What happens when you take 200 journalism students and cut them off from the Internet for 24 hours?
It’s something I might call “information anxiety,” because the students expressed a great deal of anxiety in the narratives they provided the researchers after the experiment was over (But I would be quick to add, I’d never consider this a ‘disorder’ — just a simple, predictable result of removing an important set of tools we’ve come to rely on from our everyday world).
“Students expressed tremendous anxiety about being cut-off from information,” observed Ph.D. student Raymond McCaffrey, a former writer and editor at The Washington Post, and a current researcher on the study.
“One student said he realized that he suddenly ‘had less information than everyone else, whether it be news, class information, scores, or what happened on Family Guy.”
“They care about what is going on among their friends and families and even in the world at large,” said McCaffrey.
The study demonstrated how reliant college students were on their technology and social media — texting, always-on Internet connections, iPods. Without these tools, some of the students felt helpless and anxious.
But why would the researchers expect any other result? If you take away the items that a person uses to help communicate with others and keep up-to-date with the world around them, wouldn’t it be extraordinary if the person showed no anxiety whatsoever? Admittedly, 24 hours is a short time to feel any kind of serious anxiety, yet some students did.(We don’t know exactly how many, because the research wasn’t peer review or published in a journal — it was published on a website and released via news release to the media).
Humans are tool-using mammals and if you grow up with a certain set of tools at your disposal, you tend to expect them to be available for your use in the future too. If you took away a 40 year-old’s Mercedes Benz in the suburbs of Dallas and then said, “You have to get to work on public transportation for a week,” I think that too might generate some anxiety in that person. If you took away a carpenter’s modern set of tools and said, “Build this house with only this 18th century saw and hammer,” you’d better believe you’d generate some anxiety and feelings of helplessness. How is the Internet any different?
And that’s the problem with this particular study — it is purely descriptive in nature, examining students’ subjective narratives to what might arguably be called leading researcher questions. It’s a nice snapshot of some journalism students’ take on Internet tech, smart phones and social media. But it’s hardly on the same level as empirical, peer-reviewed research.
The Power of Language and Labels
But the best part of this study was the way it was immediately spun by the researchers’ own university. The study talked about “media dependency,” which the media office at the University of Maryland turned into Students Addicted to Social Media. But media dependency was barely mentioned in the the study’s conclusions. What gives?
Simple — “students addicted to Facebook” is a lot sexier and catchier than “students’ relationship with social media is varied, complex and may at times resemble dependency.” But “dependency” is a loaded word (just as is “addicted”). Why use these words? Would we describe our own relationship to reading as “dependency” (if we like to read a lot), or talking to our friends on the telephone?
The study did not show that students were “addicted” to social media or Facebook. What it showed was that students have a close and mostly-positive relationship to their technology tools — which is the very point of tools, to help us do things in better, quicker ways. So while a phone call may be deemed sufficient by older generations to keep in touch, younger generations find text messaging far more suited for keeping in touch. They find social media ideal for keeping their connections going with others. And they believe that their knowledge of the world they’re interested in is invaluable.
These are interesting, albeit descriptive, findings. College students use these tools in ways that many of us do not, or ways others might find distracting. Not for them — this is how they live their life. Always connected, always on. As they get older, they may find less need for that “always on” lifestyle (career, families and kids can do that to you) — but they may not. A new generation may find such tools continue to be an invaluable way of keeping the close ties formed in college going long after.
So this study had far less to do with “addiction” and “dependency” than it did to show us that college students are using these tools as important ways for keeping in touch, connected, and informed. Taken from that perspective, that sounds a lot less like “addiction” and more like “empowering.”
Read the full news article: New College Addiction? Social Media, Facebook or Friends