Has Technology Made Us Scared Of Silence?

"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.

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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.The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


Comments

    Oh, I would pay good money for some good old fashioned "no bloody noise" silence.
    What with dogs yapping all night, and either a bloody TV or a radio on all day at work. You can't tell your work mates to turn the thing off either, that's a capital sin!

      Don't forget leaf blowers mate. God forbid one should actually use a broom.

        What are these "brooms" of which you speak? Are they petrol-powered or do they plug into the wall?

          Neither. They plug into the rear ends of people who use leaf blowers stupidly.

    I am a student and I do okay without all the noise of computers and such but what I do want is some ambient noise in the background, I don't know why but this helps me. Whether it's the TV in the other room or crickets chirping outside. It's like when you listen to a fan while sleeping, once you turn it off you notice the glaring silence and if the room is quiet enough you may hear your ears ringing as they detect nothing.
    Just my two cents.

    Hey sammaritan12, if you are hearing your ears ringing when there is an absence of noise you may have a mild case of tinnitus. I myself have this condition from working long periods in datacentres. Now i always make sure i have background noise for my brain to focus on.
    Silence is so overrated! White noise is a fact of modern life.

    I have an ear that was deafened by a severe inner ear infection, and if I am trying to sleep in silence that ear rings like crazy.

    Its funny because my family rips on me for having the old school box air-con for my bedroom, but with out it running (humming) I can't sleep properly.

    I spent the first ten years or so of my life without a television. When the family did get one it went on only for programs/movies we were actually watching. Radio was more of a constant, but it was turned off pretty regularly because we'd choose to listen to music on the sound system or one of us in the family would be practising a musical instrument.

    With that background, it's probably no surprise that I like and value silence/quiet very, very much, and I find it extremely difficult to do serious or creative work with background talking or music. Light background sound is fine: the hum of household appliances, birds chirping outside, the noise of distant traffic. But music is impossible because I can't not listen to it (i.e. pay attention to it), and talking is similarly distracting. On the other hand, I'm an enthusiastic user of technology, including mobile devices, I just don't use tech to create a "soundtrack to my life".

    So that would support the idea that it's not technology itself that makes people "scared of silence" but the habits acquired in a person's upbringing. In the past it might have been a radio or television, now there are additional sources of sound. But it's still parents' choices to make these sounds a constant (or not) that shapes our reactions to background noise and our preferences as adults.

    Last edited 02/01/13 1:24 pm

    As dumb as it sounds, when I'm home alone, I actually get lonely without some sort of noise inside the house. However I always appreciate a trip to the country, where there's no sound of traffic or neighbors.

    Being hearing impaired all my life I have to concentrate hard to hear any/all noise and having hearing aids that boost up unnecessary noises makes so I hear noises all the time. As strange as it might be I look forward to going to the bedroom, turning off the lights and my hearing aid, and just lay down in the darkness where I don't have to hear or see anything. Total serenity.

    .. And then I got a GF..

    Now in the bedroom the fans are goin, the aircon is goin, the the tv is goin... And I don't dare turn the aids off on the other half..

    I never considered social media and screens to be considered noise, but i guess on a analogy it makes sense.

    I'm 23,moved out of home at 17, i always have a screen or two or three in front of me, but have never plugged my tv into a aerial. Conversely when I go home occasionly, my parents have the tv on all the time just for noise, drives me crazy.

    I've always sort of thought that happened because to me I grew up with tv, im entirely ungrateful to the point that I hate it. Whereas my parents remember getting there own first tvs, just like I remember my first computer

    I quite like it sometimes, If I really need to stop and think (usually about a programming problem) then silence is the best place for me to solve it.

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