Being perpetually connected through social media can increase stress, weaken personal relationships, and even cause sleep loss, according to a U.S. university.
After imposing a week-long blackout in the use of Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging and other media, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in central Pennsylvania found that the pervasive technology had hidden pitfalls.
"Students realized that social media, especially Facebook and instant messaging, if not managed properly, can take over their lives," said Eric Darr, the college provost.
The 800-student college called for the ban to see how the technology affects the lives of students and faculty.
Most students complied with the week-long experiment earlier this month and some discovered that the technology could rule their lives.
Darr cited one student who felt compelled to check Facebook 21 hours a day and blocked posts between 2 and 5 in the morning to get some sleep.
"It sounds like an addiction to me," said Darr, who initiated the blackout, which was implemented by blocking social media access to the college's IP address.
Darr acknowledged that students or faculty who felt forced to feed their social media addiction could do so via smartphones, but he said most complied, and some were pleasantly surprised by what they found.
"The majority of students behaved much like smokers who sneak cigarettes after class," he said. "They would sneak off to check things on their smart phones."
But some discovered that they were less stressed because they were not able to constantly check their friends' Facebook status and found more time to do other things.
Other students found themselves more likely to have face-to-face meetings with students or faculty who normally communicate exclusively by social media.
Student Amanda Zuck said she isn't a heavy user of Facebook but was "a little irritated" at first by being unable to use the site.
Zuck wrote in an email that she didn't see much advantage in the project for herself but she added that it had probably helped a friend whom she said is addicted to Facebook.
"She decided to call it quits for a few weeks while she catches up on school, and I think this blackout helped her stick with it," Zuck wrote.
The project allowed all members of the college community to reflect on how social media tools affect their lives.
"Only by stopping and paying attention can we understand," Darr said. "We may not even be aware that social media plays a big part in what we do and how we do it."
Harrisburg appears to be the first U.S. college to conduct such an experiment, which probably would not have been possible in larger academic institutions with more complex infrastructure, Darr said.
The project prompted protests from some people who sent emails arguing it infringed their freedom of speech, he said.
While the results are still being analyzed, the conclusions seem to be that social media should be used alongside old-fashioned personal communication.
"Face-to-face meetings and relating through Facebook is probably the way to go," Darr said.