Friday, April 23, 2010

Always on

Social media can be addictive. Once you start networking and communicating it's very hard to stop. If you do stop for a while you soon get messages from friends wondering what's wrong with you. If you don't update your profile, add a blog post, comment on Twitter or log into Messenger or Skype you simply disappear off the social radar. It's fun, stimulating, rewarding but also stressful and demanding. Without even noticing it many of us are quite simply hooked.

A recent experiment at the University of Maryland, Students addicted to social media, asked 200 students to take part in 24 hours of unplugged media abstinence and then write about the experience. Most of them had problems. Interestingly very few missed accessing traditional mass media simply because they don't use them anyway. Very few watched broadcast TV, radio or read newspapers. Very few even read the online editions of recognized newspapers preferring to get their new via social media like Facebook, Twitter, blogs or through text contact with friends.

What worried them most was not being in touch with their networks of friends. Mobile devices let us keep in touch with all our friends all day, no matter where they are and this creates a sort of comforting cocoon to our lives; constantly updated status reports, comments, mood statements and chat. This coccon follows us everywhere. Our friends are always with us just as we are always with them and this comforting background noise becomes a sort of digital oxygen. Add to that the constant soundtrack we have to our lives as we listen to music almost everywhere and the comfort cocoon is complete. The unplugged students expressed considerable anxiety about being disconnected:.

"Texting and IM-ing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort," wrote one student. "When I did not have those two luxuries, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life. Although I go to a school with thousands of students, the fact that I was not able to communicate with anyone via technology was almost unbearable."

All this communication shows that we are part of a community and are accepted and valued by others. Nothing new there, it's just more pronounced than ever. The equivalent for those of us who remember life before the web would be not getting any phone calls or no letters in the postbox. Being left out of the conversation has never been pleasant. The Maryland students just felt the social isolation more intensely because today's social interaction is so much more intense.

Read the study blog A day without media.

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