The University of Maryland released a study of college students and the Internet yesterday that garnered some headlines, including one from Reuters that talked about how these poor students were “suffering from Internet addiction.” According to the research quoted by the newswire, they showed “symptoms similar to drug and alcohol addictions” when they were forced to give up access to the web and mobile communications such as text messaging. And what were those symptoms? If you read a news release the university issued about the study, one of the main symptoms appears to be that they said things like “Wow, I’m so addicted to the Internet.”
They also reportedly used other terms associated with drug withdrawal, saying they were “frantically craving” the Internet, were “very anxious” or “extremely antsy,” and so on. Does this prove that the Internet causes addiction? Possibly. I think the main thing it proves is that researchers are addicted to comparing social behavior to addiction, and that the only evidence they require is that you say “I’m addicted to (fill in the blank).” It could be the Internet, it could be television, it could be chocolate. One student said being without her phone felt like she was “missing a limb.” I’m surprised the study didn’t conclude that students deprived of the Internet are suddenly losing limbs.
Real addicts usually deny for as long as possible that they are addicted to anything, but apparently the researchers in Maryland didn’t have this problem. And how did they determine that students were addicted to Internet access and text messaging? They forced 200 of them to stop using digital media for 24 hours, and then asked them about the experience, as described here. And it wasn’t just the Internet or cellphones — they had to give up newspapers, car radios and iPods too. And guess what? They missed them. I assume if researchers had prevented the students from talking to their friends or families face-to-face for 24 hours, that would have left them a little twitchy too.
The findings are pretty earth-shattering. Number one: Students “use literal terms of addiction to characterize their dependence on media.” Number two: “Students hate going without media.” Number three: Students “show no significant loyalty to a news program, news personality or even news platform.” Number four: Students who are 18-21 “are constantly texting and on Facebook.” And stunner number five: Students “could live without their TVs and the newspaper, but they can’t survive without their iPods.” There’s plenty more detail if you want to read the whole study.
It’s too bad the research made such a big deal out of the addiction angle, because there is some interesting data — or at least, some interesting comments from students — about their use of social media and technologies such as texting. That’s definitely worthy of more study, particularly by a group calling itself the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (which did the survey). Unfortunately, it’s smothered by all the hyperventilating about addiction.