Exactly what is it that students are addicted to?

Reading the results of the Going 24 Hours Without Media research has left me wondering exactly what it is students are craving for with their use of technology and media. Is it the technology they crave,  or is it what the technology enables?

The study asked close to 1,000 students from around the world to abstain from using all media for 24 hours, after which time they were asked to “report their successes and admit to any failures”. What the study discovered was that students found it difficult – sometimes even impossible – to unplug for 24 hours, and they often used the metaphor of addiction to describe how they felt when they were not plugged in.

Needless to say, mainstream media has been picking up this study and presenting it with headlines like students are addicted to their gadgets or that tech addiction symptoms are rife among students.

Now, I’m not going to dispute the fact that many of us love our gadgets and tech, but I do wonder if some of this media coverage misses a deeper point. The point that maybe it isn’t the tech or the gadgets or the media we are “addicted” to. Maybe what we are “addicted” to is something that is deeply human; the sense of connectedness to other human beings that these devices enable. Maybe what we are “addicted” to is nothing technical at all, but rather what the technology enables – the ability to fulfill one of our basic human desires and needs; that as social animals we need to be connected to each other.

Isolate any human being from other human beings and we will go mad. We can’t do it. So is it any wonder that when we feel disconnected, we feel isolated, lonely and depressed? Being connected to one another is essential for our survival, so should we be surprised that when we disconnect – not from the devices in our life, but from the people in our lives – that we feel disoriented and confused, upset and agitated? Being disconnected goes against our very nature as social animals.

I don’t want to be dismissive of this study – far from it. This is an important study that illustrates just how deeply this stuff is permeating into our lives. And I do not want to paint over the important point it makes about just how mediated our lives have become. We do need to think – and think deeply – about how the ability to be connected to each other 24/7 is changing us. Instead what I want to challenge is the notion that this is an issue of being addicted to technology, gadgets, or media, but instead cuts to something much deeper, something that hints at the very essence of what it means to be human.

It is not a matter of simply being “addicted” to my smartphone, or Facebook or Twitter. It’s much more complicated than that. I find the “addiction to technology” argument a distraction from what is really going on, which is that the ways and levels with which we communicate with each other have become much more complex, nuanced, interconnected, and vitally important to our well being. And we are responding in a most human way to this kind of ubiquitous connectedness – by feeling panicked, frightened and depressed when something that is so vital to us is threatened and taken away.

To me, the results of this study tell me far more about how critically important the human need to feel connected to each other is, rather than how important it is for us to feel connected to our devices.


Exactly what is it that students are addicted to? by Clint Lalonde, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

7 thoughts on “Exactly what is it that students are addicted to?

  1. I think you're right about this – evolution has hard-wired our brains to seek and value social connections. It has also wired us to prefer novelty – technology allows us to accomplish both of these things constantly. The technology is just a means to the end. However, there is a danger inherent in getting what you want or need all of the time – there has to be balance, and where that lies is an interesting question.

  2. Amen, Clint. It's not the technology (which is why we've seen trends shift between different platforms) it's what it's being used for – communication with like-minded individuals. When we look at adolescent teens, even a decade ago, most of their peer groups developed based on high school social groupings. Now, if you're a punk and there's no punks at your school you go online and become part of the many communities there.

    • We are all searching for our tribes, and once we find them, we want to stay connected to them. That is really one of the wonderful things the technology has enabled – the ability to connect to those communities, no matter where they are.

      It's sometimes a perception thing. Someone texting in a public place, say, is viewed by some as unconnected from the real world – the real world being the physical space immediately around them. Yet from the perspective of the texter, they actually believe they are connected to the real world because the people who they are talking to – via that device – IS their real world.

  3. Great point of view Clint, I think that we are looking for connection, and as you said, we are hard-wired for it. One observation that I have though is that many of these connection appear to be superficial. Deeper, richer conversations, at least in my limited experience, are few – perhaps I'm just shallow online :)
    Is this an affordance of the social technologies we use? Facebook and Twitter appear to focus on short pithy statements; can a conversation that results in a deep connection to others occur in this format? Blogs seem to have the potential for richer dialogue, but do most of these 'addicted' folks engage in blogging? I also wonder if folks growing up with these technologies are losing the ability to engage in the slower paced, potentially rich, live conversation.

    • That's a good point, John, and I guess my perspective here is that these "shallower" forms of communication are not used in isolation from other forms of social interaction. I tend to connect with people across multiple platforms, including face to face. In fact, the interactions I have with people at that "shallow" end often make it easier to have deeply rich interactions with them when I connect with them face to face.

      There is also the aggregate over time principle here. Short, continuous bursts of communication over a long period of time will give you depth in your relationship.

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