College Students Unplugged: 24 Hours without Media Brings Feelings of Boredom, Isolation, Anxiety

College students who abstained from using media for 24 hours describe their feelings in terms more commonly associated with drug and alcohol addictions: Withdrawal, Frantically craving, Very anxious, Extremely antsy, Miserable, Jittery, Crazy.

A new study from the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland, concludes that most college students are not just unwilling, but functionally unable to be without their media links to the world.

The ICMPA study, “24 Hours: Unplugged,” asked 200 students at the College Park campus to give up all media for 24 hours. After their 24 hours of abstinence, the students were then asked to blog on private class websites about their experiences. The 200 students wrote more than 110,000 words: in aggregate, about the same number of words as a 400-page novel.

“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.”

Students feel disconnected
“The students did complain about how boring it was go anywhere and do anything without being plugged into music on their MP3 players,” Moeller said in a press release. “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.”

“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.”

The student responses to the assignment showed not just that 18-21 year old college students are constantly texting and on Facebook — with calling and email distant seconds as ways of staying in touch, especially with friends — but that students’ lives are wired together in such ways that opting out of that communication pattern would be tantamount to renouncing a social life.

“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.”

Study background
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.

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. Women outnumbered men, 55.9 percent to 44.1 percent.

In addition, 40.9 percent of the students 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.

More information on the study is available online at