Human relationships are incredibly rich, but they’re also messy and demanding, and we try to “clean them up” with technology. That’s a mistake.
The boom in social media has connected the world in ways no one could have imagined a generation ago. Now we have the ability, at the touch of a screen, to connect with anyone, anywhere, at any time. We rarely leave our home without our cellular phones, and our personal computers have become the center of our social, economic, and professional interactions. Coupled with access to the Internet, our digital devices allow us to accomplish more and more daily tasks; we can wish our friends a happy birthday on Facebook while we grocery shop.
Yet, with all the modern conveniences, there are pitfalls. While our digital technologies help us keep in touch with each other, they are also changing the nature of our relationships. We are in danger of expecting more from technology and less from each other. Social media can give us the illusion of companionship, but without the demands of true friendship. As one commentator has observed regarding digital connections, “People want to be with each other, but also elsewhere. People want to control exactly the amount of attention they give others, not too much, not too little.”
It is helpful to distinguish a primary connection from a secondary connection. A text, tweet, email, or TikTok or IG post is a secondary connection. A face-to-face conversation is a primary connection. In the digital age, we are becoming increasingly skilled at secondary connections, and increasingly less skilled at primary connections.
Too often we text each other when what we need to do is talk with each other. We have many online connections when what we really need are more face-to-face conversations. We tweet and retweet, follow and unfollow, friend and unfriend … but are we doing the hard work of building real relationships?
I am afraid we are in danger of sacrificing the personal for the technical.
Earlier this year, the Surgeon General issued this warning: “For too many children, social media use is compromising their sleep and valuable in-person time with family and friends. We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis – one that we must urgently address.”
Social media use by young people is pervasive, with up to 95% of young people ages 13-17 reporting using a social media platform and more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly.” Recent research shows that adolescents who spend more than three hours per day on social media face double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes, such as symptoms of depression and anxiety.
“With near universal social media use by America’s young people, these apps and sites introduce profound risk and mental health harms in ways we are only now beginning to fully understand. As physicians, we see firsthand the impact of social media, particularly during adolescence – a critical period of brain development.” Jack Resneck Jr., M.D., President, American Medical Association
The discomfort that is a necessary part of true friendship is a blessing. The comfort that comes with pseudo-connections is deceiving and dangerous. Solomon said it this way in Proverbs 27.6: “Better the wounds of a friend than the kiss of an enemy.”