The following post is an excerpt from “The Teenage Brain” by Frances E. Jensen, MD.
An experiment began in the spring of 2010 when two hundred students in a basic media literacy course at the University of Maryland were asked by their professor to do something unusual: go without their digital tools and toys — all media, in fact — for twenty-four hours.
The results of the experiment, picked up by news outlets all over the world, prompted the professor, Susan Moeller, to conduct a second, much wider experiment.
Both began with a simple request:
Your assignment is to find a 24-hour period during which you can pledge to give up all media: no Internet, no newspapers or magazines, no TV, no mobile phones, no iPod, no music, no movies, no Facebook, Playstation, video games, etc.
If you lapse by mistake (i.e. you answer a phone call without realising it), do not then “give up.”
Note the mistake and go on to finish your 24 hours. If you do NOT make it the full 24 hours, be honest about it. How long did you make it? What happened? What do you think it means about you? Although you may need to use your computer for homework or work, try to pick a time when you can go without using it — which may mean that you have to plan your work so that you can get it done before or after your 24-hour media-free period. You will not be judged on whether you went 24 hours, but we expect that you all will make it through the entire time without using any forms of media.
Moeller, who is a member of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland, partnered with the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change to conduct the second survey. They asked close to one thousand students in twelve countries, including the United States, to write about their experiences after their twenty-four-hour period of media abstinence was over, and when the students did, they poured out their angst:
“I began going crazy.”
“I felt paralysed — almost handicapped in my ability to live.”
“I felt dead.”
Across the globe, the same feelings were expressed again and again:
From the United Kingdom
“Emptiness. Emptiness overwhelms me.”
“Unplugging . . . felt like turning off a life-support system.”
“I feel paralysed.”
“I sat in my bed and stared blankly. I had nothing to do.”
“The feeling of nothing passed into my heart . . . I felt like I had lost something important.”
“I felt like there was a problem with me.”
“I counted down minute by minute and made sure I did not exceed even a single second more!”
“I felt so lonely.”
“The anxiety continued for the rest of the day. Various scenarios came to my head, from kidnapping to extraterrestrial invasions.”
From the United States
“I went into absolute panic mode.”
“It felt as though I was being tortured.”
Many of these students borrowed the language of substance abuse when they likened their media habit to an addiction and their self-imposed abstinence to drug and alcohol withdrawal.
One US student wrote, “I was itching, like a crackhead, because I could not use my phone.” A student in Mexico wrote, “It was quite late and the only thing going through my mind was: (voice of psychopath) ‘I want Facebook.’ ‘I want Twitter.’ ‘I want YouTube.’ ‘I want TV.’ ” A college student in the UK wrote, “It’s like some kind of disorder, an addiction. I became bulimic with my media; I starved myself for a full 15 hours and had a full on binge: Emails, texts, BBC iPlayer, 4oD, Facebook. I felt like there was no turning back now, it was pointless. I am addicted, I know it, I am not ashamed.”
Amusingly, the online media outlets whose headlines screamed addiction and warned about the all-consuming “technobsession” of the young provided multiple links, platforms, and interactive choices to “Follow” or “Share” or “Like” it on Facebook; to tweet it, “Get Alerts,” and “Contribute to the story”; to send corrections, tips, photos, videos, or comments. No wonder that in trying to be media-free for a full day, many students also found themselves emotionally and psychologically distraught:
“I was edgy and irritated.”
“I got really anguished and anxious.”
“I was anxious, irritable and felt insecure.”
“I felt a strange anxiety.”
Moeller is neither a psychiatrist nor a neuroscientist, and her survey was more sociological than scientific. Still, it’s hard not to read the responses of the experiments’ subjects and wonder exactly what is going on inside the brains of young people who have been raised on digital technology.
According to a 2011 study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, 95 per cent of all young people, ages twelve to seventeen, use the Internet, and 80 per cent use social media. Ninety-three per cent have Facebook accounts, and 41 per cent have multiple accounts. In an article written for a weekly teen publication, two Chicago high school students reported on the popularity of smartphones and the degree to which students will go to hide them from teachers and administrators.
One student interviewed said, “Back in my sophomore year, I snuck my phone in as a biscuit sandwich in the morning. I covered it in [a] brown napkin and put it in between the biscuit buns. I would simply come to school and put my lovely cup of orange juice and tasty ‘Bisquick biscuit’ sandwich on top of the metal detector and walk right through.”
Another student said she would wrap her long hair into a bun before school and hide her phone inside. “Whenever the metal detectors beeped, they couldn’t find my phone,” she said. The level of attachment between teens and smartphones is so extreme, one high school senior told the authors of the teen publication article, “My phone has my whole life in it. If I ever lost it I think I would die.”
From The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults by Frances E. Jensen and Amy Ellis Nutt. Copyright 2015 Frances E. Jensen and Amy Ellis Nutt. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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