The media and in particular the current digital revolution based on access to broadband and mobile internet are clearly changing the way we live. As such a cultural shift is happening right now, it is fairly difficult for researchers to have reliable data to analyse the phenomenon and make any possible prediction on its long-term effects. However, an experiment conducted recently can shed some light on the topic.
Unplugged: the global media experiment
In October 2010, Dr Roman Gerodimos from the Media School, University of Bournemouth, invited first-year students to take part in ‘Unplugged’, a global media experiment involving also students in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North & South America.
Students were asked to prove their ability to spend 24 consecutive hours without the media. No internet, no Facebook, no emails, no newspapers or magazines, no TV or radio, no mobile phones, no iPods or iPads, no music, no films etc. Only books and landline telephones were permitted.
It proved to be definitely a survival exercise, a mission impossible to complete as some participants just caved in after few hours into the experiment. Students recorded their experiences online in short, blog-style essays. A quick look at the blog entries can be revealing…
Almost all participants demonstrated a certain awareness of the difficulty of the task and the disruptions it was going to cause to their lives. Some students even set up automatic replies to their emails as they felt the urge to inform family and friends of the fact they were going to be ‘unplugged’ for 24 hours.
The inability to engage with the media made many ordinary tasks hard to complete. A common problem was waking up without using the alarm function built in mobile phones. Not having access to a mobile phone was also a reason of concern since many students did not know by heart their friends’ or family numbers in case of emergency.
However, many participants said the experiment was for them an eye-opening experience, making them aware of how much their lives are media-saturated. An anonymous participant wrote on the blog: “I felt shocked to notice the sheer volume that surrounds us; it was truly impossible to avoid [the media]”. They are, in fact, all around us: music played in shops, TV screens broadcasting news in public places, people on the bus or on the street are talking on their phones, housemates are watching TV, listening to music etc.
The impossibility to connect with other people for the duration of the experiment led inevitably to a feeling of isolation. On the one hand participants were not allowed to actively use those media and on the other hand it was impossible for them to share the same space with other people not taking part in the experiment. Moreover, the media appeared to offer people opportunities for conversations, i.e. discussing the latest episode of a TV series etc. Consequently those who hadn’t seen it were automatically cut off also from the opportunity to join a face-to face conversation.
This sense of isolation was particularly dramatic for some students. Katie Jones, 1st year Communication & Media student, admitted that within an hour she started feeling extremely fidgety and restless. A similar experience was recorded by fellow student Sophie Stroud: “I am ashamed to admit that it was Facebook that I missed the most. I had never quite realized just how addicted I am to this particular site. My day was extremely different to the rest. I felt an uncontrollable urge to check my phone every 20 minutes or so”.
A narrative of addiction is what can be found also in Lottie Gross’ entry: “I was lonely, especially when my lectures were over. That was it. I had nothing else to distract me. […] It had been a full 15 hours without communication to the outside world when I finally caved in. […] It’s like some kind of disorder, an addiction. I became bulimic with my media; I starved myself for a full 15 hours and then had a full on binge. Emails, texts, BBC iPlayer, 4oD, Facebook… I felt like there was no turning back now, it was pointless. I am addicted, I know it, I am not ashamed” (Editor’s note: BBC iplayer and 4on demand are softwares to watch/download tv programmes on demand on the web, respectively from BBC and Channel 4).
Other students, however, managed to complete the task successfully. An unnamed participant admitted that despite feeling lost without mobile phone, there were also some positive effects, such as paying a lot more attention to others and not being as easily distracted. Unable to access her laptop, Kate Johnson, a student in English, attempted to fight boredom by visiting friends on campus. She explained: “I felt as if I had been a lot more sociable than normal as instead of just texting somebody I was obligated to go and see them face to face. Once technology was taken away, communication became a lot more personal, intimate, sociable and overall more enjoyable”. Likewise, Claire Simpson affirmed that to be without the media is to be free of worries, while Kate Tusker found the whole experience quite refreshing.
This research has focused on a very specific demographic, first year university students and not much is known yet on how other factors such as age, level of education and social class affect people’s engagement with modern media technologies. Nonetheless, the results of this experiment are going to offer food for thought.
The study conclusions with data from all the countries which took part in the experiment are available here.
If you decide to attempt the experiment for yourself, let us know how you get on with it.