Loneliness is all over the news these days. Last week I arrived home to my new issue of The Atlantic, which contained Stephen Marche’s headline article, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”. Without taking off my coat, I sat down and read the entire article on the stairs. Marche depicts technological “connection” with an image that immediately brought to mind Joan Didion’s chilling, 1970 book, Play It as It Lays. Maria is a young woman recovering from a breakdown, detached and alienated from everyone in her life. Eventually concluding that when you can’t find meaning in an action or relationship, you have to make it up (“play it as it lays”), she spends her days compulsively driving the California freeways.
This brought to mind Sherry Turkle. Her excellent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times last Sunday described her fears about the lack of connection that technology has produced in human relationships. When I met Sherry fifteen years ago, she was a professor at MIT, using Ferbies to study the relational effects of artificial intelligence on children and adults. We both had young children at the time and we were filled with enthusiasm for the possibilities she imagined in the brave new technological world that lay ahead (read her 1996 book, Life on the Screen).
Today, Sherry is still at MIT, but she’s considerably more skeptical about how computers affect us as humans. Her brilliant book, Alone Together, is a must-read for anyone interested in human-computer relationships. Suffice it to say, if she’s concerned, we should all be concerned.
So I was already preoccupied by loneliness when I went to a conference last week about the social and emotional health of adolescents. We looked at data gathered from first-year college students regarding their transition from high school to college. The students were asked what had been challenging for them in college and were given a list of thirty-four variables. Examples included: “lack of privacy”, difficulty of academics”, “homesickness”, and “temptation to party and skip school.” What was the largest response, a challenge to almost 40% of the adolescents surveyed?
Freshman year is a big transition for most kids, and to some extent, it’s both expected and appropriate that they feel challenged. But loneliness is a state characterized by isolation, alienation, and lack of connection. Generally speaking, it’s not an experience that we would describe as a healthy challenge for anyone, let alone a vulnerable teenager, living away from home for the first time, with that still-forming, pesky prefrontal cortex. In fact, it’s usually a state that people try to avoid feeling. A lot of our clients end up at the doors of Freedom Institute seeking help for substance abuse problems that grew out of their attempts to escape loneliness.
Increasingly, I hear adolescents themselves wondering how technology has changed their lives. Recently a young woman came to talk to me about her relationships at college. Laura is bright, beautiful, curious, and utterly engaging. She was educated at a private school in Manhattan, attends an Ivy League college, and by almost every measure has had a successful transition: she has many new friends and a boyfriend. Her courses are interesting, her workload is “easy”, and she feels closely connected to her supportive family.
Laura came to see me because she was worried that there is something wrong with her relationships, or more specifically, her own capacity to have relationships. She said:
Sometimes I feel like my friends and I don’t know how to have relationships. We’ve all spent so much time online and on Facebook that I don’t know if any of us know how to make new friends. We are all so awkward and scared when we are face to face. It’s a lot easier to be online. You can be smarter, quicker and funnier there than you are in real life. It really hard for me to put myself out there when I am so much better online.
Turkle echoes this sentiment in her Op-Ed piece: “Texting and e-mail and posting let us present the self we want to be. This means we can edit. And if we wish to, we can delete. Or retouch: the voice, the flesh, the face, the body. Not too much, not too little — just right.”
When I keep reading and hearing about high levels of loneliness in adolescents, it makes me wonder what’s going on. Or what’s going wrong. If technology has created a world of increasingly disconnected relationships, our children are going to be the first generation to pay the price. What will this mean for their social, emotional and cognitive development? Not to mention their psychological health, which we know depends, first and foremost, upon connection and attachment?
Here’s Marche’s description of the world our children inhabit.
Within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are. We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information.
Finding this reality bleak and alarming, I turned again to Sherry for comfort. She closed her Times piece with the following:
I spend the summers at a cottage on Cape Cod, and for decades I walked the same dunes that Thoreau once walked. Not too long ago, people walked with their heads up, looking at the water, the sky, the sand and at one another, talking. Now they often walk with their heads down, typing. Even when they are with friends, partners, children, everyone is on their own devices.
So I say, look up, look at one another, and let’s start the conversation.
Stop. Look up. Start a conversation. Our children are telling us they need us.