Generation Lonely

The Correlations Between Technology Use and Loneliness Among “iGen”

This past summer, I had the opportunity to serve on staff at a small church camp just a few miles away from my hometown in southeastern Oklahoma. I didn’t anticipate the experience being so rich, full, and fun as it turned out to be, but I know the reasons it was: doing hard work in a community of good people goes a long way toward providing life meaning and direction.

Travelling back up to the Seattle, Washington, area to continue graduate school and begin a ten-month job with Habitat for Humanity was an abrupt transition. I was homesick and acutely missed the friends I’d made over the summer and found myself regretting the decision to again leave my home state for another multi-month stint so far away. It was only going to be another year of work and school, then I could reconfigure things—but still.

So, what did I do? I checked my phone often for texts and calls. All the talk of “fear of missing out” materialized. I was missing out every second of the day, and social media was my proof. The smartphone symbolized a sort of portal back into the community I had made at camp, but it did not foster the same sense of connection and intimacy my friends and I had built in that three-month period of service together. How could it? Technological stand-ins are no substitute for being in the presence of real people. Although I’m grateful for the technology we have, being constantly “connected” can paradoxically exacerbate feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Jean Twenge, author of the book iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, affirms this experience with her own research, writing in a recent article featured at the Institute for Family Studies, “In our recent study, teen loneliness increased between 2012 and 2018 in 36 out of 37 countries around the world, including in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and North America. The trends appeared nearly everywhere, suggesting a worldwide cause rather than localized issues.[1]

Twenge notes that this period matches the rise in popularity of the iPhone and digital communication, particularly the use of social media. Suicide and depression rates have risen drastically in the past decade as well, suggesting a correlation with digital technology use and feelings of disconnection and loneliness. Twenge also notes that even those without an iPhone or social media are lonelier than ever, since chances are, their social circles are all digitally connected. Young teens who don’t yet have social media accounts are particularly at risk for experiencing this kind of exclusion. Twenge writes, “Without a smartphone, [Paige] has few ways to communicate with her friends. When she tries to talk to her friends at school, they often take out their phones and look at them during the conversation. It’s not surprising that Paige feels lonely.”

Being a member of “iGen” myself, I can relate. When being on phones around other people is normalized, it feels nearly bizarre to just sit there and look around—some people might even wonder what the heck is wrong with you. Having a phone strapped in hand, ready to check at any given moment, is an indelible characteristic of my generation. It is always there to rescue us from any uncomfortable emotion or serve as an escape from social awkwardness, or, God forbid, the pressure to have an actual conversation with another person. The cost? We are disconnected, pathetically addicted to dopamine, and despite the Instagram followers and proliferation of “likes,” we are lonelier than ever.

In my own struggles with tech addiction, have found solace in remembering that, even across far distances, it is possible to internalize the love of family and friends even when physically alone. We do not need social media and the constant connectivity of online life to stay communally afloat in this fractured and fragmented world. Indeed, those of us who observe the Christian tradition believe that we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses,” and along with the ongoing presence of Christ in our lives, will never be left alone. Eastern Orthodox poet Scott Cairns writes of this beautifully in his essay The End of Suffering:

“Even in the midst of these, our over-busy, bustling, and distracted lives, even in our seasons of affliction and suffering, our deepest consolation lies in consciously experiencing our mystical membership in the body of Christ. Our hope lies in repairing our chronic separation from that body, and in becoming an increasingly conscious member of that body, partaking of and savoring Christ’s ever-presence. We hope to heal the wounds that keep us isolated from Him and from each other.” [2]

We can blame cell phones and social media all day for their contribution to the crisis of loneliness, and those criticisms are merited. But what can we advocate instead? According to Twenge’s research and the biblical witness, deep attachments with other people are what we all need, along with the ability to internalize love so that we can comfortably endure times of tech-free solitude. As Henry Cloud and John Townsend write in their book Boundaries, “One of the greatest boundaries you can create to stay healthy in the digital world is to have a full life. A full life is one in which you are investing your time and energy in relationships and activities that are meaningful, enjoyable, and worth engaging in.”[3]

In a way, I was fooled into thinking at without text messaging and social media, I’d lose the relationships that mattered to me. This is not true. If the relationship is secure and both parties give effort, it will survive the distance, making the occasions of reunion all the sweeter and more meaningful.

[1] Teens Are Lonelier Than Ever. What Do Smartphones Have to Do With It? | Institute for Family Studies (ifstudies.org)

[2] Cairns, Scott. The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain. Paraclete Press, Brewster, Massachusetts. 2009. p. 87.

[3] Cloud, Henry. Townsend, John. Boundaries: When to Say Yes and How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. (Updated and Expanded) Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1992, 2017. p. 235.

graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois with a degree in English Writing and is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University. He was born and raised in rural Oklahoma. 

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