April 07, 2011

Like a Drug, the Internet Is Addicting

Historically, addiction is defined as “physical and psychological dependence on psychoactive substances which cross the blood-brain barrier once ingested, temporarily altering the chemical milieu of the brain.”

Like history, addictions have changed over the years, particularly when it comes to the types of addictions we face as a society. Now added to the list items in our modern day collection of addictions is not a substance, but the intangible compilation of information we know as the Internet.

According to a new global study of university students by the International Center for Media & the Public Affairs (ICMPA) in partnership with the Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change, college students have revealed that they are, in fact, “addicted” to the Internet. The study polled close to 1,000 students in 10 countries on five continents and put said students on a 24-hour “media fast,” in which no media was to be used for the duration. Students were then asked to report their successes and failures of their abstinence.

"I sat in my bed and stared blankly." "My nerves were overwhelmed." "I had a raised heart rate, increased anxiety and was panicking." "It felt as though I was being tortured." "Emptiness overwhelmed me,” were some of the statements made by students of their experiences.

The statements reveal a similar resemblance to cravings that are linked to addiction and also demonstrate anxiety and depression.

Over and over the students said that media has literally become integral to their personal identities. Going without media, therefore, meant that the students not only had to confront their media habits, but their sense of self.

Students also reported digital technology is not just a habit, it is essential to the way they construct and manage their friendships and social lives, particularly when it comes to social networking. The leading social media site across all countries studied was, not surprisingly, Facebook (News - Alert).

“It was amazing to me though how easily programmed my fingers were to instantly start typing ‘f-a-c-e’ in the search bar. It’s now muscle memory, or instinctual, to log into Facebook as the first step of Internet browsing,” admitted one USA-based student. “There is no doubt that Facebook is really high profile in our daily life,” said a student from Hong Kong.

One of the more striking findings was how students receive news. For them, news comes to them via Twitter, Facebook, Web sidebars, email and breaking news alerts sent to their phones. The report says that students themselves need to be taught how to properly curate their own news streams "as a life skill they need in both their personal and professional lives."

“News curation needs to be taught to students as a life skill they need in both their personal and professional lives. News curation needs to be taught to journalism students (and to students in other disciplines) because increasingly what is needed is are people who have the critical and analytical tools to sort through the vast amount of data that is being created in all fields. And news curation needs to be a concept embedded in app design as well as hardware creation: If the public has to do it, they need intuitive ways to handle it,” the study concludes.

While the Internet now seems to be a thing of addiction, the recent and ongoing uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Algeria and other parts of the Middle East/North African region have led to many a discussion on technology and its use in nonviolent civil resistance.

While Facebook and other means of social networking have been the mediums in which to disseminate information, their platforms are hardly a replacement for political action. They have become tools to aid protestors and gauge a wider interest in the issues at hand.

Of particular interest is the way new technologies are being integrated into the “sneakernet.” The Los Angeles Times has a great piece on the “information smugglers” who carry mobile videos across the border so they can upload it onto social media sites.

These technologically empowered youth populations are seizing their chance to replace those who are ruling them. If there is one thing we as a public are learning, it’s that communication breeds revolution.

Tracey Schelmetic is a contributing editor for TMCnet. To read more of Tracey's articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Janice McDuffee