Study: College-age students addicted to social media

Cell phones and websites like Facebook and Twitter have become an integral part of most college students’ daily lives, but a study released by the University of Maryland last week suggests that many students suffer from social media addiction.

The study asked 200 students to abstain from all forms of media, including cell phones, computers, television, newspapers and even iPods for 24 hours, and self-report the results in a blog.

Combined, the students wrote the equivalent of a 400-page novel reporting their boredom, loneliness, anxiety and in some cases, physical withdrawal symptoms.

Project director and University of Maryland journalism professor Susan Moeller said she was surprised by the level of attachment students reported.

“We all use the word ‘addicted’ pretty loosely … and it’s probably safe to say almost everyone spoke of some kind of quote-unquote addiction,” she said. “What was interesting is it wasn’t just in an off-the-cuff way. Students went on to give details that really did sustain the belief there was some kind of dependent behavior at work.”

One student wrote, “I clearly am addicted and the dependency is sickening,” while another classified the experiment as “the single worst experience I have ever had.”

Although the American Psychiatric Association does not recognize Internet or media addiction as a disorder, the symptoms reported by many students match those of drug and alcohol addicts suffering from withdrawals.

ASU business communications freshman Samantha Roberts said she doesn’t think all students have reached that level of addiction.

“I wouldn’t say it’s an actual addiction for most people,” she said about texting, one of the behaviors most mentioned by students in the study. “I think it’s just a convenience thing, because we have our cell phones with us all the time. It’s more about networking and staying connected.”

Roberts also said being constantly attached to media has its benefits.

“You can even look at as a way to be closer to people, because you can always be in touch,” she said.

But this can make it difficult for students to honestly assess their media-related habits, Moeller said.

“It’s very ephemeral. You don’t think about it; you just do it,” Moeller said. “We’ve determined one of the best ways to understand how students use media is to get them to stop using it.”

Even without going 24 hours without media, art history sophomore Catherine Hahn said she would probably classify herself as addicted to her computer and cell phone.

“Considering my phone is basically a computer, you could say I’m online almost all the time,” she said.

The study also revealed that the constant, easy access to media has changed the way students gather their news and information and led to a lack of loyalty to one media source over another.

“One thing that came through clear is media has a much more expansive definition to the high school and college-age generation [than older generations],” Moeller said. “This is not only because there are tons of kinds of media out there — there’s always been entertainment media, personal media, news media and so forth — it’s because the lines are much more blurred as to what source you use for what.”

Roberts and Hahn both supported the study’s finding that students rely on the Internet and word of mouth to keep up on recent events more than newspapers or television.

“If I hear about something I want to know more about, I use a search engine to find the latest results and maybe go to an actual news site from there,” Hahn said.

According to students, the combination of schoolwork, information gathering and personal communication has pushed cell phones and Internet to become basic necessities for college students, eliminating complete abstinence from technology as an option.

“If I had to go 24 hours without [media] I would survive, obviously,” Roberts said. “But 200 days — well, that would be really hard.”

Reach the reporter at keshoult@asu.edu