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Column by Diane Medved: More Social Media, More Loneliness and Despair?

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Connected to social media but not being social

by Diane Medved, Ph.D.

How could Americans be “suffering from a bad case of loneliness,” as Manhattan Institute sociologist Kay Hymowitz says in a widely-quoted City Journal article, when they’re constantly connected to others online? The ding of text messages is ubiquitous; shoppers scan friend updates on Instagram and Facebook while waiting in the grocery line.

We seem to be more connected, and therefore should be less lonely, than ever. Even shut-ins have virtual pets and robotic buddies keeping them company, not to mention the number of real, live pets that seem to be everywhere as “companion” and “emotional support” escorts through life.

Children no longer worry their parents by taking off on their bikes free-roaming the neighborhood, but by the amount of time they’re home competing with others in online games like Fortnite. Screen time on kids’ creative sites like Roblox includes making up characters and games, and then sharing their products with others.

So how does all this interaction comport with reports of rising angst, addiction and suicide? Time ran a recent piece headlined “More Millennials are Dying ‘Deaths of Despair,’ as Overdose and Suicide Rates Climb.” The National Institute of Drug Abuse reported this year (2019), “Every day, more than 130 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids.” News accounts lump drug, alcohol and suicide deaths together as “deaths of despair,” though most drug and alcohol deaths are accidental overdoses, while suicides are clearly intentional, usually the result of severe clinical depression.

Kay Hymowitz suggests sweeping national loneliness feeds these tragedies. The last decade has seen a 10% increase in people living alone—with a quarter of all Americans in one-person households (28% of older adults). A 2018 Cigna Insurance-sponsored study found that single parents are lonelier than adults living solo, despite their residing with children. The same study shows widespread isolation, reporting that only half of Americans have any meaningful personal contact in a given day. The Health Resources and Services Administration says that loneliness is more dangerous to health than obesity, and equivalent to smoking fifteen cigarettes per day.

How can there be a loneliness epidemic at the same time people have greatly increased their interactions on social media? According to Constant Contact, the average Facebook user spends 35 minutes per day on that app alone, 15 minutes on Instagram, 25 minutes on Snapchat and just a lone minute on Twitter. Watching YouTube videos soaks up another 40 minutes daily, though that’s often more consuming than interacting. Still, with all these folks flashing before our eyes, and FaceTime and instant messaging of many sorts seeking our undelayed response, where’s the downtime for loneliness?

It could be that all this screen time interaction is our way of distracting from the deeper pain of family instability and demise. Kay Hymowitz says later marriage, a declining birthrate, geographically spread families and most importantly, divorce have turned our once physically-close families into virtual soundbites and shadows. She cites research by Rachel Margolis and Ashton Verdery finding a surging number of “kinless” adults with fewer relations upon whom they can rely. Without available support, you may reach out online, but such fleeting contacts seldom quell underlying solitude.

I’m particularly interested in the impact of divorce on the national loneliness malaise, since I’ve written two books on the subject, the most recent being Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage (2017).

It’s not just the divorce boom that peaked in the early 80s that fuels today’s fractured families, but the echoes from that boom affecting the millennials and subsequent generations who suffered from their parents’ splits. Hymowitz notes that fathers tend to fade from the lives of their children with time after divorce, and that remarriage of divorced parents “often brings jealousies, bad chemistry, and resentments” that fracture already delicate bonds.

Aside from immediate repercussions from the divorce itself, children of divorce carry wounds that smart when they contemplate forming their own liaisons. Sadly, according to “Good Divorce” author Constance Ahrons, two thirds of divorces occur in families that function, and when the parents sit children down to announce the family’s splitting, the kids are blindsided. This causes them to thereafter doubt the reality of their eyes—they thought they lived in a solid family, but the relationships they trusted turned out to be false. As a result, they become skittish about marrying, and even trusting.

Reticence about trusting and committing means more never-marrieds and smaller families among those who eventually hitch up. It’s shifted the norm from early marriage followed by career development to a model where extended schooling and career success precede “settling down,” spreading families across the country as they pursue opportunities. The average age of marriage has leapt from 20 for women and men combined in 1960 to 28 today. Years that used to build families now are spent in personal advancement and fulfillment. The twenties’ trophy today is a great Instagram story, not a house in the suburbs. And it now takes two ample incomes to afford that house—so while you work toward it, why not indulge in some photogenic vacations?

Which returns us to the conundrum of virtual contact versus “real” face-to-face contact. Does social media use make us more lonely than we would have been in the days before smartphones? I suspect it does. The urgency and immediacy of a ding or notification pulls us away from reality, infringing upon it. Have you noticed couples at restaurants with heads down toward their phones rather than looking at one another? Have you heard about the teen parties where a parent upstairs, concerned that eerie silence indicated hanky panky in the rumpus room, descended the stairs to see a dozen teens with necks at right angles looking at phones in palms?

So how can we tackle this problem of loneliness? We’ll never be successful in prying cellphones away from anyone. Instead, Kay Hymowitz has the right idea: we need to prioritize creating and preserving families. We need to value the personal contacts we have by talking about what they add to our lives. We need to build in “no screen” time, like at the dinner table, when arriving and leaving home, and in the car, stating outright that it’s rude to put your device ahead of a real, caring person.

And we need to push back against our newly elevated code of selfishness and make attention to family as worthy as attention to social causes. Kudos from an afternoon serving lunch to the needy are great, but we need to more vigilantly praise when our partner makes coffee or does the laundry. And we need to look for opportunities to help our parents (whatever happened to “Honor thy Father and thy Mother?”) and siblings and, without distraction, our children. Making an effort to cultivate personal, real-life time with family is something you can do right now.

Broader changes don’t come easy, nor do they come quickly, but we can today start a dialog about them. Is no-stigma divorce a good thing? Should every whim be equally honored? Are there times when we should express disapproval of someone else’s (poor) choice?

Policies can also foster greater family ties. Higher priority in the workplace on parental duties, and institutionalizing the importance of downtime can preserve connections–and stave off loneliness. Fostering religious and interest communities also can help protect their members from isolation. There’s a lot to talk about—yes, on Facebook, Twitter and online. But let’s start with an in-person smile, and not be afraid of a caring hug.

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