Thursday, December 1

A hundred young people accept the challenge of spending a week without a mobile: from “emptiness” to “liberation”

In the spring of this year, Amparo García (21 years old) accepted a challenge: the mobile would be a prohibited object for a whole week. No Whatsapp, no TikTok or Twitter. Not even checking email or using it to make and receive calls or pay for parking in the blue zone. The result was a feeling of “emptiness” and “not knowing what was going on.” He missed the usual barrage of informative notifications, but he also lacked a usual work tool, his main instrument for social relations and a distraction, because in all of that, but basically on Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp and Facebook, the approximately five hours that he uses the mobile every day.

She is one of 97 young women who have participated in an experiment led by researchers from the Malaga University, and that has revealed the anxiety and insecurity they suffered by being without their phone for a week. A dependency similar to the withdrawal syndrome, which made some not resist the temptation to reach for the terminal. Probably not too different from what people of other ages might feel.

“At first I had a bad time. It was very difficult to contact people, teachers. We were caught at a time when we had to make deliveries and group work,” says Lorena Vegas, who is also 21 years old and studies Journalism. She spends between five and six hours each day looking at the terminal, especially on social networks. She finds out through the media that she follows on Instagram by trusting her algorithm, which suggests what might interest her.

Lorena hid her cell phone in an inaccessible drawer and resisted. The first day she went to get hold of him, as she does every morning when her alarm goes off. But she didn’t have it. She felt strange and insecure, but also somewhat “liberated”. She began to pay more attention to what the people she had lunch with told her, and she continues to do so. Her experiment has helped her become aware and she has discovered that she can spend two hours chatting with her roommates by leaving her cell phone in her room.

“She used to say that she didn’t have time to read, but in reality she dedicated it to her mobile phone. The last days of the week she was delighted,” says Amparo García. Spending seven days without a cell phone made her feel relieved, but also aware of her limitations. “I liked it, but the system won’t let you.”

The experiment is part of a most ambitious research, which began in 2020 and will continue through 2023. The aim is to assess the quality of the “information diet” of young people, made up almost exclusively of what social networks provide. The investigation is led by two professors of Journalism from the University of Malaga, Pedro Farias and Bernardo Gómez, and has the participation of the Complutense University of Madridthe Miguel Hernandez University of Elchethe University of Vienna and the University of Beira Interior (Portugal). It is financed by the Ministry of Science and Innovationand when it is finished, a guide will be published to help young people understand the relevance of the sources of access to information.

“Their way of socializing is completely linked to the mobile phone. For some, it’s almost a drug. That’s why many said they were lost, that they needed it,” says Farias, who admits that the mobile phone is essential, but asks for rationality: “It’s It is nonsense to spend five hours on social media”.

97 young people between the ages of 15 and 24 from Malaga, Elche and Madrid lent themselves to the experiment between March and June 2022. They agreed to have their mobile phones monitored for three weeks. The objective of the test during the first week was to obtain data on the time of use of applications, notifications received or queries to the device, among others. Information that the phone itself usually groups under a “Digital Wellbeing” tab. In the second, they were asked one more step: not to use it and to write down their sensations in a diary. The third served to check how they recovered their “normality”.

Most experienced the second week with anxiety and frustration, according to the study’s conclusions. Researchers have a good arsenal of phrases that reflect this emotional state. “I needed to have my cell phone close by. I was anxious if I was far away. Just having it close by calmed me down,” someone noted. For another, the anxiety of not having his mobile exceeds what he felt on those occasions when he has tried to quit smoking. There is a social component, and seeing others freely using their mobile does not help: “Seeing everyone with a mobile on public transport made me need to use it”.

Detaching themselves from the small screen also opened up other worlds for them: “I’ve managed to read an entire book. I haven’t read a book for pleasure in six years.” There are those who reflect how he replaced the time he spends every night on TikTok in the solitude of his room for “more family life”, who discovered what it is like to watch a series “without distractions” and who avoided arguments with his parents for the use of the cell phone because that week the object of the discussion had disappeared. Several reflected an improvement in his academic performance.

After the withdrawal phase, they quickly resumed their usual consumption. About five hours a day, of which four are spent on social networks, in this order: WhatsApp, Instagram and TikTok for information consumption.

Research on how young people get information is still far from over. The objective is threefold: first, it is about knowing how they use social networks to get information; also, to know how they use their favorite social communication instrument, the mobile phone, to get information; and finally, to determine to what extent they know and go to the traditional media —press, radio and television—.

According to data from Eurobarometer 464 (2018), young people between 15 and 24 years of age are the ones who get the most information through social networks and give the most credit to their content. In the background, there are several underlying issues: the interest of young people in the media agenda, the supposed detachment from traditional media, the link with social networks, exposure to alternative media and content, the confidence that it generates in them or the quality of their “media diet”

“Our concern is information. We have been researching credibility for a long time, and we realized that the big problem was young people, the future,” says Farias. Young people are digital natives, but that does not mean that they are aware of the implications of their way of accessing information and the channels through which they obtain it. “The networks have added noise, separating professional and serious actors, and letting other interested actors, for example for propaganda or advertising purposes, end up dominating the flow”, warns the researcher, professor of Journalism.

It is a perverse system, he says, because at the same time most young people have stopped making an active effort to access or compare information. They receive incidental information, trusting the network more than the source itself. “It’s a diet with very bad habits and nutrients,” says Farias, who makes a simile: nobody eats only donuts, but young people are eating almost exclusively what the network provides them through algorithms, clickbaits or the visual language of TikTok.

“In the end, the most scandalous and banal news arrives, enormously superficial content. It is the information that the generation of the future receives,” warns Farias: “And there has to be entertainment information, but there is a basic element: knowing what is happening, because if they don’t manipulate you. With this form of consumption it’s easier”.