People (and geeks) have joked for a long time about being addicted to the Internet, or their gadgets or their CrackBerries. A study of 1,000 students in ten countries found there may really be more truth in humor than the other way around.
For the study, researchers at the University of Maryland's International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) asked students 25 years old or younger to give up all electronic media for 24 hours, then answer a series of questions about their experience.
"I was itching, like a crackhead, because I could not use my phone," one American student responded.
"I am an addict. I don't need alcohol, cocaine or any other derailing form of social depravity. Media is my drug; without it I was lost," said one from the UK.
Most media have picked up on the addiction theme and the first-cut, relatively shallow observation that, deprived of all forms of digital media, the physical reaction of students mirrored that of those going through withdrawal from chemical addictions.
Far more important than physical symptoms were the feelings of social isolation, loneliness and depression that followed a return for even 24 hours to a totally analog lifestyle.
One reason was boredom, which will drive a lot of knee-jerk those-rotten-kids kind of reaction to the study. Without electronic media, the students didn't know what to do with themselves.
Chores became difficult without MP3s or other media to distract and classes seemed impossibly long; few seemed to come up with creative ways to keep themselves entertained.
The knee-jerk reaction is to blame those darn kids who can't appreciate all the technological miracles they have or enough gumption to actually pay attention to the world around them the way we had to when we were kids and had to carve our high-definition game graphics in rock before we could pretend to play with them.
That's a mistake.
Much more important was that, without their phones, email, text and social networking, the under-25s found themselves isolated from the close network of friends they'd always been able to reach, sources of information on which they'd come to rely and even a sense of their location in space they couldn't replicate without maps and GPS and other digital enhancements to the real world.
Even the study's authors described the phenomenon in clunky terms – using a geospatial metaphor to describe a social context whose identifying feature is that it is not geographical . The clearest difference they saw was that the reactions of all the students in all 10 countries were identical, based not on their local culture or even individual personality, but the channels through which they had learned to communicate with each other.
"It quickly became apparent that all the student-responders in this study are digital natives," wrote project director Susan D. Moeller, a professor of journalism and the director of ICMPA. "It was then that we realized that digital natives have no passports: if we had covered up the place name of a student's comment we would have had no idea of the student's nationality."
Nationality is not the issue; the critical difference is that people under 25 don't use digital media to enhance their lives with entertainment, or make it easier to communicate with friends or family or even to make their research faster or more complete.
They don't use digital media to enhance their lives; they build their lives using digital media.
Texting with a friend isn't a stopgap until you can get together; getting together is a bonus on top of texting, which is the normal form of communication.
Researching a project online and working with a team though collaborative web sites aren't ways to make study or work more effective when they can't be physically present at the library or in a conference room.
Digital is how those things are done; going to the library or meeting in person is a bonus or, sometimes, an intimidating mystery.
That sounds like semantics, but it's not.
The underlying assumptions of those under 25 about how nearly everything is done is the polar opposite of the assumptions of most of us over 25.
I had a boss years ago who told me several times over the course of a year I should time and note my activities for a couple of days to see "how much time we spend in email when we should be talking to the people we manage."
It didn't make any sense to me until I realized she didn't consider email to be a way of talking to the people she managed. Most of her direct reports were in the same office. When she needed to say anything more important than 'good morning' to any that weren't, she'd pick up the phone.
Most of my direct reports were spread around the country and we all considered it rude for someone else to assume we could just pick up the phone whenever it was convenient for them to call.
Email and IM work much better because you can pick your time to respond, and agree to pick up the phone when you need to.
That's a huge break from the assumptions of people running businesses now, probably including the one that employs you, and the department you work in.
They make decisions on what technology to use, how to manage people, how to communicate with them and whether what you're doing qualifies as any of those things based on assumptions that may be completely alien to the people who work for them, or for you.
That's why trying to cut off IM or Facebook or personal cell phones or limiting text messaging or other forms of multi-modal communication will ultimately drive away the young, smart people you want to hire, and make the ones you hire anyway less productive.
For the first time, it's more about the amount of attention you pay to someone and what you say, not how close to them you are, how loud, or even how responsive you are when you say it.
Cut off from their friends and their "world," students described their reactions as fretful, confused, anxious, irritable, insecure, restless, panicked, jealous, angry, lonely, dependent, depressed, jittery and paranoid.
Those reactions are very similar to what people go through during solitary confinement – whether it's forced in prison, or voluntary. Even without other harsh treatment, solitary confinement alone is often considered inhuman treatment of prisoners.
We're not a solitary species; we evolved in tight-knit little troupes. In groups we still react differently than we do on our own, even changing our opinions and how we express ourselves.
That entire dynamic – one of the most basic that makes humans what they are as both groups and individuals – is changing.
Find someone under 25 that you trust, and show them your text list; odds are he or she will be shocked at how few people you talk to and how rarely, no matter how overtexed you think you are.
They "talk," in more than one medium at a time, constantly -- often when they look to you like they're goofing around or doing something else.
If you pay attention to the medium, rather than the results, you'll miss that, and lose some ground yourself in the process.
"Texting is contact, Facebook is identity," the report found. Miss that and you're William Shakespeare roaring at the abomination of acting on film when real entertainment is in unamplified theaters where men play women and only the rich get to sit down. That's no way to travel into the future.