There’s a growing epidemic in America. It affects nearly half of Americans, both young and old alike. It is more dangerous than obesity and has the same mortality rate as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.1 What is this epidemic? It may surprise you:
People are now lonelier than ever, and it is taking its toll on society, both emotionally and physically. But how is this possible? We should be more connected than ever, thanks to the internet and social media. If there’s no one in your neighborhood who likes the same obscure hobby that you do, you can find a fan group on Facebook. There are online matchmaking services that will use fancy computer algorithms designed to spare you countless awkward dates and instantly find your soulmate for you.
But this doesn’t help. In fact, our most “connected” generations, millennials and Gen Z, are actually the loneliest.2 Psychology professor Jean Twenge states that this next generation “is on the verge of the most severe mental health crisis for young people in decades,”3 noting a substantial increase in not just loneliness, but depression and anxiety as well. The main contributing factors? Screen-based activities, such as browsing the web and social media.4
So, what is it about the internet, especially social media, that contributes to our loneliness?
Consider the critically-acclaimed show, Mr. Robot. It follows an emotionally-troubled young man, Elliot Alderson, who suffers from social anxiety disorder and clinical depression. He works at a cybersecurity firm by day but is a hacker by night. Elliot harbors a lot of anger towards society and welcomes the opportunity to be part of a vigilante “hacktivist” organization, fsociety. The following is a powerful monologue from the show, a scene in which Elliot discusses his anger and loneliness with his therapist, Krista:
The twist is that Elliot does not actually say any of this to Krista. It is merely what he is thinking. He remains silent, and when Krista asks what’s wrong, he replies “nothing.” Elliot does not open up. He raises his defenses and he fuels his loneliness.
Lies. Deception. Deflection. All mechanisms that Elliot, and others, use to keep people distanced from us. Why do we do this? Elliot blames our hypocritical heroes as one reason. It is partly due to people creating false selves on social media, posing as wonderful, perfect people who have amazing, successful lives. Instead of social media bringing us closer, it damages our ability to form deep, meaningful relationships. Why? All the phoniness leaves us jaded and cynical. We think everyone is artificial. Everyone is a liar. Everyone is using us to pad their friends list or follower count, to increase their sphere of influence for their advertisers. We become suspicious of everyone. So we reject all relationships and this loneliness eats us alive. And as the statistics above show, loneliness literally kills.
So, how does Elliot cope with his loneliness? Morphine. Others turn to alcohol or pornography, or more innocent things like playing Xbox or watching YouTube for hours on end. Like Elliot says, we just want to be sedated; we zone out with mindless entertainment.
But the problem with amusement is that our attention can’t be held for long. So once the amusement has worn off, it’s on to the next show, the next hit, the next fling. Because that’s the easy way out. Real relationships with real people are messy. They’re hard. They take work. So we trade meaning and purpose for entertainment.
Really, we turn to amusement rather than relationships because of our fears. What if you open up to someone and they laugh? What if you get your heart broken—again? Loneliness is better than pain, right? No, it’s just another type of pain—one that can be self-inflicted.
Elliot has a dark outlook towards life. But loneliness was never God’s intention for us. We were designed to be social creatures. Look at the creation account in Genesis. God calls every new thing he makes good—and once he forms mankind, he says his creation is very good. But there is one thing that God says is not good: “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him’” (Genesis 2:18, NIV). And so he did.
Christianity is not a solitary, monk-on-a-mountaintop religion; it is deeply-rooted in community and relationships. The Christian community isn’t perfect; as fallen human beings, relationships have difficult and messy places. They require investment and effort. And, of course, we need God’s help to build a thriving Christian community.
So how do we heal our loneliness? Maybe it’s time to turn off the TV, time to put down your phone, time to log off and unplug more often. Maybe it is time not to fsociety, but to bring healing to society. That healing begins inside of us. It begins with listening to God more and being open to changing our habits.
We can diminish loneliness by offering hospitality, giving others face-to-face time. We can be vulnerable about our struggles and we can offer a safe place for others to be open with us. Try finding a friend or mentor and schedule a weekly time to meet for coffee. Perhaps there is a small group you can join. Look for ways to actively seek fellowship with others. Open up about your loneliness with someone you trust. And if you don’t struggle with loneliness, there are plenty of people all around you who do. Try reaching out to someone who seems alone. Be the friend or mentor that a lonely person needs.
Enter into the life of community that God desires for us.
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