In 2010, the University of Maryland’s International Center for Media and the Public Agenda challenged 200 undergrads to go 24 hours without media and then write about their experience. The students were asked to choose one day, within a nine-day period, to abstain from using cell phones, computers, iPods and all of the other gadgets that have come to dominate our modern world. Newspapers, magazines, and books were also forbidden, but those were not the items that the students missed. Browsing through the student responses, it is clear that participants yearned most for text messages, e-mail and social media websites.
Overall, the experiment was not a pleasant one for the participants. According to the study’s researchers, students described their experience “in literally the same terms associated with drug and alcohol addictions.” One student, in a response that summarizes the participants’ general attitude towards the study, wrote “Honestly, this experience was probably the single worst experience I have ever had.”
I recently discussed this study with my own students, most of whom are technophilic teenagers. Born several years after the invention of the World Wide Web, they’ve grown up in a world where information is abundant and entertainment is immediate. Algorithms decide their relationships and “Likes” broadcast their interests. Curious and social, these teenagers get a squirt of dopamine every time they pick up a new tidbit of information on Wikipedia or receive a text message from a friend. My students openly admit that their need for constant and instant gratification tethers them to their technological devices. In other words, they are addicted to digital media.
And so am I.
People my age pride themselves on their ability to remember a time before the Internet. I guess the conceit is that if we can recall a time before this technology, we can sustain and appreciate a life without it. That’s all nonsense though. Studies show that the brains of Internet-naïve subjects are rewired to look like the brains of adept Internet users after just five days of Internet use. This change in brain chemistry has profound behavioral effects, including what even the most casual observer can see: we all have a difficult time detaching ourselves from modern technology and the media that it produces.
My class and I were discussing the consequences of our shared addiction when one student proposed that I turn the 24 hours without media study into a course assignment. The students set the terms; I would give the class a two-week window to choose a media-free day. They would record their observations in an online journal after attempting the exercise. Those that couldn’t make it through the 24 hours would say how long they lasted and explain why they failed. Those that completed the 24 hours would describe how they felt throughout the day and how they kept busy.
I made one major alteration to the original assignment prompt. My students would be allowed to read print books and articles during the 24 hour period. Part of my job is to cultivate analytical reading skills in these students. Giving them the option to critically examine print texts on a day when they would be starving for stimulation seemed like a good idea considering the goals of my course.
At one point during class, someone decided that I should also participate in this assignment. Either a student demanded my involvement or, in a moment of misguided enthusiasm, I volunteered myself. Regardless of how the decision was made, I swore to attempt the exercise and post the results for everyone to see.
My attempt to distract myself from my lack of technological distractions backfired immediately. One hour into the exercise and I was reading about rats stimulating themselves to death. Unbeknownst to me, the one book that I brought to the coffee shop dramatizes the famous rodent-pleasure center experiment. In great detail, I learned how Master Splinter, when given a chance, will forgo food and water to push a lever which sends an electrical jolt to the reward area of his brain. Turns out he will continue pushing that lever until he dies from exhaustion.
Rats have their pleasure levers. Humans have their computer mice. I put the book down after I felt my nose give a rodential twitch.
Two hours into the experiment (I’m estimating. Who owns analog watches anymore?), I returned home. The main entertainment options in my tiny apartment consist of a TV, computer, and rubber ball. Since the first two items were off limits, rubber ball bouncing became my default activity. In my haste to alleviate boredom, I started acting out the universal signal for “I am bored.”
Pasta preparation ate another small chunk of time. After lunch, I laid down in my bed, hoping to practice some clear-headed thinking. Instead, my thoughts were jumbled and unfocused. I started to feel antsy, bored and isolated.
The University of Maryland study emphasizes how the student participants felt painfully detached from society when they were forced to give up their media. At hour three, I began to identify with those poor, poor students. I needed a reason to leave my apartment. After walking around in my kitchen, I found one.
Many of us have that one household item that we postpone purchasing because, in the grand scheme of things, it isn’t really important. When you go three hours without digital technology, ownership of that meaningless item takes on profound significance.
I could visualize the plastic object of my desire, but I had no idea what it was called. I also don’t know what horrendous crimes the K-Mart clerk had committed in a past life to be placed before me at this precise moment of the experiment. I was excited to talk to someone, but I also forgot how to use words effectively. This was the description that the pitiable woman was forced to decipher: “I’m looking for the thing that you put the silverware into and put in the drawer.” Who needs linguistic precision? Google could have given me valid results for this search inquiry instantly. Instead, the clerk gave me a blank stare and pointed me in the general direction of the store’s kitchen wares.
It’s called a cutlery tray.
I should mention that I technically failed the media exercise at this point. When I arrived at the department store brought to you by the letter ‘K,’ the PA began blasting an autotuned song whose only discernible lyrics were “Ooo Ooo Ooo.” I probably wouldn’t have even noticed this song if I wasn’t so desperate for stimulation. But I was desperate, and the K-Mart soundtrack jolted some excitement into my otherwise dismal day. I sang along to Madonna’s “Into the Groove” as I decided which plastic tray would best hold my forks.
Mental stability waning, I returned home to devise a game plan that would get me through the remaining hours. I took out a piece of paper and a pencil to map out a schedule. This approach forced me to consider what life was like before we had access to all this new technology. What did our ancestors do to pass the time a century ago? How did people not only survive, but thrive in a world without computers, cell phones, and social media?
I wrote the word “Bar” next to a six hour block of time.
My favorite bar in Philadelphia is a dank dive called Dirty Frank’s. Paintings of famous Franks, from Sinatra to Zappa, adorn the side of the building. The inside of the bar is dimly lit, but the patrons tend to be a vibrant bunch. On this particular Friday, like every other Friday, Dirty Frank’s was packed.
I sat down at a bar stool near the door, eager for conversation with those around me. That’s what happens when you give up your technology. You become determined to connect with people the old-fashioned way.
The bartender’s eyes lit up when I told her what I was doing. She described her ideal day without media, “I would spend the day with my friends. No cell phones, no distractions. We could play an uninterrupted game of tag in Rittenhouse Park. Maybe have a picnic. The possibilities are endless!”
A young blonde woman next to me chimed in, “I think it would be a relief to disconnect. I always feel like my life is a mess, but according to Facebook, my friends’ lives are perfect. I’m constantly reminded that I am not quite measuring up to them.”
I could sympathize. One of the many cruelties of social media websites is that they create a fantasy world where no one experiences any problems and everyone achieves their goals. You never get an accurate depiction of a person online. You only see people as they want to be perceived – smiling, satisfied, and successful. Meanwhile, our own failures and vulnerabilities are so real to us. There’s a separation between how we present ourselves online and how we feel inside. This gap results in a great deal of misery.
At least that’s the argument that I was trying to convey to Marta, the blonde woman next to me. In response to my rant, she made a spinning motion with her finger. I looked around the bar, scanning the crowd. Some people were laughing; others were occupied by more serious conversations. Everyone looked deeply engaged. Marta captioned the scene, “Well, we’re here and we’re alive. That’s gotta count for something.”
I woke up Saturday morning with a surprising amount of energy. Since I still had time left to meet my goal of 24 hours without digital media, I decided to walk around the city.
Philadelphia offers its pedestrians two beautiful rivers. From a bridge over the Schuylkill, you can get a good view of downtown, so I headed in that direction. On the way to my destination, I passed numerous people with faces fixated on their laptops and cell phones. I couldn’t help but think that, for many of us, these tiny, rectangular devices have become substitutes for our large, round world.
But then I thought about Dirty Frank’s. If friends still gather at bars and strangers still pour out their hearts over shots of whiskey, then I’ll continue to harbor hope for humanity. Digital media can disrupt human contact, but these addictive new tools have not yet displaced people’s need for face-to-face communication and intimacy. Cell phone use occasionally assaults conversations at my favorite bar, but it’s clear who is winning the war between humans and machines at Dirty Frank’s.
Unlike the study’s other participants, I discovered that the media exercise wasn’t so bad. I just needed to learn that digital technology is a means to a social end. My initial delirium and restlessness evaporated once I spent time talking to tangible people. In fact, cutting out the computer middleman was invigorating. Disconnecting from technology, even temporarily, compelled me to connect with people directly.
My students had their own epiphanies. Many were genuinely shocked that they couldn’t even get through twelve hours of the assignment. Others likened the exercise to solitary confinement. But my favorite post came from one of my quieter students who offered this thoughtful reflection: “People in society are spending too much time trying to see what is going on in the world, instead of experiencing it for themselves. I’ve learned that I am missing out on so many experiences, because I struggle to disconnect. This assignment has inspired me to reevaluate the important aspects of my life and re-center my daily routine around those things.”