lebanon. “But what I mainly realized is that…when you really get off the media you realize… how many quality things you can do.” And students commented on the qualitative differences in even close relationships during the period they went unplugged. “I interacted with my parents more than the usual,” reported a student in Mexico. “I fully heard what they said to me without being distracted with my BlackBerry. I helped to cook and even to wash the dishes.” And a student from the US wrote: “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.” (Click here for more on what students said about the ‘good news’ of going unplugged.)

Click here to go to the Study Conclusions page, and read the lessons of this study for students, universities, media entrepreneurs and journalists.

You may also want to click on the country pages, accessible via the top tabs, to see specifics about how students in each country reacted to going unplugged for a day. The study results are also broken down on the top tabs by what students said about how they use specific media – mobile phones, social networks, news outlets, etc. – and what students said about how they felt going unplugged – their emotional responses, such as feeling isolated, bored, as well as relieved.

The header ‘keyboard’ photo is taken by Anam Shahid.
The black and green word cloud graphic was generated by Wordle.com from the half a million words written by students in response to the world Unplugged experiment. The larger the word in the graphic the more frequently it appeared in the student narratives.