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‘A pattern of loneliness’

Recently, a fellow church member who captains a boat invited Ed and me and 16 fellow church members to a Sunday afternoon excursion in the Buffalo Harbor. Buffalo has been spending much time and money to rejuvenate its harbor and Lake Erie shore area, and it is thriving once more.

One can rent pedal boats and kayaks at “Canalside.” Dozens of people had done so on that bright afternoon, despite a stiff wind. I found it fascinating to watch the kayakers and boaters. The boats came in every conceivable size and style, some very impressive, some not so much. But no matter the conveyance, everyone seemed to be having a great time, interacting with each other and enjoying the sights.

Well, almost everyone. As we passed groups of kayakers, two young guys had pulled their kayaks near the dock, their crafts rocking from the wake of boats like ours. They sat in two kayaks facing each other, all the better to talk to each other, I thought. But they weren’t talking. They weren’t even looking at each other. Each, oblivious to his friend, had a cell phone in hand which was occupying his full attention. Shortly after, we passed a large sailboat whose adults on board laughed and talked (and waved) while one young lady sat up near the bow, shoulders scrunched, head down, texting away on her phone.

Now I admit I may no longer be called “young” (I’m approaching a milestone birthday that involves getting Medicare and Social Security). I grew up not only before the computer age but in a home without even a TV: my staunchly Reformed father was convinced that we five children could live, and live better, without one. Nevertheless, I haven’t been living a cave these last decades. I know that what I saw happening there in the Buffalo Harbor happens all the time these days, in all kinds of settings. Yet whenever I see it it’s disconcerting and, yes, disheartening.

The sights to be seen were passing by the texters; and, in the case of the two young men, the presence of a live, real-voiced, flesh-and-blood friend to share the afternoon with didn’t seem to matter. To each, the friend in front of him took a backseat to some other disembodied friend or friends whose words were coming to him in short electronic bursts. Or maybe they were catching up on late-breaking news; but somehow I doubt it; and that wouldn’t have been any better.

iGeneration
Yes, that kind of non-interaction is foreign to me, and I don’t like it. It strikes me as rude to one’s fellows, the more so if some people in a group aren’t fixated on their phones, but a few are and ignore those who aren’t. My own opinions aside, however, there is increasing evidence that constant cell phone use is not just physically detrimental, but mentally and socially as well.  

Psychologist Jean Twenge (San Diego State) has been studying the “iGeneration,” people born since 1995 – the first generation to grow up with smartphones throughout their adolescence. Twenge’s research can be summed up in the title of her most recent article: “How Smartphones are Making Kids Unhappy” (look for it online). Today’s teenagers are physically safer than ever, she says. But they’re unhappier than any previous generation. Twenge herself was startled when extensive interviews she did over time revealed that a “pattern of loneliness” she was seeing “suddenly began to increase around 2012,” the first year the majority of Americans owned smartphones. I find it the height of irony that a device invented to increase communication, close by and around the world, has become an obsessive instrument of isolation.       

I don’t envy the job of Christian parents who must confront that scenario. It seems harder than ever to allow our children to be in the world while not of it. But we will surely find solace if we pray Jesus’s words with him, addressed to the Father, “I am not asking that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15). 

  • Marian Van Til is a former CC editor who lived in Canada from 1975-2000. She now freelances for journals and writes books. Marian is also a classical musician and the music director at a Lutheran Church. She and her husband, Ed Cassidy, live in Youngstown, NY.

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