What Do Young People Say About Their Relationship with Technology?

May 8th, 2013

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Technology To give you a sense of the scope of the effect of technology on the psychological and emotional health of young people, I want to describe the results of an international study involving more than 1000 students from ten countries across five continents that asked students to disconnect from technology for 24 hours. The results and insights, I think you will agree, are startling, disturbing, sobering, and just a little bit hopeful. To give you a preview of the findings, the adjectives most frequently associated with this period of disconnection were addiction, failure, boredom, confusion, distress, loneliness, anxiety, and depression; not one feel-good descriptor in the lot.

Not surprisingly given the students’ seemingly unhealthy relationship with technology, a “clear majority” was unable to last 24 hours unplugged. The study revealed the indispensable role that technology now plays in young people’s lives. A Chilean student screams, “I didn’t use my cell phone all night. It was a difficult day…a horrible day. After this, I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT MEDIA!” As with many aspects of their lives, young people (and many adults, for that matter) seem to have lost sight of what “need” means. People may really, really, really want their smartphone, mp3 player, or tablet, but need is typically associated with more elemental requirements such as food, water, and shelter.  

Technology seems to be shifting from a tool that people use to, as the study suggests, something that is a part of who we are, an element of our identity and sense of self, almost as if we are becoming cyborgs without the implantation (though that seems a foregone conclusion at some point in the not-too-distant future). When separated from their technology, many students described themselves as feeling lost, incomplete, confused. A student from Lebanon said, “The idea of my phone kept jumping into my mind. I was not eager to message or call anyone, I was more eager to just ‘see’ my phone in front of me.”

Abstention from media revealed an unrecognized loneliness among the students who participated in the study. They not only realized how shallow their relationships were when mediated by technology, but that their deepest relationship was with the technology itself. “All I wanted to do was pick up my phone and become a part of the human race again,” said a U.K.-based student without realizing the irony in his statement.

The study showed how reliant young people were on their technology for stimulation and the degree to which they experienced boredom without it to amuse them. Their dependence on technology was illustrated by their lack of initiative and imagination to find their own ways—devoid of technology—to entertain themselves. Said another Chilean student, “I started to think about things to do without media, and found out that actually I couldn’t think of many.”

Just so I don’t end this post on such a downer note, there was a small ray of optimism that came out of this research. Many students in the study found the 24 hours of disconnection to be an eye opener and a wake-up call. Many were shocked to learn how much time they actually devoted to technology. They also noticed how the quality and depth of their relationships improved while unplugged. Wrote a Mexican student, “I interacted with my parents more than the usual. I fully heard what they said to me without being distracted.”

Others learned that they could actually enjoy life without the leash of technology. Said a U.S. student, “I’ve lived with the same people for three years now, they’re my best friends, and I think that this is one of the best days we’ve spent together. I was able to really see them, without any distractions, and we were able to revert to simple pleasures.” The one-day vacation from cyberspace also put its use in perspective. Another student from Mexico observed insightfully, “Media put us close to the people who are far away but they separate us from the ones who are nearby.”

On a further positive note, about 25 percent of the sample actually saw the benefits of unplugging. A number of students learned that they didn’t really need technology and could actually survive without it. In fact, some students experienced a transcendental moment in which, for that one disconnected day, they walked the path of quiet and calm and saw that there was much to be gained from unplugging from technology and plugging into life. Said another U.S. student, “I became more aware with my own thoughts. I realized that maybe it’s important to disconnect every once in awhile and let your brain remember you.”

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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