Our teens and young people are regarded as the most “connected” generation of all time.
And yet, by many measures, they are the loneliest generation ever.
How can this be?
Social media seems to be a big contributor. Young people often have hundreds or thousands of online “friends,” most of whom they have never met in person, some of whom insult or bully them. When kids (and adults, for that matter) interact on social media, the norms of civility that generally accompany face-to-face communication are erased, ugly comments can escalate rapidly, gang-up behavior and victimizing run rampant, and the recipient is left feeling battered and utterly alone.
Moreover, as online communication — an artificial form of discourse and connection-making — increasingly substitutes for actual one-on-one, face-to-face conversation through which people can build true relationships, many young people are not developing the social skills, self awareness, perspective and resiliency that help them build positive self awareness, solid social-correction techniques, and a sense of belonging.
Experts have begun to sound the alarm that we’re raising young people who are finding it more and more difficult to navigate the always-difficult shoals of teen years and young adulthood.
The facts are unnerving: Common Sense Media released a study in August that found that more than two-thirds of American teens choose remote communication (identified as texting, social media, video conversation and phone conversation) over actual face-to-face meetings whenever remote options are available.
A survey conducted by The Royal Society for Public Health in the United Kingdom found that Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all led to increased feelings of depression, anxiety, poor body image and loneliness among young users of those platforms. Why would they not? The posts suggest that everyone on the planet leads a much more interesting life, is far better looking, and is much more together.
And the exposure to these unattainable successes is almost never-ending: The Journal of Psychology of Popular Media Culture recently reported on a study that found that in recent years the average 12th grader spent two hours a day texting, two hours a day on social media and two hours a day surfing the Internet. So six hours a day enmeshed in digital media. These are not activities that help teens learn skills like compromise, delayed gratification, and setting goals that extend beyond achieving better hair and more “likes.” These are not activities that will serve them as they join the workforce as adults, or attend college and must accommodate roommates, diverse opinions, and entirely foreign social mores. It is little wonder that so many young people today feel isolated, lonely, anxious and inadequate.
This is not to suggest that all technology is bad or that using the various advances is ill-advised. In fact, there are many upsides to these developments. But the evolution has occurred so quickly and the attraction to digital media so intense that most parents and kids have not had time to process the implications good and bad and come up with reasonable strategies. And that, coupled with such societal changes as geographic distance from grandparents and cousins, transience at a much higher level than ever before, and a notable decline in neighborhood get-togethers have meant that many young people are feeling more alienated; less supported; and less capable of dealing with disappointments and disagreements.
Indeed, a review of the literature that was published in the Australian Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology concluded that online tools “create a paradox for social connectedness.” On one hand, social media allows kids to form online groups and communities that can foster a feeling of connectedness, but on the other, social media can serve as a source of alienation and ostracism.
This is an important issue that must be addressed by parents and by the community— schools, health care professionals, churches and community leaders — working together.
We have a catch-up game to play, but with collaboration and action we can develop some strategies that will ensure that children, teens and young adults take advantage of the many positives that digital media present but that they also have the in-person interchanges that allow them to develop the skills and actual relationships that will allow then to lead rich and fulfilling lives.
A leading local institution that is taking action is the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, which is launching a resiliency pilot for incoming students to address the feelings of isolation and loneliness campus leaders have been observing in UCCS students (the kinds of feelings colleges around the country are grappling with). UCCS hopes to address the issues of isolation, anxiety and stress through a peer-coaching model, groups and targeted outreach that allows for honest discussion of the feelings that such a large percentage of college students now harbor and have tried to ignore or minimize.
These students and others — beginning when they are 5 or 6 and beginning to listen to the siren call of digital media — can benefit from developing a greater awareness of the sometimes damaging patterns and messages.
I would like to see collaboration among our community leaders so we can address the healthy development of our young people — our future — in ways that take into account the reality of being perpetually plugged in and then provide counterbalances to that reality. This is an indisputable public health issue at this point. And it will take many heads and hearts working together to minimize the feelings of alienation that are creating roadblocks for so many of our young people.
Margaret Sabin is a former CEO of Penrose- St. Francis Health Services and is focused on local population health initiatives.