The Pain of Loneliness

Jun 29, 2011 |Tim Challies

Is all our texting, Facebooking and emailing bringing us closer to people or creating barriers to authentic communication?

Could you go just one day without checking email? And without logging in to Facebook? And without using a cell phone? And without turning on your television? Could you go 24 hours without using any media at all? This was a question put forward by the International Center for Media and Public Affairs and a challenge accepted by 1,000 university students worldwide.

This study’s results are striking and consistent with a growing list of similar studies. They offer a penetrating glimpse into the painful emptiness of the digital soul. In an age of constant amusement we are sad; in a world of constant communication, we are afraid and lonely. All the time we spend communicating through our devices must come at the expense of something. We are finding that, ironically, it comes at the expense of genuine, meaningful communication. As we communicate more, we communicate less.

The students who participated in this study learned that in the midst of all of their emailing and Facebooking and text messaging they are actually sad and lonely. All this time they had thought they were forming deep and meaningful friendships. But as their phones and computers were taken away, as they unplugged, they quickly saw that most of their friendships, and even the friendships they thought most significant, were trite, ethereal. When media was taken away and the students had to spend a day outside the glare of their screens, they found that face-to-face interaction was difficult and unnatural. They longed to have their devices back in their hands so they could discuss this strange discovery.

One student wrote, “I felt very stressed, bored and like I’m isolated from society and my friends. I kept imagining what they are doing and writing in Facebook, and wondering what they are chatting on MSN. I had a strong urge to connect with them.” In the aftermath, another one said, “All I wanted to do was pick up my phone and become a part of the human race again.”

And there is more. In the midst of their media-saturated lives they thought they had been engaged in socially-significant activities. But as media was taken away, so too was the center of their activities. Television had been a social center, a place to gather, a place to be with others. Now where will we gather? Now what will we talk about? As their phones were taken away, so too was the tool they could use to coordinate their activities and to carry on their dialog. Who can I spend time with now? And how will we even find one another?

Removing media exposed the tenuous nature of relationships in a digital world. These tend to become relationships of convenience, relationships with very little true depth. This study shows us all what we stand to lose as the digital becomes dominant and as we find ourselves more and more comfortable in a world of constant mediation. And perhaps it shows that we are largely oblivious to the nature and scope of this loss. These students are upstream from the older generations. This younger generation tends to adopt early, but eventually all generations find themselves using the same devices in the same way. This study needs to be a warning to each of us, whether young or old.

It warns us that many of us are lonely, subconsciously believing that a vast quantity of digital communication can compensate for the poor quality of so much of that communication. Instead of having one or two deep friendships, we have 50 or 100 shallow ones. Instead of meeting one person face-to-face, we send thousands of e-mails to hundreds of people. But the frantic nature of our online socializing is an attempt to numb the pain of loneliness.

It warns us that mediated relationships may supplement real-world, face-to-face relationships, but they cannot replace them. A man with 100 Facebook friends is still a lonely man. A man with two significant real-world friends considers himself blessed.

It warns us that we need to maintain strong ties to real communities. In fact, it reminds us why God saw fit to draw his people into communities that we call churches. Here we find community around the gospel, around the good news that marks the apex of human history. A local church is a kind of sociological miracle that must transcend bits and bytes — a gathering that shows that this good news is good, indeed.

As real people live real lives in real view of one another we bear witness to the fact that God is drawing people from all races and cultures and socio-economic groups and calling them to himself. He is establishing them not as a billion individuals living alone and isolated, but as a family, living in community, loving and caring for one another.

What a loss it will be for the world and for the church if, in the midst of all of our communication, we lose the ability, we lose the desire, to communicate with those we’re meant to be closest to.

Self-Assessment

1. Have you ever tried to quantify your media usage? How many hours do you think you use media in a day? Try measuring that for a few days to see if your self-assessment is accurate.

2. Think of the friends you feel closest to. Do you tend to spend time with them face-to-face or online? Why?

3. Make a list of things you used to do face-to-face that you now prefer to do online (banking, dating, socializing, watching television shows, etc). Why do you now do these things online?

Copyright 2011 Tim Challies. All rights reserved.

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