Has Technology Made Us Scared of Silence?

22 January, 2013 at 07:30 | Posted in Body & Mind, Children, IT and Media, Society | 2 Comments
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By Bruce Fell
Charles Sturt University

When there is no noise in my room it scares me”, emails one of my undergraduate students. “It seems I can’t stand silence”, writes another.

The noise the first student is referring to is the background noise of television, radio and music, plus a multitude of social media and online curiosities. And the silence the second student refers to is a world devoid of such background noise.

Drawing on six years (2007-12) of observations from 580 undergraduate students, it can be reasonably argued that their need for noise and their struggle with silence is a learned behavior.

The desire for media-generated background noise is acquired more from parents and grandparents than from my students’ new-found relationship with social media.

To that extent, Larry D. Rosen’s excellent advice on how teachers can address student social media anxiety – such as by introducing one-minute technology breaks–shouldn’t be confused with issues surrounding the same students’ need for background noise.

With obvious exceptions, mum and dad also inherited this need for background noise: “My grandparents have the television on practically all the time in the background”, observes one student.

It is not surprising then when another writes, “the television was switched on by my parents earlier in the morning for the news and left on … even when no-one was watching”.

For all but one of the 580 students, television and radio was in the home prior to their birth. For most students, the family home also had at least one computer before they were born. Indeed, this year we had our first student that can’t remember her family’s first mobile phone.

Beginning at infancy, the constant media soundscape has provided the background noise either side of bassinet, kindergarten, school and university. It is little wonder many of my students feel agitated and ill-at-ease when there is not at least one portal providing background noise.

Such background noise speaks to Bill McKibben’s observations of the Third Parent.

More often than not, a student’s third parent (whether that be analogue or digital media) speaks to them more often than their biological parents. As one participant noted, “the noise of the TV and the communication on Facebook helps me feel more in touch with people”.

By and large my students report they can’t function in silence. As one explained, “I actually began doing this assignment in the library and had to return to my room minutes later to get my iPod as I found the library was so quiet that I couldn’t concentrate properly!”

It’s not just the silence of a library that students report as disturbing. Having gone home to the farm, one student observed how she found it hard to walk down to the dam without an iPod.

When the students were provided with the tools to reflect on their media consumption they began to recognize the nature of background noise. Having filled in their spreadsheets, they were asked to spend one hour walking, sitting and/or reading in a quiet place. This is the moment in the assignment when students tend to discover their relationship with silence:

“The lack of noise made me uncomfortable, it actually seemed foreboding”, observed one student. Another said “perhaps, because media consistently surrounds us today, we have a fear of peace and quiet”.

Could it be that it’s the background noise and not the discrete content of each media portal that creates the perception of well-being my students write about?

Either way, it’s clear that students (and doubtless many others) have become accustomed to the background noise that’s become such a feature of modern life.

So what about you: are you scared of silence?

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

via Has Technology Made Us Scared of Silence? | Inspiring Discoveries | Science | Epoch Times

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2 Comments »

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  1. Reblogged this on peterrome and commented:
    This is a very interesting idea on how the prevalence of the constant hum of technology has led to us being unable to cope with silence. I was particularly interested in it as it seemed like an interesting mix of technology with psychology that i hadn’t considered before – the possibly adverse impact that technology can have on development. I for one relish the idea of silence – finding it so rare that I grab onto it when I can. Not just any silence though, I prefer the silence associated with solitude and nature – to be by myself, left alone with my thoughts from time to time outside with nobody else nearby. When I was younger there were trees nearby my house and I used to go and climb them when I wanted to get away. While it wasn’t exactly silent, I would sit at the top of one tree, swaying in the wind, and could see across the whole city. From here, all I could here was the gentle whistle of the wind so I could sit and think about whatever younger me thought about. My point of this story is that while I whole-heartedly welcome new technologies and the convenience that they bring there is a little part of me that is sad to see things changing so much. When I was younger when we got home we would run outside and climb trees, play football until it got dark (or later – I was never good at discerning what actually qualified as “dark”) or go riding our bikes. The average evening of a school kid now seems to be to lock themselves in their rooms, playing games and interacting with people on Facebook. This may be an unfair and sweeping generalisation but I think it has at least a little validity.

    I think I may have gone slightly off topic here. My original thoughts were that I think it should be ok to sit in silence every now and then, to not have the constant trills of phones, humming of computers or beeping of emails and texts on smartphones. it can even be very therapeutic to take a break from it all every now and then. Ok, here’s an idea. Find 5 minutes in your day when you can turn everything off and just sit and think. No tv, no phone, no tablet, no noise. Nothing. Focus on breathing slowly for 5 minutes. After that, see how stressed you feel. I promise you it will help.

    • I recognise your experience of your childhood :-) it was wonderful to be a free child in the silence of nature. Since we have this background I think it’s easier for us to return to this silence and contemplation, an important part of an individual’s life a part that we now can see is vanishing more and more because of different reasons…


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