Youngsters online-only for 24 hours: all life is squeezed out of reality – an experiment
A social experiment with adolescents at a school in the Netherlands was conducted as part of a
series of experiments drafted by the author and his wife and implemented in cooperation with a
Dutch national radio program for youngsters: 3FM Tussenuur. The social experiment consisted of
nineteen students (aged 15) in one class voluntarily agreeing to not engage in any kind of verbal or
nonverbal communication for twenty-four hours other than just chatting in a written form on
WhatsApp. Six students in the class were observers who were allowed to communicate without
The aim of the experiment was to establish whether students would be willing and able to migrate
their communication to online-only environments and renounce all other types of communication.
The outcome of the experiment was that eighteen participating students liked the experiment as an
experienced but would never want to voluntarily repeat the chat-only communication mode while
one student, who was diagnosed in the autistic specter both liked the experiment and was willing to
Adolescents, chatting, verbal communication, nonverbal communication, experiment
Youngsters seem to be addicted to their smartphones. Instead of talking to each other and looking at
each other, they seem to prefer to be online. But does this mean that youngsters in the near future
will lose contact with reality all together and will communicate digitally exclusively? Together with
the Dutch radio 3FM program Tussenuur we’ve looked into that. We challenged a school class for an
experiment: during 24 hours the students were not allowed to talk to anyone, look at anyone or
touch anyone. They were to just chat by means of WhatsApp. The outcome was surprising: almost
all hated it.
The radio 3FM program Tussenuur last year invited my wife, Beata Staszyńska-Hansen, and me to
invent experiments as in-house scientists. One of the themes that occupied our minds was the fact
that youngsters phub to an increasing degree: avoid contact with others by hiding behind their
mobile phones. Our previous researchi
had made it clear that a lot of youngsters indicate to have a
problem with reacting spontaneously to situations in reality. Other researchii
youngsters experience increasing difficulties to make eye contact. We therefore wondered: Would
youngsters one day just withdraw completely from the normal world to live online-only?
To test this idea we’ve drafted an experiment in which youngsters had to renounce for a day all
forms of verbal and nonverbal communication in favour of just chatting with each other and their
surroundings. For a period of 24 hours having a talk, looking at each other, touching each other and
gesturing were off limits. The youngsters were to just chat by means of a group chat on WhatsApp.
This did not just involve communication with each other. Also it meant they had to chat with
teachers at school, parents at home and at sports clubs. The producers of the radio program
Tussenuur convinced a class at the Thorbecke Scholengemeenschap school in Zwolle, the
Netherlands, to accept the challenge. The average age of the students was 15 years.
The test group
Not all students in the class room felt like joining. In the end 19 students were in, while a test group
consisting of 6 students observed their fellow students. For the test group the experiment was not
easy. To them the situation felt weird. They had the feeling of being ignored by the others and that
made them feel lousy. On top of that they felt that the communication with their chatting colleagues
was a hassle. A girl explained that in order to ask something she had to get her phone out every
time: “That takes forever. So then it hardly makes any sense anymore, the question.” Other students
said they missed making eye contact. According to the students it was quiet and boring in the class
room. To them the communication felt impersonal. That’s why according to all of them it was a bad
idea to chat-only among each other in the future.
While it was tough on the observing students, the experiment turned out to be a test of endurance
for the students participating. This became clear right away. A few students who struggled with a
task at school or had problems understanding the teacher during the experiment vented their
frustration in at first in a string of chat messages but soon after could not hold in anymore and had
vocally respond by saying things like: “I just do not get it!” – only to follow-up by typing “I’m sorry,
I’m sorry”. Other students started to talk with each other in secret whenever they thought the
cameras did not see them anymore. And in the breaks something peculiar happened: while most of
the regular students of the school arched over their mobile phones to type ferociously, quite a few
of the students participating in the experiments hid in corners to talk, seemingly out of sight of the
That does not mean that the students didn’t really try to chat-only for 24 hours. Most of the
participants indicated after the experiment that they had really tried. In the class room it was as a
rule hauntingly silent. It was alienating to see the students doing their school activities without any
facial expression or gestures, while at the same time observing a rich and loud life on the group app.
The visible world and the digital world were each other’s opposites at these times: on the one hand
a sterile reality full of robots from which all life seemed to have been squeezed out and on the other
side a lively babble full of jokes and gossip. These two worlds seemed to have nothing in common
anymore. It was a scene from a science fiction movie.
After 24 hours
The moment the students were allowed to finally talk again after 24 hours was a bit of an anticlimax.
No massive screams, cheers or hugs did occur – just a few cheers for the cameras. It rather looked
like the students woke up from a bad dream. Slowly their normal lives resumed their courses. A few
students turned around to have a talk with their neighbours. Others looked around in a kind of
surprise to then resume the chat on their mobile phones. For those who had hoped that the
experiment would cure youngsters from phubbing: that did not happen. But youngsters did turn out
to be filled with reflection.
One student said that the experiment had wore her out. She stated that she couldn’t release her
energy and feelings online. According to her she would have fallen into a depression if she would
have had to endure the online-only state for much longer because she terribly missed the shared
laughter, the talking and eye contact. Another student observed that others thought she was cranky
because she was staring at her mobile phone all the time and that they in essence were right: it did
make her cranky. For a third student the world online moved on too slow. Just like the students who
had just observed the experiment he experienced how long it took to react to an event in reality. A
fourth student mused that humour is lacking online. Online one uses smileys to laugh, not real
For almost all students the experiment was an interesting experience but one they would never
want to repeat again by being online-only for another 24 hours. Almost all participants missed the
normal things in their lives: having a talk with friends, laughing together, and venting one’s feelings
to others. None of them felt as if they were in the moment when they were online-only. The result
of chatting was that they did not run synchronously with others and with the reality that surrounds
them. It was tough and boring for them to read all incoming chat messages and even tougher to
react to all of them. In addition, the stream of messages hindered them in concentrating on the
teacher or on things that happened around them. Quite a few students just stopped reading
everything that happened online already after a few hours.
For most of the students it was hard not to be able to spontaneously react to others who were not
involved in the experiment. When they were riding a bike, during sports and at the physiotherapist
communication appeared to be impossible, as well as during birthday celebrations that occurred by
coincidence during the duration of the experiment. It was tough not to react to a greeting parent
and to avoid eye contact with people one would meet. It felt anti-social to ignore people and not to
caress one’s pet.
Almost none of the participants could after the experiment imagine a future in which people would
communicate with each other online-only. Most found it boring and unpleasant to be online-only
and rated the experience as insufficient. Almost all expressed that communicating in the real world
is a basic human need that will always exist. But there was one exception in the class room. One
student thought the experience was tough but still would have wanted to continue the experiment
for another week. For him this type of communication was ideal. He did not miss contact with others
in reality. This student was diagnosed before as being within the autism spectrum.
As a result of the experiment adults can breathe with relief. Most of the participating youngsters do
not want to fully emigrate to a world online. For most of them it was an impressive and sobering
experience. Some stated that they had started to think more about their mobile phone use. But for
none of them this meant that they would change their ways. They claimed they would chat just as
much as before the experiment. But possibly the participants have started to realize why it is that
adults are bothered by their chat habits: when they type messages on their phone they look like
they do not live a full life.
Hansen-Staszyńki, O., Staszyńska-Hansen, B. (2015). Youngster identities in the context of online
communication, new technologies, and visual information. Summary report of project outcomes 2010 – 2015.
https://www.slideshare.net/onnohansen/outcomes-20102015. Accessed 19.4.2017
Smith, A. (2011). Pew Internet: Americans and their cell phones. http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Cell-
Phones.aspx. Accessed 19.4.2017.