The mysteries of the social media age are still being unravelled but the most obvious conclusion is that they have changed the nature of many relationships. Quite what this change is, to which relationships the change applies and how we assess the impact is something I suspect researchers will be hard on the trail of in the coming years. Recently I had the pleasure of giving feedback to a project that looked at this and one of the most striking aspects was the increasing sense of loneliness amongst one of the highest user groups (18-24 year olds). The social researcher, John Cacioppo commented:
‘We are seeing loneliness increase over time… this is going to be a problem with which we need to deal.’
So the problem is not lack of connection- it is exactly the reverse. It seems that the proliferation of electronic connection masks our lack of real relational depth. (counting your Facebook friends, anybody?) Not only this, but it exaggerates our insecurity as we observe others relating online, perceiving that they are gaining fulfilment and significance whereas we are missing out (and in one study that root of relational meltdown, jealousy, reared its very ugly head). Electronic communication can only do so much, there is a lack of nuance, body language, touch and often the tone of online text-based communication is badly lacking. This often leads to an acute awareness of physical isolation that human beings have never encountered in such numbers before. And so our presumptions are turned on their head – whilst we often think that isolation is a growing problem with advancing age it is now at its most significant when adulthood is only just upon us. Theologically, we recognise that relationships are the way we are made, the God who is relationship creates us for relationship with him and relationship with others. So isolation is the very worst thing that can happen to any of us. It’s time as a church that we start addressing this with community-encouraging initiatives amongst first-jobbers because the consequences of inaction for mental health and life prospects are potentially scary.
I once heard it said that an evangelical was someone who had a sneaking suspicion that someone out there was having a better time than they were. It seems that many in the online community can identify with that.