“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 learnt behaviour.
The desire for media-generated background noise is acquired more from parents and grandparents than from my students’ newfound 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 recognise 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?
Bruce Fell is a lecturer in the School of Communication and Creative Industries at Charles Sturt University. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.