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Bring the noise: 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…

Do you find it difficult to sit in silence? misspixels

“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?

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26 Comments sorted by

  1. Paul Wittwer


    Nature is rarely silent and when it is, can be a portent of danger. I listen to a pocket radio around the orchard. It keeps me stimulated through the mostly repetitive jobs that need to be done. I suppose I could admit to a fear of missing out if I don't get to listen to by favorite ABC programs.
    That said, I regularly indulge in the relative silence of the natural world or the silence of my house when all others are asleep or out.
    I think the learned fear of silence is the same thing as the learned fear of sparse populations as experienced by some of our Indian migrants when they move to a country town.

  2. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    "the noise of the TV and the communication on Facebook helps me feel more in touch with people”.

    Is this really an audio issue or is it more narcissism? That is, "I feel ill at ease when I can't be reassured that other people are paying attention to me."

  3. Peter Miller

    Digital Artist/Sound Designer/Composer at Scribbletronics

    Silence and quietness are different things. We've evolved to 'pay attention' when things become silent, because silence signals an unnatural state and nature is seldom silent.

    I don't believe, for example, that an environment like a farm is anywhere near silent - it's just not full of technological sound. So the issue is not silence, so much, as technological attachment. I think you would find the same thing with other senses: I'll guarantee that the student who found the family farm too quiet also found it too dark at night.

    1. Judith Olney


      In reply to Peter Miller

      Great point, and I agree. I really enjoy background noises such as birds, the odd dog bark, (not constant barking), the sounds of children playing in my street, even the sound of the train going past twice a day. (I live in a small remote town). I love the sound of the ocean and rain. I love silence, but this is a rare thing these days.

      I greatly dislike the sound of TV, radio, or even music playing constantly, or even worse, just loud enough so that it can be heard but not loud enough so it can…

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    2. David James Cope

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Peter Miller

      Definitely agree with Peter.
      I first took notice when a girl I was with insisted on everything in the house being off for a 'naturally quiet' sleeptime. Being in Perth, where the building norm is double brick and tile, a closed house in a suburb away from a main road becomes unearthly quiet at night. It actually freaks me out.

      I've been out in the bush enough to know that it's never 'naturally' that quiet at night (except in a cave or deep desert). I only have to open a few sliding doors and windows where I am to confirm that - no technologic noise apart from a distant freeway murmur (which might as well be ocean or river noise) but lots of wind in the trees, insects, and even people up late...

  4. Meg Thornton


    Clearly I'm one of the rare ones. I didn't grow up with the TV or radio constantly on, and these days I'll tend to just work in relative quiet (the technological noise most likely to be running in the background of my life is the noise of our household gateway server's cooling fan). Aside from that, I'll tend to just have the background noises of the other lives in our street running.

    Of course, this does cause me problems in other areas - I get easily overwhelmed by too much audio input in public places these days. My go-to workaround for this is, strangely enough, to take my MP3 player with me, and listen to my music - with something to focus the audio processing parts of my brain on, there isn't the same degree of "gotta handle it all" involved in things like a trip to the shops. I also find it a useful trick when I'm wanting to be able to concentrate in a public space such as a university library - it makes it possible to ignore all the conversations going on around me.

    1. Sue Stevenson


      In reply to Meg Thornton

      It's a bit of a paradox, isn't it - being overwhelmed by the noise level in public places and needing to retreat to the MP3 player. It's the only way I can handle some situations (like the football, for instance, where you are blared at from the big screen in-between game breaks and which gives no space to reflect on what you've just seen, and a more difficult time actually being able to chat to the person next to you if you want. Constant noise = constant alienation. Sometimes I think it's the way the powers that be like it, keeping us separated from each other and from ourselves.

    2. Mat Hardy

      Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

      In reply to Meg Thornton

      @ sue stevenson

      "like the football, for instance, where you are blared at from the big screen in-between game breaks and which gives no space to reflect on what you've just seen"

      AGREE! One of the most annoying developments of the last 10 years is the assumption that I am so reliant on stimulation that I can't even last 30 seconds without a high volume snatch of a top 40 song as they switch ends at the cricket or organise a lineout at the rugby.

  5. Pamela H.

    logged in via email

    I love peace and quiet away from human noise and traffic. I live on the busy Sunshine Coast in Qld. Sometimes when I go for walks I have to use ear plugs. It's a whole new experience. You notice so many other things around you.
    I've studied psychology and human behaviour (ongoing), and I've noticed there seems to be an ever increasing number of people with a fear of silence. They tell me it makes them feel lonely, and they fear being alone, because in their minds being alone - or offline - equals loneliness. Are we becoming a nation (or a world) of emotionally needy people because of our addiction to technology and instant feedback? Could this also be a factor in the increasing incidence of depression?

  6. Kenneth Mazzarol
    Kenneth Mazzarol is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired Auto Engineer and teacher

    Coming from an audiology background I can tell you with some authority that our auditory senses are designed to be constantly searching for noise. Silence can be very stressful. Sometimes it can be so quiet that you will be aware of your heart pumping. I have never been sure whether this is a felt sensation or a heard sound.

  7. Sue Stevenson


    Silence used to feel horribly empty to me, scary. Now, it's like a full emptiness, not something scary (although what can come out of the space that silence creates can sometimes be scary; it tends to involve seeing something in myself or the world that I don't quite like and which needs attention :)

    On days when there is hustle and noise and distraction, coming home to silence is like coming home to space to think and move and be myself in, to understand what I really think and feel about things.

  8. Tamara Kelly


    Agree. City visitors often find my rural home uncomfortably silent because there is no TV or radio. I deliberately exclude background electronica not just as a personal choice but because it prevents me from hearing my children.

    @ Paul - Agree, nature is RARELY silent and when it is I start looking for why.

    @ Mat - We have a whole generation of kids who are conditioned to constant interaction. I doubt it is narcissism but it could be insecurity. People prefer sameness over difference.

  9. Tim Connors

    System Administrator / Public Serf

    You're a lecturer in communications. I'm guess most of your students are extroverts. Luckily, half the population are still introverts and always will be. We'll hold down the fort when the extroverts turn out to be a generation that can't think independently for themselves anymore.

  10. Trevor S

    Jack of all Trades

    We live rurally, sans TV and radio (by choice) so the only real sounds are nature, which is incredible noisy (as per Paul and Tamara). I notice when we do go to town the obnoxious noises of the city environment and while not stressed about it, I find them incredibly objectionable, so it's the antithesis for me.

    I don't think you can be any place inhabited by humans and have complete silence ? Even the soft sighing of the A/C ducting, the squeaks as people move, the clearing of the throat etc

    The ONLY place I have been that is what I would call "silent" is the Simpson Desert, camping at night was a thrilling experience, visually ... stunning, aurally ... nothing. The only sound was wind gust occasionally.

    The Kookaburrs are cackling in that funny manner that indicates a Goanna crossing the yard, I am off to check to make sure it doesn't head towards the chook yard and steal my eggs :)

  11. Peter Hindrup


    At school — Gisborne Central, NZ, about 1945 - 6, some mornings over the schools PA system, piped into each school room was a Radio stations, ‘Music while You work’. We leaned to work with it quite happily.

    Moving to a farm in the mountains where there was always wind, rain on the roof, but little else, even the wet battery operated radio (wireless) was strictly limited.

    Silence, I love it. Never use a noise maker in a vehicle, almost never talk to, or permit a passenger to talk to me…

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  12. CH Soames


    Au contraire; this punter's need for silence makes urban life stressful. Also have rural background in NZ and Ireland and love the sounds of weather and wildlife and the shivering of timbers under assault from the Equinoxial gales. Bring it on.
    I rail at helicopters above the suburbs and at gear-braking trucks, close all the windows when people are cutting their grass, often use subtitles if watching TV and have a book at hand. That doesn't mean no loud music- ever; just peace until a decision…

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  13. Mark Carter

    logged in via Facebook

    I'm not really sure I care about other people fearing 'silence' (as this article seems to call non-deliberate ambient noise). For most Australian's the sound of silence is actually a monotonous landscape of blaring engines and buzzing motors interspersed with the calls of feral birds or barking dogs. I don't really blame them for wanting to shut that out. I prefer younger people's approach of wearing headphones so the rest of us don't have to hear their personal choice of sound pollution- its mainly…

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    1. Peter Miller

      Digital Artist/Sound Designer/Composer at Scribbletronics

      In reply to Mark Carter

      It's a real loss than no-one (except us sound people) appreciates: I do a lot of recording for my work and it's virtually impossible to get more than a few minutes of recording - even in the 'quietest' of places - without some kind of industrial noise. A little while back I spent a couple of days in the Mojave desert, miles from anywhere, and I don't think I got one single recording that didn't have a car or a plane interrupt it at one stage or another. Very sad.

  14. alfred venison

    records manager (public sector)

    back in the days of vhs tape players one of the more popular novelty cassettes was one featuring a stationary view of a log fireplace. i don't know if it had sound as well but apparently people would wack it on & enjoy the faux log fire for hours.

    i grew up in a train station in a small rural town in alberta where my father was the station agent. to this day the sound of a train rattling away in the distance, horn hooting, or the sounds of a solitary locomotive pushing carriages around in a…

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  15. alfred venison

    records manager (public sector)

    "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?"

    that's testable. i bet they couldn't stand an afternoon of john cage on their music media portals. i bet they need to have music that's "going somewhere" even as they ignore it & cage would irk them, cage being the musical equivalent of japanese stone gardens.

    if any of your students are interested to test this there's plenty of free john cage - in the form of transfers from old out-of-print vinyl - all over the internet. google is your friend. -a.v.

  16. Comment removed by moderator.

  17. Ian Flynn

    High School Teacher

    Great article, Bruce. As an outdoor educator who takes groups of students on hikes in the wilderness, this was an interesting read that got me thinking.

    One point I'd like to raise is about the source of the stimulation. As you and many commenters are saying, the stimulation we receive in our modern environments (or at least in the environments of these students that you are using as your example), is unending and of high level, both visually and aurally. As Sue(?) said "like the football, for…

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  18. Dianna Arthur


    Very interesting article & comments and can identify with all that has been said.

    Having developed tinnitus since the first RnR gig I attended as a teenager, I find complete silence only emphasizes the consistent noise in my ears. For example, at night I have to have the radio on (set to turn off) before drifting off to sleep.

    Usually throughout the day I will have the radio on, although living in bushland means I can enjoy the sounds of the world around me, fortunately my tinnitus doesn't…

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  19. Jon Barber

    logged in via Twitter

    This is really thought-provoking for me.

    My initial reaction was one of sadness, that kids/people today can't enjoy a quiet walk in nature ... a babbling brook or waves crashing being the only counterpoint to the quiet surroundings.

    As I sit here in a relatively silent living room, no artificially produced sound or media, just traffic and a distant table-saw from house-contruction one street down, I feel it is more rejuvenating than it is foreboding.

    I'm a teacher and my students have…

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    1. Jon Barber

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Jon Barber

      For the record, I used "media" and "artificially-produced sound" to describe it rather than technology. If we shouldn't say technology, what is a concise way to describe social media, music, television, etc. for the purpose of this conversation?

    2. Peter Hindrup


      In reply to Jon Barber

      Seems to me a damned good question.

      Could kids be allowed their noise makers if they were put into a small hard plastic case, and sealed? It is difficult to see how they could be used to cheat if the kids could not access the controls.