A new study, conducted by the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) and students at the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland, "24 Hours: Unplugged," asked 200 students at the College Park campus to give up all media for 24 hours. After their 24 hours of abstinence, the students were then asked to blog on private class websites about their experiences, to report their successes and admit to any failures. The 200 students wrote more than 110,000 words, about the same number of words as a 400-page novel.
Susan D. Moeller, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland and the director of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda which conducted the study, noted that "We were surprised by how many students admitted that they were 'incredibly addicted' to media... but we noticed that what they wrote at length about was how they hated losing their personal connections. Going without media meant, in their world, going without their friends and family."
The absence of information, the feeling of not being connected to the world, was among the things that caused the most anxiety in students as they sought to learn about the role of media in their lives by completing an assignment that asked them to spend a day without using media.
They cared about what was going on among their friends and families; they cared about what was going on in their community; they even cared about what was going on in the world at large. But most of all they cared about being cut off from that instantaneous flow of information that comes from all sides and does not seemed tied to any single device or application or news outlet.
According to this study, students get their news and information in a disaggregated way, often through friends texting via cell phone, or Facebooking, emailing and IM-ing via their laptops. Students are aware of different media platforms, but students have only a casual relationship to actual news outlets. In fact students rarely make fine distinctions between information that is "news" and information that is "personal."
Students reported in this study that, while they missed their music and their movies and their TV programs, they found that going media-free resulted in a greater, all-encompassing loss... missing "information." And information, they discovered, was a precious commodity; one that they used to define themselves in comparison to their peers. One student said he realized that he suddenly had less information than everyone else, regardless of whether that information involved "news, class information, scores, or what happened on Family Guy."
The Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project reported that "text messaging has become the primary way that teens reach their friends... noting that... half of teens send 50 or more text messages a day, or 1,500 texts a month, and one in three send more than 100 texts a day, or more than 3,000 texts a month."
The ICMPA study noted a similar phenomenon, although the college students, close to 20 years old on average, were even greater senders of text messages, with a number of participants in the almost 200-person study reporting that they sent over 5,000 text messages a month, and one woman reporting that she sends over 9,000 a month.
Two years ago, in 2008, Pew reported that the Internet had overtaken newspapers as the primary source of campaign news in the United States, and that, for the first time, younger Americans sought national and international news as much from online sources as they did from television news outlets. Today, University of Maryland undergraduates not only rarely mention television and newspapers when discussing their news consumption during Media Literacy classes; they show no significant loyalty to a news program, news personality or even news platform.
A student wrote, "This technology craze has become so deeply ingrained in each of us we know no other way of living our lives, but to rely on our cell phones, laptops, televisions, and iPods to keep us occupied and connected with the world around us... "
Students may differ in their dependency on different devices and their appetite for different media, but an undeniable common denominator that came through in their comments, says the report, was their demand for and dependency on instant access to information, information so omnipresent that it has become the essential background to their lives.
The report summarizes three elements of the conclusion by separating suggested "takeaways" into a focus on academia, innovators and the media:
The participating class, JOUR 175: Media Literacy, that undertook this 24-hour media-free assignment, is a "core course" for the entire student body across all majors. It is a class of 200 students, characterized by a diversity of age, race, ethnicity, religion and nationality. The students self-identified themselves and claim their own demographic characteristics: