I don't think of myself as having a particularly addictive personality. Yeah, I'm a bear without my morning coffee and quitting smoking was tough, but am I addictive? No way.
Unfortunately while on a camping trip last month to California's scenic and somewhat remote southern Sierra Nevada, I was suddenly faced with the prospect of no Internet access. As in none at all. No cell phone. No GPS. No way for me to find out who won the All-Star Game. The impulse to Google for the odd factoid -- who starred in that early Woody Allen movie anyway? -- as soon as it comes up in conversation, refused to be stifled.
Wow. I was surprised at how anxious and frustrated I became. I finally left my iPhone in the tent to stop myself from reflexively checking the damn thing. I realized I was suffering withdrawal -- and so were my companions.
I'm not about to launch a Luddite screed about how we all need to live simple, bucolic lives, and I don't plan to join a 12-step group for recovering Webaholics. I love digital technology, and as far as I'm concerned my life is the better for it. But my dose of Internet withdrawal made me curious and a bit concerned. With just a little research (on the Web, of course) I learned that there are a number of recent studies that show I'm hardly alone. We're becoming a planet of media junkies.
Cold turkey: Twenty-four hours without media
One recent study focused on our friends the Brits. A UK market research company called Intersperience found that 53 percent of the people surveyed said they feel "upset" when they are unable to have an Internet connection, and 40 percent said they feel "lonely" if they can't go online.
Giving up technology was considered by some to be as hard as quitting smoking or drinking, while one of the more than 1000 people surveyed described it as "like having my hand chopped off" and another called it "my biggest nightmare".
A much broader study by the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda and the Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change looked at college-age youth in 12 countries in Africa, Europe, Latin America, Asia and the U.S. About 1000 of them were asked to unplug themselves from the world's media for a day. No Internet, no newspapers, no TV, no PlayStation. The result? It freaked them out.
Without media they felt unbearably constrained and even paralyzed. A student from the University of St. Cyril and Methodius in Slovakia said, "I felt as though everything I knew was taken away from me and that I was being tortured." Without media, said a student from Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico, "I feel that not even the sun can warm me."
Sure, people of college age tend to over dramatize things and exaggerate their emotions. But given the breadth of the survey, and the radically different cultural environments the students experience, it is striking that so many had such similar reactions to the thought of going off the media grid. Appropriately enough, the study is called "The World Unplugged."
The word addiction is overused these days, and it can be a convenient way to excuse one's bad behavior. Still, the students in the Unplugged study didn't sound like they were looking for a copout. "Media is my drug; without it I was lost," said one student from the UK. "I am an addict. How could I survive 24 hours without it?" Some even experienced physical withdrawal symptoms. "I was itching, like a crackhead, because I could not use my phone," said one American.
Kicking a drug habit often takes more than one attempt. And that appears to be true when attempting to kick a digital addiction. According to the survey: "A clear majority of students in every country admitted outright failure of their efforts to go unplugged. The failure rate didn't appear to have anything to do with the relative affluence of the country, or students' personal access to a range of devices and technologies."
When you travel by public transit or airlines these days, it's hard not to notice how many people never seem to look up from their smartphones. Are they afraid they'll be bored if they just sit for a bit?
Many of the students said they couldn't imagine how to fill up their empty hours without media. "I literally didn't know what to do with myself," said one. "Going down to the kitchen to pointlessly look in the cupboards became a regular routine, as did getting a drink." Some students became bored within a few hours; others in even less time than that. Said one student from China: "After 15 minutes without using media, my sole feeling about this can be expressed in one word: boring."
Lack of attention span caused by too much time on the Web is a major theme of a book called The Shallows by Nicolas Carr. I reviewed it here last year, and I think the Unplugged study makes Carr's findings all the more worrisome. He wrote: "Every click we make on the Web marks a break in our concentration, a bottom-up disruption of our attention - and it's in Google's economic interest to make sure we click as often as possible. Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction."
No, I'm not going to toss away my iPhone and cancel my digital subscriptions; there's far too much value in the online world. And I'm not overly worried about those Web-saturated kids; they'll survive, just like I did, despite my parents' conviction that I was rotting my brain with too much TV. I am, though, convinced that it's worth taking stock of our digital habits. When Facebook takes the place of face-to-face interaction, and we can't write more than 140 characters at a stretch, it's time to take a break.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Bill Snyder on Twitter @BSnyderSF. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline.