Unplugged: Taking the Interwebs to New Extremes


Could you go a day without using your cell phone? How about your laptop? TV? If you’re like most young adults today, you may answer these questions with a nervous laugh, say “Of course! I’m not dependent on it, I’m just, you know, fond of it…” while you reach protectively for your 4G technological gizmo. Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

A recent study found that college students who were asked to give up media for 24 hours experienced physical symptoms of withdrawal. The experiment, titled “Unplugged” tracked the lives over 1,000 young adults for a single day without any access to media. Participants reported feeling fidgety, anxious, insecure, and isolated, among other physical and psychological symptoms. It’s like experiencing withdrawal from hard drugs, only the drug of choice is, um, your Droid.

Results of the study point to an almost frightening dependence of young people on technology. But before we call for an end to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPhone28, let’s take a closer look at the way media functions in our society today. True, we do seem to rely more than ever on cyberspace for social networking, entertainment, and business endeavors. But that’s because, well, so much of life as we know it today has a significant virtual element to it. What choice do we really have? We e-mail, text, facechat, and BBM our colleagues, our employers, our family members. We are connected via technology at all times, and yes, that makes for a more fast-paced lifestyle (I sent you an e-mail two minutes ago, why haven’t you responded from your Blackberry yet?). But it also means we possess the opportunity to be more efficient and can pursue entertainment and social activities as we see fit. Who can blame a young adult for obsessively checking his or her cell phone when his or her boss could send an important e-mail at any time? When there is so much nonsense (I mean, highly important information) being spewed out by Twitter every minute? It would be a travesty to miss out on the shenanigans of your friends if you stepped away from the computer. Er, iPad. Cell phone. Whatever.

Technology always impacts the way we make social connections. And young people are often the ones who adopt new technologies first. It just so happens that for young adults today, making those social connections is more intertwined with technology than we’ve experienced in past generations. This is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, one could argue that a young adult who is in tune to his or her technology is probably much more connected to his or her friends, family, and workplace than those who shun technological gadgets. At least, to a certain extent.

The expansion of cyber networks calls into question how we interact in the real world. Are we happier, more social beings due to technology?  While the internet makes it possible to contact virtually anyone in any part of the globe, is there potential for negative consequences if our cyber lives start to replace our, well, “real” lives? Think about how much time during the day you spend staring at a screen: when you’re on the C1, in class, on the treadmill, or even when you’re walking to the Loop with a friend. It seems like you’re missing a part of that real, human connection as you tap out a text or check your e-mail instead of really devoting your attention to what’s going on all around you. Check out this classic example of when using technology can turn events sour:

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Even something like music, one of the most profound ways humans connect with one another, can be belittled by your technological addiction. You miss out on the little things – wow, that’s a really cool looking cloud – and also the bigger things, like the way a friend’s face lights up over good news that no Tweet, status update, or text can capture. Today, it can be really hard to tune out to technology, even for a moment. After all, you rely on it to get a lot of pretty important information (and some pretty not-important information). But try to unplug for an afternoon, or even an hour. You might finally notice what you’ve been missing.