Study: Conclusions

“Most schools and colleges spend too much time preparing students for careers and not enough preparing them to make social decisions…. In short, modern societies have developed vast institutions [that] have an affinity for material concerns and a primordial fear of moral and social ones.”

New York Times columnist David Brooks

The way students CONSUME media is related to “material concerns”–the stuff they have:  the iPhones, Droids, iPods, TVs, cars with their radios, etc.

But the impact of what they DO with that stuff has profound “moral and social” implications.

The major conclusion of this study is that the portability of all that media stuff has changed students’ relationship not just to news and information, but to family and friends — it has, in other words, caused them to make different and distinctive social, and arguably moral, decisions.

The absence of information – the feeling of not being connected to the world – was among the things that caused the most anxiety in students as they sought to learn about the role of media in their lives – ironically by completing an assignment that asked them to spend a day without using media.

What did they learn by foregoing media for 24 hours?

That they cared about what was going on among their friends and families; they cared about what was going on in their community; they even cared about what was going on in the world at large. But most of all they cared about being cut off from that instantaneous flow of information that comes from all sides and does not seemed tied to any single device or application or news outlet.

  • “When I officially started the 24 hour period, I walked down the hallway of my dorm, and noticed that the rooms that I passed had TV’s blaring, music playing, computers being used for Facebook purposes, and at the end of the hallway someone was talking on the phone. This was in one fifteen second span.

TECHNOLOGY IS ABOUT MEDIA

In April 2010, the  Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project reported that “text messaging has become the primary way that teens reach their friends, surpassing face-to-face contact, email, instant messaging and voice calling as the go-to daily communication tool for this age group,” and noting that “half of teens send 50 or more text messages a day, or 1,500 texts a month, and one in three send more than 100 texts a day, or more than 3,000 texts a month.”

The ICMPA study noted a similar phenomenon – although the college students, close to 20 years old on average, were even greater senders of text messages, with a number of participants in the almost 200-person study reporting that they sent over 5,000 text messages a month, and one woman reporting that she sends over 9,000 a month.

Both the Pew report and the ICMPA study document that teens and young adults today place an unprecedented priority on cultivating an almost minute-to-minute connection with friends and family.  And the ICMPA study shows that much of that energy is going towards cultivating a digital relationship with people who could be met face-to-face – but oftentimes the digital relationship is the preferred form of contact:  it’s fast and it’s controllable.

Two years ago, in 2008, Pew reported that the Internet had overtaken newspapers as the primary source of campaign news in the United States, and that, for the first time, younger Americans sought national and international news as much from online sources as they did from television news outlets. Today, University of Maryland undergraduates not only rarely mention television and newspapers when discussing their news consumption during Media Literacy classes; they show no significant loyalty to a news program, news personality or even news platform.

According to this study, students get their news and information in a disaggregated way, often through friends texting via cell phone, or Facebooking, emailing and IM-ing via their laptops.  Students are aware of different media platforms, but students have only a casual relationship to actual news outlets. In fact students rarely make fine distinctions between information that is “news” and information that is “personal.”

MEDIA IS ABOUT INFORMATION

Students reported in this study that while they missed their music and their movies and their TV programs, they found that going media-free resulted in a greater, all-encompassing loss: “I believe that those who are not tied to this system are missing something,” one student wrote. “They are missing information.”  And  information, they discovered, was a precious commodity – one that they used to define themselves in comparison to their peers. One student said he realized that he suddenly had “less information” than “everyone else,” regardless of whether that information involved “news, class information, scores, or what happened on Family Guy.”

Students also expressed their awareness that information connected them to a larger world, beyond their circle of friends.  One student wrote of finally logging on to the computer after going media-free and learning about the earthquake in Chile. A social network site directed her to news sites that gave her more information about the disaster. “Those who aren’t connected through media probably have no idea about certain things going on in the world,” she wrote.

INFORMATION IS ABOUT CONNECTION

Again and again, students wrote about the role of media in establishing and cementing social connections – how they used their laptops and phones and myriad devices to communicate with friends, families, and others in their lives. “This technology craze has become so deeply ingrained in each of us we know no other way of living our lives, but to rely on our cell phones, laptops, televisions, and iPods to keep us occupied and connected with the world around us. I find it [difficult] to fathom someone not being connected through media, because I know no other way,” one student wrote.  “It’s funny,” wrote another, “but I realized we are a social species, and the use of media today helps us to establish a connection with one another.”

Students also made it clear that socializing and the flow of information were inextricably intertwined.  When the earthquake in Chile struck, most students didn’t learn about it from newspapers or the evening news. They found out about it first through contacts on social networks sites, and that information propelled them to visit mainstream news sites. “People who do not use media as frequently as our society does are probably missing out on important news and social interaction,” the student wrote.

CONNECTION IS ABOUT INSTANT ACCESS

Students may differ in their dependency on different devices and their appetite for different media, but an undeniable common denominator that came through in their comments was their demand for and dependency on instant access to information – information so omnipresent that it has become the essential background to their lives. “The ability to constantly receive information is a privilege that I recognize is a crutch at times but I relish its advantages,” one student wrote.

Information that is not delivered quickly is deemed as obsolete as the delivery method. “Why would someone take the time to go out and get a newspaper, when he/she can roll over and open a laptop?” another student asked.

And yet, there were flickers of knowledge that the ease of technology can hide its costs:  “Everything is so accessible and so instantaneous,” one student wrote, “that we lose sight of what is behind these snippets of information.

This study began as a homework assignment for 200 students.  It has not ended, for them, or for the rest of us.  A closer look at reactions of these students offers profound insights for universities, developers of media technology and journalists.

LESSONS HERE FOR US ALL

  • For UNIVERSITIES, the takeaway is that students cannot be taught about the role of media in their lives – how to distinguish between fact and fiction, credible and non-credible sources, important and unimportant information – if those who teach them do not have a basic comprehension of how students find, share and experience media.
  • For DEVELOPERS OF MEDIA TECHNOLOGIES, the takeaway is that their grand inventions find a fickle audience, at least among young people. The students may feel tethered to their favorite devices, like the iPod, or delight in hot new applications, like Droid, or flock to essential Web destinations, like Facebook, but the most important thing of all to them is whatever latest technology can connect them the quickest to the people they most value.
  • For JOURNALISTS, the takeaway is that the readers and viewers of the future see them at once as irrelevant – and indispensable. Specifically, students don’t care about newspapers or TV news broadcasts or even blogs, but covet the information that comes to them through a diverse and circuitous pathway of devices, platforms, applications and sites.  A truer mapping of those pathways could provide direction to journalists in their search for relevance in the century ahead.

REFERENCES

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