Are par­ents to blame for #Gen­er­a­tionLonely?

Khaleej Times - - OPINION - Suzanne DeggeS-White —Psy­chol­ogy To­day Suzanne Degges-White is a coun­selor and pro­fes­sor at North­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­sity

We hear a lot about the role of tech­nol­ogy in the ero­sion of hu­man con­nec­tion and the rise of so­cial iso­la­tion. The irony of so­cial me­dia is that it makes our “vir­tual selves” avail­able for en­gage­ment 24/7, but our de­vo­tion to the medium can leave some of us in “real life iso­la­tion” 24/7, as well. Re­search con­tin­ues to in­di­cate that lone­li­ness is an epi­demic that is spread­ing around the globe and the need for IRL (in real life), face-to-face con­nec­tion isn’t less­ened by the num­ber of “vir­tual friends” or fol­low­ers you have on­line.

Lone­li­ness is about the ab­sence of con­nec­tion, not the ab­sence of peo­ple. That’s how we can feel lonely even if we’re in a crowd. In fact, be­ing in the mid­dle of a crowd can make us feel es­pe­cially lonely in two par­tic­u­lar in­stances. First, if you are sur­rounded by a crowd of peo­ple you don’t know and you’re not a fan of min­gling and small talk, you can ex­pe­ri­ence ex­treme lone­li­ness if you’re long­ing for con­nec­tion, not just com­mo­tion.

Se­condly, if you’re hang­ing out with a group of friends or fam­ily and ev­ery­one is more fo­cused on their smart­phones than they are on face-to-face in­ter­ac­tion with each other. In­deed, a huge cause of “alone in the crowd” lone­li­ness is the amount of “screen time im­mer­sion” that ev­ery­one around us is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing.

Lone­li­ness can be a func­tion of so­cial iso­la­tion. When we don’t have op­por­tu­ni­ties to en­gage in so­cial in­ter­ac­tions with oth­ers, the iso­la­tion ex­pe­ri­enced can leave us feel­ing lonely. Once upon a time, chil­dren who were lonely had to leave their rooms and seek out sib­lings to tease, par­ents to an­noy, or neigh­bor­hood kids for play. Phones weren’t found in ev­ery­one’s pock­ets and com­put­ers were not good for much of any­thing be­yond home­work as­sign­ments and video games.

In re­cent years, not only have phones got­ten “smarter” than the peo­ple who use them, they have also de­creased our “so­cial smarts,” too. For the chil­dren of the “first gen in­ter­net users,” the power they had to en­gage their par­ents in any kind of pur­pose­ful or play­ful spon­ta­neous in­ter­ac­tion be­gan to shrink as their par­ents’ screen time in­creased. Kids were given strict rules about when and where they could travel along the World Wide Web, but of­ten the avail­abil­ity of the home com­puter was co-opted by par­ents who were as en­am­oured by its pow­ers to con­nect as their kids were.

Who’s lonely? Most of us have felt lonely at some point in our lives — and some of us more so than oth­ers. Sur­pris­ingly, re­searchers have re­vealed that young adults are lone­lier than midlife and older adults. Young peo­ple who hit pu­berty with cell phones in their hands not only missed out on some of the rou­tine so­cial in­ter­ac­tions that kids used to ex­pe­ri­ence due to “cell phone dis­trac­tion,” but they also grew up with par­ents who were push­ing strollers, swings, and Pin­ter­est-in­spired snacks with their cell phones in their hands! The ba­bies and tod­dlers who were mas­ter­ing V-Tech and Leapfrog elec­tron­ics early on were likely re­flect­ing their par­ents’ ob­ses­sion with tech­nol­ogy. If the kids were en­ter­tained by push­ing but­tons, it left more time for care­givers on their own de­vices.

While no one’s ar­gu­ing to turn back or slow down tech­nol­ogy’s for­ward mo­men­tum, per­haps there needs to be more at­ten­tion paid to the so­cial needs of ev­ery­one from youth to older adult­hood. Part of the rea­son, per­haps, that young peo­ple to­day ex­pe­ri­ence lone­li­ness to the ex­tent that they do — even though tech­nol­ogy con­nects them 24/7 — is that they are the first gen­er­a­tion to have “lost their par­ents” or other sig­nif­i­cant adult fig­ures to tech­nol­ogy’s pull. The on­line pull of tech­nol­ogy is too much for many adults to re­sist. Chat rooms, dis­cus­sion fo­rums, shop­ping sites, on­line gam­ing, so­cial net­work­ing sites, and even Pin­ter­est can suck in peo­ple and steal hours from their lives. If a child needs a par­ent who hap­pens to be “check­ing his phone” or she is sit­ting at the com­puter, the child might as well be alone even when they’re in the same room with their par­ent.

The lack of avail­abil­ity of par­ents and adults is likely a sig­nif­i­cant cause of the lone­li­ness ex­pe­ri­enced by young adults and Mil­len­ni­als to­day. Many didn’t ex­pe­ri­ence the same level of one-on-one time from their par­ents as ear­lier gen­er­a­tions of­ten did. Young adults learn to rely on tech­nol­ogy to keep in touch with their friends round-the-clock rather than learn­ing how to re­ally com­mu­ni­cate and con­verse face-to-face or even on the phone. We’ve dropped a lot of let­ters from a lot of words in tex­ting, but we’ve also dropped a lot of the com­fort­able give-and-take of per­sonal con­nec­tions and hang­ing out with friends. Per­haps we should be think­ing about “parental screen time lim­its,” not just wor­ry­ing about the screen time of kids. Our cul­tural knowl­edge of how to be­have, en­gage, and con­nect with friends, fam­ily, and co-work­ers seems to have fallen down a rab­bit hole along with ex­pec­ta­tions for our­selves, not just oth­ers.

The ef­fect of tech­nol­ogy on hu­man in­ter­ac­tion is part of the lone­li­ness epi­demic, but it can’t be blamed sim­ply on the “dis­tant but im­me­di­ate” na­ture of so­cial net­work plat­forms. In fact, ac­tive en­gage­ment with so­cial me­dia isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a pre­dic­tor of lone­li­ness – un­less some­one is a heavy user of the medium (Wang, Fri­son, Eg­ger­mont, & Van­den­bosch, 2018). In fact, light to mod­er­ate ac­tive users of Face­book ac­tu­ally ex­pe­ri­ence less lone­li­ness. It is only when a per­son’s main source of con­nec­tion is through on­line tech­nol­ogy that lone­li­ness is a sig­nif­i­cant con­cern.

We spend our time in our heads when we are read­ing and re­spond­ing and post­ing to so­cial me­dia. We are think­ing “light­ning quick,” but we are for­get­ting about the de­light­fully un­pre­dictable emo­tional as­pects of re­la­tion­ships. It’s kind of like rat­ing photos of po­ten­tial dates on a lim­ited amount of in­for­ma­tion. We see a pro­file pic and de­cide in an in­stant if it’s some­one we would want to know bet­ter. We read a highly stylised bio and make judg­ments of what a per­son might be like in “real life.” Yet we for­get that re­la­tion­ships are of­ten sparked by un­know­able and un­quan­tifi­able rea­sons when we catch the eye of some­one we’ve never met be­fore, or share ex­pe­ri­ences at school, par­ties, on the train, etc.

So­cial me­dia may open our world up to a bil­lion new peo­ple, but it’s the “IRL” ex­pe­ri­ence that is where friend­ships and re­la­tion­ships can re­ally de­velop in ways that might not be pre­dicted by a left or right swipe.

Young peo­ple are the first gen­er­a­tion to have ‘lost their par­ents’ or other sig­nif­i­cant adult fig­ures to tech­nol­ogy’s pull.

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