A standard trope against mobile technologies and social media is that they are isolating, cutting people off from each other and replacing person-to-person contact. We’ve all had these experiences: people looking at their phones when you are trying to talk to them, others checking email during a meeting, and still others updating Facebook or Twitter while their child is running around. (Actually, most of us have probably done these.)
I have been thinking about this critique a lot since Christmas. My kids received new electronic devices and new games, and their friends received new devices and games. Their favorite games, though, are “multiplayer” ones. They like to race Mario Kart together, share their Pokémons, and team up on Skylander: Swap Force. In fact, their favorite games are ones where they can play online with their friends. It is why in our house the kids don’t play just Minecraft but Multiplayer-Minecraft.
Why don’t they just go outside and play with their friends? Especially since most of them live around the corner or down the street? In “Don’t Blame Social Media if Your Teen Is Unsocial. It’s Your Fault”, Clive Thompson argues (drawing on the work of Danah Boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens) that teenagers are on social media not so much because they want to avoid personal contact. In fact, they both prefer to hang out with their friends in person and enjoy it more. Rather . . .
teenagers would love to socialize face-to-face with their friends. But adult society won’t let them. “Teens aren’t addicted to social media. They’re addicted to each other,” Boyd says. “They’re not allowed to hang out the way you and I did, so they’ve moved it online.
The problem teenagers face, according to Thompson and Boyd, is they have nowhere to hang out with their friends. Almost every activity is highly organized and highly supervised. There are few options. It is why . . .
many high school students flock to football games not because they like football but because they can meet in an unstructured context. They spend the game chatting, ignoring the field and their phones. You don’t need Snapchat when your friends are right beside you.
The problem, I am coming to believe, is not with technology supplanting face-to-face encounters but that we already live in a society that hinders personal contact. As parents, we are far more restrictive of how far children can go from home than our parents were (or their parents were). We are becoming distrustful of each other. We are more separate by class too. We have long been aware of the lessening of our social connectivity.
In other words, I think our diagnosis is backwards. It is not that technology causes isolation. It is that we are already isolated and use technology to try to overcome it.
As Christians we should be worried about an anomistic society. Through parables like the Good Samaritan, Jesus taught us that our neighbors are those people around us—our friends and families but also those whom we forget, neglect or fear—and that our responsibilities to them are physical and personal. It is no wonder the early Christians found the Gnostic belief that “the body was evil and the spirit was good” incompatible with Christianity.
We need to address this social problem. Mother Theresa noted in her 1982 commence address at Harvard University that if you want to love people—for her it was the poor—you have to meet them.
I hope that together with them, you will go in haste, like Mary, to find the poor. And if you find them, if you come to know them, you will love them; and if you love them, you will do something for them.
Since we are called by the incarnate God to “love others as God has loved us”, we must work to over come these divisions that keep people apart, especially if we are to be happy and true disciples of Jesus.
We also need to do this if we are to live in communities where technology is not a surrogate for personal relationships but is used, if at all, as a way to enrich them. I was at a conference a short while ago. As I was sitting down to dinner with some friends, I got a text from my daughter. She asked, “Where are you in The Mark of Athena?” She and I are reading the new Percy Jackson series, Heroes of Olympus. She wanted to tell me something about the story but did not want to spoil it for me. She just turned 10, so this was the first real text I have received from her. I shared it with my friends, which made the dinner more enjoyable, and it made me look forward to getting home and seeing her again. It brought her to me momentarily, like a gift, and nourished all of my relationships. I think something like this might be what I am hoping for.