New Study: Students Totally Addicted To Social Media

As we said before, students and Digital Natives were born with a smartphone in their hand. I don’t think they’ll ever put it down, either. According to a new study out today from the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland, that’s true.

24 Hours: Unplugged.

The study is called “24 Hours: Unplugged.” 200 students were asked to go one day without any media (social, tv, radio, etc.). The short answer of what happened? It wasn’t pretty. After going that relatively short period without social media, students were acting like junkies looking for a fix from Facebook and Twitter. Some of the words used: In withdrawal, Frantically craving, Very anxious, Extremely antsy, Miserable, Jittery, Crazy.

The students went without the usual onslaught of media, advertising, and marketing for just 24 hours and were then asked to blog about their experience on a class website afterwards. The 200 students combined wrote the equivalent of a 400-page novel.

Giving up media is unbearable

“We were surprised by how many students admitted that they were ‘incredibly addicted’ to media,” noted the project director 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. “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 students did complain about how boring it was go anywhere and do anything without being plugged into music on their MP3 players,” said Moeller. “And many commented that it was almost impossible to avoid the TVs on in the background at all times in their friends’ rooms. But what they spoke about in the strongest terms was how their lack of access to text messaging, phone calling, instant messaging, email and Facebook, meant that they couldn’t connect with friends who lived close by, much less those far away.”

The comfort of media

“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.”

What the researchers discovered is that the lives and communication methods of students and everyone, not just those ages 18-21, are so firmly rooted in social media that ripping up those roots would be like moving to an Amish countryside and renouncing electricity.

Students don’t care where the news is from

A not-so-startling discovery: the 200 students didn’t get their news from TV or newspapers before the study. They still don’t. Turns out the students all get their information from a variety of sources like blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks.

“Students expressed tremendous anxiety about being cut-off from information,” observed Ph.D. student Raymond McCaffrey, a former writer and editor at The Washington Post, and a current researcher on the study. “One student said he realized that he suddenly ‘had less information than everyone else, whether it be news, class information, scores, or what happened on Family Guy.”

“They care about what is going on among their friends and families and even in the world at large,” said McCaffrey. ” But most of all they care 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.”

Read that part again. Students did not seem to care WHERE their news came from. They just cared that they heard about it from someone or somewhere. That’s a body blow to places like CNN and the New York Times, companies racing to stay relevant in this modern era of connectivity. Students said that only major news, like the Olympics or a catastrophic event, makes it worth turning on the mainstream media.

Study Background Info

The University of Maryland is a large state university campus, and the class, JOUR 175: Media Literacy, that undertook this 24-hour media-free assignment, is a “core course” for the entire student body — which means it enrolls undergraduate students across majors. It is, in short, a class of 200 students, characterized by a diversity of age, race, ethnicity, religion and nationality. According to the assignment, students had to go media-free for a full day (or had to try to go media-free), but they were allowed to pick which 24 hours in a nine-day period, from February 24-March 4. By coincidence that period saw several major news events, including the earthquake in Chile on February 27, and the close of the Vancouver Olympics on February 28.

According to separately obtained demographic data on the student class, 75.6 percent of the students in JOUR 175 self-identify as Caucasian/White, 9.4 percent as Black, 6.3 percent as Asian, 1.6 percent as Latino, 3.1 percent as Mixed Race and 3.9 percent as Other. Students who self-reported themselves as non-American, said they were from China, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia. Women outnumbered men, 55.9 percent to 44.1 percent.

44.1 percent of the class reported that their parents or guardians earned over $100,000 or more; 28.3 percent reported that their parents or guardians earned between $75-$100,000; 22 percent reported coming from a household with an income between $50-75,000; and 5.5 percent reported that their families’ income was between $25-50,000.

40.9 percent of the students who responded to the demographic survey reported that they were first-year students, 40.9 percent reported that they were sophomores, 11 percent reported that they were juniors, and 7.1 reported that they were seniors or beyond. Most students reported their ages as between 18-21; the average class age was 19.5.

When asked about what types of media devices they own, 43.3 percent of the students reported that they had a “smart phone” (i.e. a Blackberry or an iPhone), and 56.7 percent said they did not.

Prof. Susan Moeller led the study research team, and the six teaching assistants for the course acted as researchers/authors, conducting a qualitative content analysis of the student responses. Those six TAs, all PhD students in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, were: Ms. EunRyung Chong, Mr. Sergei Golitsinski, Ms. Jing Guo, Mr. Raymond McCaffrey, Mr. Andrew Nynka and Ms. Jessica Roberts.

The study is available online at

For more information contact:

Susan Moeller, PhD
Director, International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA)
Professor, Philip Merrill College of Journalism & School of Public Policy
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742 USA
w) 301-405-2419
m) 240-472-4166
Skype) sdmoeller