Clinical psychologist, Benjamin F. Miller, wrote that America was already on track to face a mental health crisis before the COVID-19 outbreak. While many Americans are feeling the emotional toll of the pandemic, Millennials and Generation Z represent particularly vulnerable groups. Many were already suffering from declining mental health. The new normal of social distancing is increasing the loneliness and isolation that so many within these generations are experiencing.
Many argue that technology allows us to connect effectively even while separated physically. While this is true, we know that in-person interaction is better for emotional health than virtual connection. Jean Twenge, in her book, iGen addresses this issue. She explains that if virtual connection were as valuable as face-to-face connection, then “teens who communicate via social media and text should be just as happy, be just as likely to dodge loneliness, and be just as likely to avoid depression as teens who see their friends in person or engage in other activities that don’t involve screens.” However, the research demonstrates that, “teens who spend more time on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy….all screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.” As we consider this research alongside the fact that most classes, church groups, sports practices, even some camps, not to mention almost all social interactions, have been moved to a virtual format involving screens, the potential for increased depression, unhappiness, and loneliness is evident.
While technology is undoubtedly a gift during this time, it is not without significant risks. Twenge reports that “the correlation between social media use and loneliness appears across all demographic groups: boys and girls, Hispanics, whites, and blacks, and those both lower and higher in socioeconomic status.” Twenge also reports that “eighth graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27%, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework cut their risk significantly” and that “teens who spend more than three hours a day on an electronic device are 35% more likely to have at least one suicide risk factor.” Research by Brigham Young University indicates that loneliness and social isolation may represent a greater public health hazard than obesity and present a risk for premature mortality.
Nicolas Kardaras in his book, Glow Kids, explained children between the ages of 10 and 17 today will experience nearly one third fewer face-to face interactions with other people throughout they lifetimes as a result of their increasingly electronic culture, at home and in school. He goes on to explain that “an emotional connection is built, however, when eye contact is made during 60-70% of the conversation…the less eye contact, the less a connection is made.” Our kids, teens, and young adults today desperately need the emotional connection that comes from meaningful face-to-face time.
Peter Gray, my favorite researcher on the importance of play, notes a correlation between a decrease in playtime and a rise in major depression, anxiety, and suicide. Gray writes, “If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less.”
As we navigate a season where many playgrounds are closed, sports and team events are cancelled, and other activities are being held virtually, we must be vigilant to monitor the mental and emotional health of the young people in our lives. Reduced emotional connection and increased risks for loneliness and depression are serious threats to the well-being of our young people at this time. We must be proactive to find ways to meet their needs for face-to-face interaction, emotional connection, and healthy activity and play in ways that will allow them to thrive.
This past month, I had the opportunity to do several parent seminars on one of my favorite topics, tech-smart parenting. Social media is always a critical part of those discussions. Whether you love it or hate it, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are a part of relationships in our society today. The impact of social media is significant not only for youth, but adults as well. I am a writer and researcher, and part of my job is considering the implications of these forms of communication on how we think and interact. However, that does not mean I am exempt from their effects. Recently, I have found myself reflecting on how my social media use influences my thoughts, perspectives, and emotions…and, I must admit, I don’t always like my realizations.
While I enjoy social media for its ability to keep me connected to friends and family around the world, inform me of the joys and sorrows of those I love, and provide perspectives from real people, I find myself struggling against some of its influences. It is often difficult to avoid comparing my life to others, being frustrated or disappointed in some posts that I see, being distracted checking updates, and thinking of activities around me for their “postable” value, rather than just completely enjoying moments and interactions. I must admit, there are days that social media takes more from my relationships than it gives.
One of the weaknesses of social media is its ability to distance us from real people and their emotions and needs. In a face-to-face conversation, a pregnant friend would be cautious to narrate her pregnancy experiences to a friend who was struggling with infertility or who had recently experienced a miscarriage. We would not celebrate our child’s academic success to a loved one whose child was experiencing severe learning disabilities. Likewise, we wouldn’t brag about new purchases or expensive vacations to a neighbor who had just lost his or her job, or our weight loss and workout routine to a friend who was struggling with health issues. Such behavior is self-centered, insensitive and hurtful. Nonetheless, innocent posts on social media can have the same effect. Of course, the broad audience we interact with via social media makes it hard to always consider individual perspectives and needs, but I think most of us can admit we need to consider others more when we share information.
Too often, I post something because it is a point I want to make, something I want to celebrate, or a moment I want to share. While that is not necessarily bad, if my considerations when posting are primarily about me…what I want or how I feel…then perhaps my motives need to be reexamined. Consistently putting my desires or needs first is destructive in any relational interaction, including those on social media. I must ask myself, am I choosing to consider the needs, perspectives and feelings of others? When I share something on social media, what are my goals and who am I thinking of first?
While social media is truly a wonderful tool, like any tool, it has to be used well or it can become destructive. We need to be thoughtful regarding the effect social media is having on us and relationships in our lives. Sometimes changes in our habits or perspectives are needed, for ourselves, as well as those young people who are watching us as they learn to navigate healthy relationships and communication with technology.
The following was adapted from a post by my good friend, Bill Mann, who writes and speaks on the important topic of inter-generational mentoring. - Jolene Erlacher
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13.
Over 60 years ago, my mother told me that you can count your real friends on one hand.
I didn’t appreciate her wisdom for a long time, but it’s pretty accurate based on my own experience. And now studies show exactly that: five is the magic number.
Of all the things in life that are underrated, I think forming a deep friendship with another person is high on the list. I’ve written posts on how to choose friends, the value of friends and even what real friends do for one another.
C.S. Lewis even commented on the need for friends:
“The safest road to hell is the gradual one . . . the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. This is why it’s so dangerous to do life alone.”
Smartphones burst on the scene with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. After 12 years, we are now getting a look at what havoc it has caused to our relationships. Not surprising (to me, anyway), there has been a decline in true friendships in the past decade.
A recent study showed that social media has made most people’s friendships superficial and shallow. Another study of 3,000 adults concurred. High social media use affected both the quantity and quality of friendships.
It turns out that our brain limits us as to the number of friends we can digest. The number is 150, including family, according to R.I.M. Dunbar, a Psychologist at the University of Oxford.
To have true connection with your closest five, you need to spend time connecting at least once a week. That takes time, which is another limit on relationships. If you love someone or are married, the number drops to 4.
For the next 15, you need to connect at least once every month, and once a year for the rest of the 150. Interesting stuff. The takeaway is that the more your spend time on a relationship, the stronger it becomes.
Social media doesn’t increase our capacity for friends, and the number stays at 150. While getting “likes” is gratifying, it doesn’t replace face-to-face conversation.
In other words, if you have more than 150 “friends” on social media, the number above 150 is meaningless. They are just acquaintances. They are not your friends.
Connecting means some kind of back and forth conversation which takes time. Fast forward to today where WhatsApp, Snapchat, texting, Instagram and Facebook have become platforms for interpersonal communication.
Jean Twenge, who has researched this area, has noted that FOMO and increased use of social media has resulted in less time hanging out with friends. The result: increased loneliness and isolation.
The next generation (18-34) spends upwards of 43% of their digital use on apps, and adults in general spend over half their day interacting with media. For the next generation, that’s 8 hours a day.
But what is it getting them? Shallower relationships, superficial friends and often loneliness and depression. Certainly not a friend willing to lay down his life for them.
A friend of mine went through a tough patch in his life. He did some pretty bad things which caught up to him. I spent time with him in the aftermath. I told him that the good news was that he would really find out who his real friends were.
Those who were shallow would distance themselves and abandon him. He later came to me and said: “You were right; I now know which friends I can count on.”
This morning, I chatted with a friend, Steve Noble, who has started meeting with some from the next generation. He asked them a couple of questions. The answers didn’t surprise me.
None of them had a close friend that they felt they could call on in need, and none of them ever connected in any meaningful way with someone older.
In a challenging article in Christianity Today, Jen Thorn describes the 6 costs of real friendship: Time, personal convenience, intimacy, comfort, love and prayer. This is a biblical view of what real friends do for each other. Lest I forget, every study I’ve seen reports that those who have close friendships tend to be happier in life. Nuff said.
I’ve had the good fortune to have close friends, but it has taken effort and intentionality. I’ve met with 2 other men for over 25 years weekly, and we share life together.
Proverbs tells us to seek wise counsel, and we have provided each other with invaluable support, direction and feedback through the years. I count my group as a peer mentor group, although we never gave it that label.
The challenge here is that the next generation is missing out by not having real friends. They need someone to come alongside and help them understand the importance of friends in their life. Real friends are the people who stick by you in the good times and the bad.
MENTOR TAKEAWAY: In your interaction with your mentee, find out who his friends are (or aren’t), and encourage him to develop close relationships. It may be the best advice you can give him.
Read the full post by Bill Mann at his blog.
Dr. Jolene Erlacher is a wife, mommy, author, speaker, college instructor and coffee drinker who is passionate about empowering the next generation of leaders for effective service!