Why Facebook can’t cure – or cause – loneliness

I’ve been interested in the various discussions of social media and its effects on our social lives lately. The Atlantic, for instance, published a provocative cover headline recently: Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? Excerpts from Sherry Turkle’s recent book Alone Together inspire similar discussions.

My first impulse with these kinds of discussions is always to suspect declarations about how technology is ruining everything forever (though few make this argument quite so extreme). Some careful thought about history reminds us that people have always been lonely. According to Genesis, God created Eve because “it is not good for the man to be alone.” That companionship only lasts in perfection, though, until the fall. Loneliness is a common complaint in the Biblical laments. Different media, long predating the smartphone, had been used both as a salve for loneliness and ironically to sustain it. C.S. Lewis is frequently quoted saying, “We read to know we are not alone.”

What these examples remind me is that loneliness is a consequence of original sin. We’ll always struggle to connect with other humans, and perhaps technology that is designed to help us do that sometimes throws that failure into sharp relief. But we shouldn’t blame technology for the consequences of our sinful nature. Indeed, the question we should be asking is not “Does Facebook make you lonely?” or “Does your cell phone keep you from people who are nearby?” Instead, we should ask, “What are you doing to prioritize and nurture human relationships in your life?”

I thought about this again last week with Facebook’s IPO. Many people joked about the high value the company was assigned and how someone could perhaps monetize “other ways I waste my time.” Though many of these jokes were funny, what surprised me about this was how easily Facebook time was dismissed as a “waste.”

For me, spending time on Facebook reminds me about relationships I value and helps me to do small things to maintain them, like complimenting a friend, sending a message to check in or even making plans to see each other face to face. Sometimes a friend will link to an article that inspires a bit of discussion: the kind of relational activity I’ve arranged my career to emphasize. Sure, I do other things on the site that are less than noble: the occasional bout of Bejeweled or a shameless safari through the wedding photos of a friend-of-a-friend I have never met. However, I think we dismiss the relationship-building activities we do on Facebook at our peril. 

I think the temptation to blame technology for our isolation is so appealing because it provides us an easy solution: just quit. But I suspect if I did that I’d be harder to connect with, not easier.

It’s not a surprise that a better solution lies instead in God’s word, which is full of good advice for how to build and maintain relationships and features a perfect example: God Himself. A God who “sets the lonely in families.” A God who took pity on us in our sin and loneliness and decided to come spend some time with us in the flesh, and who sent His Holy Sprit to remain with us after He left. I’m not ready to move all my relationships online, it seems that flesh matters to God and to us, but I think God has demonstrated there is more than one way to connect with each other.

What Do You Think?

  • Are Facebook and other social media a cause or symptom of loneliness?
  • What has been the relationship between social media and loneliness in your own life?
  • What other Biblical models can you think of for combating loneliness?

 

Comments (2)

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Well put. Like anything else "created" by fallen humanity in a fallen world, it can be used for good and for bad. The same thing was said about TV when I was growing up; now it's Facebook. New target, same accusation.
This was a really interesting meditation on loneliness, and thank you for recognizing that the time "wasted" on FB is often time well spent nurturing relationships. That's a problem you see in lots of areas of life. How many people consider time just "doing nothing" together a waste, online or off?

I'd like to suggest something a little radical, though: loneliness isn't a result of the Fall. Humanity is the only species God describes as even being capable of being alone; we are meant to strive after what we don't yet have. What the Fall did do is make us see this as a bad thing rather than the necessary condition for growth. (Loneliness is what makes us stretch out beyond ourselves.) And I think that's one of the great losses we have suffered: that what should be an almost pleasant yearning has become so tortuous.

Actually, there's a big part of me that wonders whether it isn't a cause of the Fall. If you read the Genesis accounts carefully you see there's a difference between what God told Adam and Adam told Eve about why she shouldn't eat from the tree. That's always struck me as a lack of trust on his part (that she didn't need protecting from the real reason - that it was good enough for him but not for her), which in many ways is the natural counterpart of that yearning for someone other than ourselves.

I wonder if that's worth considering. It seems we're all longing for someone because we are dynamic, meant to partake in God's role as creator in our own ways.

 

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