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Students around the world were particularly dependent on their mobile phones, compared to other devices such as computers and MP3 players. (iStock)

Young adults around the world experience distress when they try to unplug from technology for even one day, a research project has found.

"A clear majority" of almost 1,000 university students in 10 countries, including China, Chile, the U.K. and Uganda, were unable to voluntarily stay away from computers, televisions, cellphones and MP3 players for 24 hours, reported the International Center for Media at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md., which led "The World Unplugged" project.

Many students also reported mental and physical symptoms of distress and "employed the rhetoric of addiction, dependency and depression," when reporting their experiences of trying to go unplugged for a full day.

Participating universities:

  • American University of Beirut (Lebanon)
  • Bournemouth University, Dorset (U.K.)
  • Chongqing University, Chongqing (China/mainland)
  • Chinese University of Hong Kong (China/Hong Kong)
  • Hofstra University (U.S.)
  • Hong Kong Shue Yan University (China/Hong Kong)
  • Makerere University, Kampala (Uganda)
  • Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina, Buenos Aires (Argentina)
  • Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Santiago (Chile)
  • Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City (Mexico)
  • University of Maryland (U.S.)
  • University of St. Cyril and Methodius, Trnava (Slovakia)

"Students talked about how scary it was, how addicted they were," said Susan Moeller, the professor of media who led the project. "They expected the frustration. But they didn't expect to have the psychological effects, to be lonely, to be panicked, the anxiety, literally heart palpitations."

However, the researchers noted that they are not health-care professionals and the study was not intended to assess students’ mental or physical well-being.

Ryan Blondino, a student at the University of Maryland who participated, compared the experience of going without digital technology to missing a limb.

"I felt something very similar to a phantom limb, only it would be like phantom cellphone," he said. "I still felt like my phone was vibrating and I was receiving messages even though I didn't have it on me."

Hannah Hoffman, another student at the University of Maryland, said she only managed to be media-free for a few hours.

"I really didn't know what to do with myself," she said, adding with a laugh, "I was eating a lot."

Moeller said that in all 10 countries, more than 50 per cent of students failed to go the full 24 hours, but it was "problematic to put hard numbers" to individual countries or overall results because of the different ways each of the countries reported their participation and failure rates.

Similar around the world

The study found few differences in the way students used and relied on digital technology in different countries, despite those countries' huge differences in economic development, culture and political governance.

All students were particularly dependent on their mobile phones.

'Students around the world said that media — and their phones, especially — were both emotionally and even physically comforting.' —Sergei Golitsinski, researcher

"We were surprised, too, that again and again students around the world said that media — and their phones, especially —were both emotionally and even physically comforting," said Sergei Golitsinski, a member of the centre's research team, in a statement.

Going without digital music players was also very difficult — students reported that they felt sad and stressed when they didn't have music in their ears, and found it "challenging to do anything and go anywhere."

The students at 12 universities participated between September and December 2010. They were asked to complete an online survey about their demographic data and their use of media. After the 24-hour media-free period, they were asked to report any lapses or an inability to continue. They were also asked to discuss how the experience made them aware of how they used media.

"They were not, per se, asked how they felt about the assignment — about being forced to go without," Moeller said in an email Wednesday, "but many students volunteered something of the sort, along the lines of 'I will never do this again!' "

On the other hand, many of them said they learned from the study that relying on devices such as cellphones "actually inhibited their ability to manage their lives as fully as they hoped," the authors reported. Some said they needed to curb their media habits, although they doubted they would succeed in doing so.

With files from Pauline Dakin and Emily Chung