Much has been said, written, and researched over the past decade about the irony behind the connectedness of all our smart devices and social media platforms yet the historic levels of loneliness that individuals are feeling. Nielson reported in the first quarter of 2018 (just over one year ago) adults ages 18 and older in the United States were consuming media in one form or another (e.g., live TV, video-gaming, radio, social media, other web-based apps) on average 11 hours per day (Nielson, July 2018)! And these numbers are steadily increasing with each passing quarter. Yet, according to a news service issued to physicians, loneliness in American now affects as much as 47% of adults — nearly one out of every two people and more than double the rate reported prior to the rise of the internet (MDLinx, 2019)!
Some might argue that correlation doesn’t equal causation, meaning just because media usage is on the rise along with reports of loneliness (as well as other forms of mental health issues) doesn’t mean that Facebook, for example, causes loneliness (as was reported in a study by the University of Pennsylvania; Hunt, et al., 2018). Nevertheless, one cannot argue with the unbelievable numbers, even if considered separately. What are we missing?
I’m not a big TED Talk viewer, but I tuned into a video that caught my attention a few weeks ago. Journalist Johann Hari was speaking on the connection between addiction (specifically chemical additions such as drugs and alcohol) with our loss of a sense of community: those meaningful, nuanced, and textured relationships, he argues, we were created to share. Hari cited an experiment conducted by Bruce Alexander in the 1970s called Rat Park (Alexander, Coambs, & Hadaway, 1978). In this experiment, he put a rat in a cage with two water bottles: one with regular H2O and the other laced with morphine. What he found was that the rats would almost always choose the morphine and always overdose on the drugged water in short order. An interesting turn in his experiment was made when he decided to add in many other things that rats enjoy, such as wheels, tunnels, colored balls, and crucially, other rats. What he found was in creating “rat park,” the rats almost never used the drugged water, never used it compulsively, and never overdosed (Hari, 2019). What Professor Alexander hypothesized was that what we know about addiction (i.e., chemical “hooks”) may be misguided. Perhaps the greatest predictor of whether or not a rat would use drugs was less about the presence and opportunity of the morphine-laced water and more to do with connections. What Hari argued in his TED Talk was that as much as we would like to think otherwise, we are not all that different from rats. Like the rats for Alexander’s experiment, we were created with an innate need to bond. In the absence of real, meaningful, and healthy relationships, we will bond with almost anything (e.g., drugs and alcohol, TV, smartphones, social media, food — virtually anything).
We read in the Genesis account of creation that God looked at Adam whom he had just created and said, “It is not good that man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18, ESV). It is interesting to note that Adam was not alone prior to God giving him Eve: he had a relationship with the triune God. We know that God walked in the Garden of Eden with Adam (Genesis 3:8) and He talked to Adam (Genesis 1:28-30). But God knew that he had created a person who needed interpersonal connection as well as spiritual connection. And so, God gave Adam a person with whom he could relate, reproduce, and rule alongside. Indeed, we were created for relationships.
Again, much study has been done over the nature and nuances of virtual networking. Many services that once were in-person only are now being offered online. You can even be seen by a medical doctor or a licensed therapist using network-connected devices.
A few months ago I was reading through 2 John, and I stopped at verse 12. It’s not often that the introductory salutations of a letter catch my eye, but this one did largely because it speaks to the problem we’re facing in today’s social media-crazed world.
“Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 1:12, ESV).
Nearly 2,000 years ago, John recognized something very important, something for which we too should take notice: paper and ink (or screens and keyboards) are no substitute for the benefits of in-person, real-time, deep and meaningful connection. In fact, God is telling us through the Apostle John that complete joy is found in spending time face-to-face!
In a world where mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse affect Americans to the tune of 20% of in any given year (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2019), we’ve been given the best and simplest prescription for battle against this tsunami: to come together in face-to-face relationships where we can trade sorrow and suffering for true and complete joy.
The next time you have the decision to binge watch your favorite Netflix, sit at home (alone) browsing through what’s happening in your friend’s Facebook or Instagram news feed, or even video chat with an old friend, how about putting the phone down and experiencing the joy God has for you by putting in some real face-time. Go for a cup of coffee or tea. Invite someone over. Play some golf. Sit together. Pray together. Study the Bible together. Be blessed in your togetherness.
“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:23-25, ESV).
Tyler Hoyt, Ordained Minister, The Wesleyan Church
Alexander, B., Coambs, R., & Hadaway, P. (1978). The effect of housing and gender on morphine self-
administration in rats. Psychopharmacology, 58(2), 175. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspxdirect=true&AuthType=ip,sso&db=edb&AN=73190868
Hari, J. (2015, July 09). Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong. Retrieved May 29, 2019, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PY9DcIMGxMs
Hunt, M.G., Marx, R., Lipson, C., and Young, J. (2018). No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology: Vol. 37, No. 10, pp. 751-768. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2018.37.10.751
National Alliance on Mental Illness (2019). Mental Health By The Numbers. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers
Nielson. (2018, July 31). Time Flies: U.S. Adults Now Spend Nearly Half a Day Interacting with Media. Retrieved from https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2018/time-flies-us-adults-now-spend-nearly-half-a-day-interacting-with-media.print.html
Ninivaggi, F. J. (2019, February 12). Loneliness: A New Epidemic in the USA. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/envy/201902/loneliness-new-epidemic-in-the-usa