Are today’s students addicted to social media?

One-third of teens surveyed said they send more than 100 texts every day.
One-third of teens surveyed said they send more than 100 texts every day.

University of Maryland students who went 24 hours without TV, cell phones, MP3 players, and laptops during a recent study reported symptoms you might expect from someone struggling with substance abuse, including an “unbearable” need for electronic communication, persistent anxiety, and a frantic “craving for some technology.” The study’s findings have prompted some observers to ask: Are today’s students addicted to technology—and if so, what implications might this have for education?

The university’s International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) on April 21 released the findings of its study, “24 Hours: Unplugged,” which had 200 undergraduates go without access to any form of media for one day, even requiring study participants to leave their dormitory if a roommate was watching TV.

The students blogged about their technology detox afterward and compiled more than 100,000 words on the study’s web site, roughly the length of a 400-page novel. Responses varied from aggravation to frustration to isolation, which was especially keen for students without access to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, or the ability to send dozens of text messages throughout the day.

“We wanted to make the students more thoughtful about the sea of news in which they swim,” said Susan Moeller, director of the ICMPA and a University of Maryland journalism professor. “It became absolutely common for students to make those kind of statements about how they felt [an addiction] to media. … It wasn’t just a rhetorical exaggeration.”

The study was conducted from Feb. 24 to March 4. Participants’ ages ranged from 18-21.

Some study participants, Moeller said, reported “phantom ringing,” a phenomenon in which students hear their phone ringing or feel it buzzing even if they’re in the lecture hall and their phone is in their dorm room.

One participant admitted to succumbing to the need for electronic back-and-forth with friends after 19 hours without the technological essentials of modern college life.

“I got back from class around 5, frantically craving some technology and to look through my phone, so I cheated a little bit and checked my phone,” the student wrote. “From my phone, I accessed text messages, close to a dozen missed calls, glanced at some eMails, and acknowledged many twitter @replies from followers wondering where I was and if I was OK. At that moment, I couldn’t take it anymore being in my room … alone … with nothing to occupy my mind, so I gave up shortly after 5 p.m.”

Another Maryland student, instead of looking for other ways to occupy his time without an iPod, cell phone, or laptop, decided sleep was the only escape from the agony of a tech-free existence.

“My short attention span prevented me from accomplishing much, so I stared at the wall for a little bit,” the student wrote in a post-study blog response. “After doing some push-ups, I just decided to take a few Dramamine and go to sleep to put me out of my misery.”

Suddenly unable to make on-the-go post-class plans, study participants said life without the instant communication of a cell phone forced a dramatic adjustment in how they scheduled their day.