Unplugged & unstable

Cell phones, iPods, Facebook and Twitter—they all help connect us to the world, but what happens when we stop?

It’s human nature to desire communication and information. A recent experiment conducted at the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland demonstrated how hard it is for students to live without media.
It’s human nature to desire communication and information. A recent experiment conducted at the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland demonstrated how hard it is for students to live without media.

With the recent news of Facebook officially reaching 500 million users, I started thinking about what my life was like before it even existed.

It’s hard to remember, but I vaguely recall reading something called a newspaper and homework was something I actually did on time. In general, my life was probably more productive when I didn’t know anything about the changing relationship statuses of people from high school I’ve never even talked to.

Still reminiscing over the less stalker-ish days of my Facebook-free past, I wondered if I could handle going without it for a period of time. I’m guessing I would survive not being up to date in the random, I-think-I’m-witty-but-I’m-actually-annoying statuses of people I wouldn’t even say hi to in real life. But what about going without all forms of media in general?

Two hundred students at the University of Maryland recently took part in a study, “24 Hours: Unplugged,” that asked them to do just that. They were asked to abstain from any form of media for 24 hours: internet, cell phones, iPods, radio, television, and basically anything else electronic that would connect them to the outside world without face-to-face contact.

The students blogged about their media-free experiences and reported their successes and failures.

I also attempted to take part in this on my own (the key word here being “attempted”). Here are some highlights from my experience:

­ The mission: Go media free for 24 hours.

­ Waking up: my cell phone buzzes, I read a text message and I answer it. So technically I failed within the first five seconds of the experiment, but I told myself it hadn’t “officially” started yet because I wasn’t fully awake yet. That’s fair, right? It really shocked me how second nature texting is; I didn’t even realize I had broken a rule until a few minutes later!

­ Mid-morning: I’m feeling really weird about not being able to check any e-mails, which I normally do every single morning. I also feel like I’m missing out on some really exciting news since I’m not able to check any online news sources, even though I know what I really miss is the routine of it. I suddenly remember that newspapers exist, begin to read one, wonder if it is considered cheating, and then tell myself that it isn’t electronic so technically it doesn’t count. I feel connected to the world again.

­ Afternoon: I have an essay due the next day (typing doesn’t count, right?), so I open my laptop and try my hardest not to let my cursor stray to the Firefox button. I never realized how hard it is to write an essay without any background music or Youtube breaks. After a while I realize I’m probably getting things done about twice as fast. Once I got over my need to distract myself, my work went much more productively.

­ Evening: Feeling anxious all day without my phone, I don’t even bring it with me when I have to go drive somewhere. I tried to think of an excuse to bring it (“What if I crash my car and can’t contact anyone?!”) but want to repent from my cheat this morning. I realize before it’s too late that I’m listening to the radio. This is harder than I thought!

­ Night time: I’ve never felt more disconnected to what’s going on around me. In hindsight, it kind of felt like a mini vacation. Still, I’m feeling like I lost an arm or something being without my cell phone. I really want to go watch some TV online but I force myself to do some more homework instead.

­ The verdict: I cheated a couple of times, but overall I’m proud of myself. I never realized how much more I can accomplish in a day without constantly distracting myself. I’m also shocked at how many times I slipped up and used media without even realizing it.

Sergey Golitsynskiy, one of the PhD student researchers who conducted the “24 Hours: Unplugged” study, said he was shocked at how media-dependent students are these days.

“This kind of study proved very important for us because even myself and my fellow TAs didn’t realize to what extent our students depend on media,” he said, adding that going without technology made people look for new news sources.

“They get their news in a completely disaggregated way,” he said.

“They access Facebook using their iPhone or their droid ... if something happened in the world they don’t find out through the New York Times or CNN ... they find out about it because somebody Twittered about it.”

According to the students’ responses, Golitsynskiy said the majority depended on their cell phones and iPods the most over other media such as radio and television.

“We didn’t realize that our students, and people of that age, they have their headphones on all the time ... they said it was very weird to walk across campus without music.” Another common report from students was their surprise at how slowly time passed without using media and how they filled it, he said.

“It expanded their day— they couldn’t go online, watch TV, listen to music ... they had all this extra time to fill,” he said.

According to the students’ reports, anxiety and jitteriness were common.

“They were anxious because they felt cut off from the world, cut off from the constant flow of information about new things happening,” he said, adding that one student wrote she heard her phone ring and then realized she left it at home.

Students are used to being distracted by something all the time, Golitsynskiy said, which results in many students having difficulty completing homework or even reading for pleasure because they have this constant urge to check their Facebook, Youtube, cell phones, etc.

“The problem is it distracts and eats up time and they become less efficient,” Golitsynskiy said.

Other common words students used to describe their day were boredom and loneliness.

Golitsynskiy said many students found it hard to just be with themselves and think when they’re used to constantly being connected to the world around them.

“They’re not used to just thinking ... without being distracted over and over again,” he said.

Although shocked at the extent to which the students depended on media to get through their days, Golitsynskiy said media and technology undeniably make life easier, which is why they are so prevalent in the first place.

“Students go online to check their grades, do their homework, do research ... they cannot study without the internet,” he said. In addition to convenience, connecting with the world around you is instinctual.

“It’s very convenient and it’s fun and most importantly communication is our nature,” he said. “The more opportunity we are given to communicate with friends and get information we will take this opportunity.”

Ultimately, it comes down to self-discipline, he said.

“We just need to probably learn how to limit ourselves to have enough time to do the other important things that are also human nature.”

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