Being the mother of a teenage girl, a comment I heard the other day at a conference really caught my attention. It was a person in the audience, and the comment was that 25% of young Norwegian girls are reported to be lonely. Well, I haven’t been able to verify this number, but I did some digging and it turns out that this is not only a Norwegian phenomenon. It turns out, that studies have shown that teenagers and young adults in other places too, like the UK for example where a study has recently been conducted, are reported to feeling very lonely; lonelier than many elderly feel and we already know that is a problem. In one article the term ‘generation lonely’ had even been used.
The main argument – which has also been contested – is that the Internet and social media are the reason. Apparently, people in this age group rely more on social media to interact with friends than actually seeing them in person. And by now we know that the way we interact over social media is quite different from how we communicate with each other when we see each other face-to-face.
If you ask Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, this is a major problem. One thing is the flat and one-sided personas we present to the world through social media. They affect both our own identities but also the identities of those reading our updates due to the way we compare our own messy realities with the edited lives presented by our social media friends. Another problem is that we lose the ability to really be on our own with ourselves and our thoughts, which is a good thing to be able to do for emotional and mental well-being.
Well, that’s one aspect. Another is unemployment among young adults that many countries struggle with. In another presentation I heard, young people today are also known as the ‘Net generation’. People apparently associate them with things like flexibility and precarious work, arguing that this is the way they want it. Apparently they are supposed to lead us into the future where meanings of work are going to be completely different than today. But in a study conducted in Sweden, it is young people who are most negatively affected by insecure and flexible job markets. And when asked, these young people say that all they really want is a good and secure job so that they can earn a living. Not having a job can be a very lonely experience.
Both of these aspects are definitely relevant, but I’m struck by a thought. What also comes to mind is the way we organize our children’s lives, before they become lonely young adults. Due to the false perception that the world has become a more dangerous place (despite terrorist threats and the media going wild on this topic, studies have shown that the world is actually a safer place now than it has been previously), parents limit how far they allow their kids to roam. In my neighborhood I don’t ever see kids playing in the street, like I did with my friends when I was a kid. So if kids are to see each other, play dates need to be organized first. This, in addition to the professionalization of all things that should be fun (i.e. kids’ hobbies), seem to fill up our children’s schedules to the point where it becomes difficult for them to hang out with friends after school because everyone is constantly somewhere at some sort of training, club or class that just can’t be missed.
Hmm… it kind of makes you wonder: is social media really at fault? Or are we active participants in creating lifestyles for our kids where they don’t have much choice but to limit their interactions to Internet solutions? After all, as parents we set the standards.