Going 24 Hours Without Media

The black and green word cloud graphic was generated by from the half a million words written by students in response to The World Unplugged experiment. The larger the word in the graphic the more frequently it appeared in the student narratives.
The black and green word cloud graphic was generated by from the half a million words written by students in response to The World Unplugged experiment. The larger the word in the graphic the more frequently it appeared in the student narratives.

The World Unplugged,  a global study of university students’ media habits was led by the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) in partnership with the Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change.  Close to 1,000 students in ten countries were asked to abstain from using all media for a full day. After their 24 hours without media, the students from the United States, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Asia were then asked to report their successes and admit to any failures. In aggregate, the students from the dozen universities wrote close to half a million words – or about the same number of words as Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

College students around the world are strikingly similar in how they use media – and how ‘addicted’ they are to it.  To take media away, even for 24 hours, said the students, is well-nigh impossible: “For people in the modern society,” said a student at Chongqing University in China, “communication [media] is as important as breath.”

Without media “I felt as though everything I knew was taken away from me and that I was being tortured.” student from Slovakia
Without media “I feel that not even the sun can warm me.” student from Mexico
Unplugged grid
‘Addiction’ grid: Click the grid to open up a full pdf poster of what students around the world had to say about how they felt during their 24 hours without media.

See the TOP 15 HIGHLIGHTS of the study below: 
1.  Students’ ‘addiction’ to media may not be clinically diagnosed, but the cravings sure seem real – as does the anxiety and the depression.  Sharing analogies and metaphors made explicit the depths of their distress and likened their reactions to feelings of a drug withdrawal.

Media is my drug; without it I was lost,” said one student from the UK. “I am an addict. How could I survive 24 hours without it?”
A student from the USA noted: I was itching, like a crackhead, because I could not use my phone.”
A student from Argentina observed: “Sometimes I felt ‘dead.
A student from Slovakia simply noted: “I felt sad, lonely and depressed.
…..(Click here for more on ‘addiction’ and here for more on ‘depression.’)

2.  A clear majority in every country admitted outright failure of their efforts to go unplugged.  The failure rate didn’t appear to have anything to do with the relative affluence of the country, or students’ personal access to a range of devices and technologies. What the reports documented was how essential AND pervasive digital technologies have become both for students individually and for their larger societies.

 “I didn’t use my cell phone all night. It was a difficult day… a horrible day,” said a student from Chile.   After this, I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT MEDIA! I need my social webs, my cell phone, my Mac, my mp3 always!” 
…..(Click here for more on the failure rate and here for more on the students’ inability to avoid media.)

3.  Students reported that media – especially their mobile phones – have literally become an extension of themselves. Going without media, therefore, made it seem like they had lost part of themselves.

Said a student from Mexico: “It was an unpleasant surprise to realize that I am in a state of constant distraction, as if my real life and my virtual life were coexisting in different planes, but in equal time.”
Said a student from China: “I was unable to describe the feelings without media, just like something important was drawn out from my life.”
…..(Click here for more on students’ confused sense of self.)

4.  Students around the world reported that being tethered to digital technology 24/7 is not just a habit, it is essential to the way they construct and manage their friendships and social lives.  Students reported that increasingly no young person who wants a social life can afford NOT to be active on social media.

It was amazing to me though how easily programmed my fingers were …. It’s now muscle memory, or instinctual, to log into Facebook as the first step of Internet browsing,” admitted one USA-based student.
There is no doubt that Facebook is really high profile in our daily life,” said a student from Hong Kong. “Everybody uses it to contact other persons, also we use it to pay attention to others.
Said a student from mainland China: I love to visit social networking sites … to see what something new with my friends, what they’re saying, what they’re doing, what they’re thinking, or even to see some of their new pics.”
…..(Click here for more about students’ use of Facebook.)

5.  Students construct different ‘brand’ identities for themselves by using different communication tools to reach different types of people.  This savvy generation of digital natives can rattle off an arms-length list of communication platforms they use simultaneously but in different ways.

Students across the world reported that they call their mothers, they text and chat with close friends, they use social media to engage with their social groups, they email their professors and employers.
…..(Click here for more about students’ texting and use of SMS technologies.)

6.  For many students, going without media for 24 hours ripped back the curtain on their hidden loneliness.  Students were blind-sided by how much their 24/7 access to media had come to dominate their relationships.  And the problems for some students went beyond loneliness. Some came to recognize that ‘virtual’ connections had been substituting for real ones – their relationship to media was one of the closest “friendships” they had.

When I couldn’t communicate with my friends” by mobile phone, reported a student from China, “I felt so lonely as if I was in a small cage on an island.
We live too quickly,” said a student in Slovakia. “We call our friends or chat with them when we need them – that is the way we have gotten used to relationships.”
Wrote a student from Chile: “I felt lonely without multimedia. I arrived at the conclusion that media is a great companion.”
…..(Click here for more on what students said about their feelings of isolation.)

7.  Students from every country noted how desperately bored they were when they went unplugged.  Particularly noteworthy was the short attention spans of the students – how quickly they lost interest in the alternative activities they did try. Some students became bored within a few hours; others in even less time than that.

I literally didn’t know what to do with myself,” said one student from the UK. “Going down to the kitchen to pointlessly look in the cupboards became a regular routine, as did getting a drink.”
Said one student from China: “After 15 minutes without using media, my sole feeling about this can be expressed in one word: boring.”
…..(Click here for more about how students’ sense of boredom.)

8.  Mobile phones are at the literal center of students’ lives; they function both as this generation’s Swiss Army knife AND its security blanket.  If cartoonist Charles Schultz had drawn the character Linus today, he would be carrying a mobile phone rather a blanket.

Wrote a student from Argentina: I have a … phone that rings too many times a day – not just for phone calls or SMS but also for my two email accounts, and Facebook and Twitter.”
ne US-based student wrote, “My phone is my only source of comfort.
And a Hong-Kong-based student said to defend her difficulty parting with her phone: “I am a person with a great need of security.”
…..(Click here for more on students’ use of mobile phones.)

9.  What is ‘news’? To students, ‘news’ means ‘anything that just happened’ – worldwide events AND friends’ everyday posts.  Most students around the world didn’t discriminate between news that The New York Times, the BBC or Al Jazeera might cover, and news that might appear in a friend’s tweet or Facebook status update.

Students reported they they mostly got their news and information from Facebook, Twitter, and other social media — so they were cavalier about any need for traditional news outlets.
…..(Click here for more on what students said about ‘news.’)

10.  Most students reported that they rarely go prospecting for “hard” news at mainstream or legacy news sites. Instead they inhale, almost unconsciously, the news that is served up on the sidebar of their email account, that is on friends’ Facebook walls, that comes through on Twitter.

We no longer search for news, the news finds us,” said one student from the US.
…..(Click here for more on what students said about ‘news.’)

11.  Most students across the world noted that they have neither the time nor the interest to follow up on even quite important news stories – unless they are personally engaged.  Students have become headline readers via their social networks.

140 characters of news is all I need,’ reported one student from the UK.
…..(Click here for more on what students said about ‘news.’)

12.  TV is all about escape.  Students most commonly mentioned “finding something to watch” – which could be sports, popular shows, or classic programs – when they wanted to hang out with friends.  Still others said they have TV on when they’re alone, so as to have another presence in the house.  Others used it as “white noise” when they go to sleep.

TV is a favorite way to relax without thinking too much,” noted a student from Argentina.
…..(Click here for more on what students said about TV.)

13.  Across the world, students depend on music not only to make their commutes to school and work more tolerable, but to regulate their moods.  Over and over again students wrote that music both enhances – and shuts out – the environment in which they exist.

A student from Hong Kong noted: “When I am alone, I usually prefer loud music that shuts the world away from me.”
And a student from China reported: “I like enjoying music. It is my way to share the happiness and sorrows. The reason why I can keep smiling often is that I listen to music to relax. When I read books tiredly, music is a good way to upgrade my efficiency. When I run, music is a good way to enjoy the process of running. When I feel great pressure, music is a good way to ease my burden. Music is my true friend from the bottom of my heart.”
…..(Click here for more about students’ use of music in their lives.)

14.  Email is not dead: it just skews older – and is for ‘work.’  Email’s greater formality, and more flexible space for writing copy or attaching documents, has come to fit a “work” need better than students’ 24/7 on-demand “social” needs.

Most students use Facebook and texting (and secondarily voice calls) to communicate with friends. Students use email to connect to their professors and their jobs.
…..(Click here for more on how students use email.)

15.  ‘Simplify, simplify.’ Across the globe, students admitted that although they knew they could be distracted by media, they hadn’t been fully aware of how much time they committed to social networking and how poorly they  were able to parallel process.  And many commented on the qualitative differences in even close relationships during the period they went unplugged.

What I mainly realized is that…when you really get off the media you realize… how many quality things you can do,” noted a student from Lebanon. 
I interacted with my parents more than the usual,” reported a student in Mexico.I fully heard what they said to me without being distracted….”
A student from the US wrote: “I’ve lived with the same people for three years now, they’re my best friends, and I think that this is one of the best days we’ve spent together. I was able to really see them, without any distractions, and we were able to revert to simple pleasures.”
…..(Click here for more on what students said about the ‘good news’ of going unplugged.)

Click here to go to the Global Unplugged Study Conclusions page, and read the lessons of this study for students, universities, media entrepreneurs and journalists.

You may also want to click on the country pages to see specifics about how students in each country reacted to going unplugged for a day. The study results are also broken down by what students said about how they use specific media – mobile phones, social networks, news outlets, etc. – and what students said about how they felt going unplugged – their emotional responses, such as feeling isolated, bored, as well as relieved.