Relationships are on the decline in America. A major study called “Social Isolation in America” revealed that the average number of confidants (those with whom we can share difficult things) has decreased from ~3 in 1985 to ~2 in 2004, and three times as many people (25%) said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters. That’s a massive shift in just over two decades! This time period witnessed the further breakdown of the family, the dwindling of voluntary association-based networks, and the disappearance of neighborhood-based connections. In sum, people are not getting to know one another deeply and their caring support structures are eroding. But this is certainly not the case in Christian circles, right?
This brings us to another landmark study. Get this: A major 2010 University of Michigan meta-analysis (combining seventy-two studies taken over a thirty-year period of 14,000 students) revealed that college students today are far less (40% less) empathetic than college students were in the 80s and 90s, with the most dramatic drop in interest in others taking place since 2000. Empathy, of course, is the incredible human ability to lovingly share others’ feelings – to recognize their emotions and feel something along with them. And so today’s students are less likely to agree to phrases like “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective”and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.” [Check out this U Mich report and this NY Times article for more.] This is a big deal! What might be at root behind this massive shift in so short a period of time?
This study’s researchers suggest that increases in screen time and tech usage are significant factors in this major downshift in empathy…and other studies confirm their suspicion. Take, for instance, a recent study that removed fifty-one preteens from technology for five days while a control group continued to engage with their usual media. The surprising findings? Those without technology began to read nonverbal emotional cues significantly better than their peers in the control group. As the researchers concluded: “Implications are that the short-term effects of increased opportunities for social interaction, combined with time away from screen-based media and digital communication tools, improves a preteen’s understanding of nonverbal emotional cues.”* This study evidences a causal link between screen time and reduced ability to read others emotionally, which is a key ability undergirding a proper expression of empathy.
Empathy is under threat in our age. This should be a big red flag for Christians who are commanded by our Lord to love our neighbors as ourselves. How can we obey this commandment if we cannot recognize our neighbors’ expressions of emotion, put ourselves in their shoes, and care about the pain they are experiencing?
While our in-person social networks are eroding, our online social networks are booming. But perhaps not always in such a way as to make us better people. Ponder these questions:
- On a scale of 1-10, how pleased are you with your device usage? (Consider the pull you feel toward broadcasting every good or hard moment, the amount of time you spend on Snapchat, Instagram or Facebook, the proportion of texts you send compared to real life interactions, etc.)
- Do you feel lost without your phone or listless when you’re not online?
If you’re not 100% proud of your connection with your Internet-enabled devices, it may be time to make some changes. Start with a digital detox like this one.
Choose presence. Whenever possible, opt to be with other people in person.
- This week, find a time to sit down at a table for a long meal with people you love.
- Refuse to interrupt people who are present to text people who aren’t. [Presence matters! Our God certainly thinks so…so much so that the incarnation happened; God Himself came down to dwell with us, to tabernacle among us. He could’ve sent us more messages carved on rocks with his finger like the Ten Commandments. But He didn’t. Presence should matter to Christians, too.]
- Next time conflict arises, commit yourself to doing everything you can to resolve that conflict face-to-face. It is only as we commit to presence that we will preserve aspects of our God-given humanity as they were intended.
If this discussion interests you, check out the video of the October Summit Forum with Paige Gutacker on The Internet & The Soul! Challenge is a piece from the Alumni Network’s monthly e-newsletter RE:SOURCE. Subscribe to the newsletter here.
For further reading:
- The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
- Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman
- Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle