Our relationships with others fulfill some of our deepest desires to belong, to be known, to be affirmed in who we are and our place in the world. There is no amount of material wealth that can fill the void that friendship, romantic love, and faithfulness can. The western world places career, fame and academic success on a pedestal creating the illusion that achievement and notoriety will fill our deepest longings. Many people have clawed and climbed their way to the top of financial mountains or have reached the highest echelons of academic achievement but are nonetheless relationally bankrupt. Thus, they lack any true form of sustainable happiness. Perhaps it is this lack of life giving, relationships that drive so many seemingly successful people to the black hole of substance abuse.
Here in lies the most profound reason internet media, such as social media, gaming and pornography are so enticing because they pray on our most fundamental longings and desires. They bombard us with connection and conquest, but to no stainable end where relationship and happiness flourish. It is not the media content or platforms themselves that causes dysfunctional media consumption but rather the gaping void that no amount of likes, friend requests, gaming achievements, rankings or pornography can fill. A loyal friend who stands between us and the hardships of life is worth its weight in gold. However, digital media draws us away from true connection by blasting us with instant reward in exchange for our most valuable asset, our time. When digital connection replaces real life relationship where intimacy is experienced society loses. Digital media tells us that connection is the same as relationship. People see the thousands of friends they have amassed, users witness live the likes and feedback they get for their photo uploads, they collect followers, and even masturbate to a never ending entourage of filmed prostitution performing whatever their lust desires but the need to be known and belong remains.
Research proves that investing time in relationships and community yields high returns in the form of good health, happiness and life satisfaction. It is proven that people who are motivated by the need for intimacy with others report not only higher levels of happiness, but also a healthier sense of well-being, which leads to the formation of more meaningful relationships and enriched social life. Investing our time in friends and community is not only good for our mental well-being, it also has a dramatic effect on our overall physical health. Research reveals that a lack of caring relationships is damaging to our mental and physical health, which rivals the dangers of well-documented health risks, such as: high blood pressure, obesity, cigarette smoking and lack of regular exercise. Further research has shown that people who have weak and limited social ties are statistically more likely to be diagnosed with a cardiovascular disease, cancer and report slower recovery from injuries. Thus, it may not be very surprising to discover that people with weak social ties are at a far greater risk of dying prematurely than those who steward healthy meaningful relationships. A meta-analytic review of a 148 independent studies reveal that social ties are a key predictor of mortality indicating that those who are committed to increasing their social capital are 50 percent more likely to live to their golden years than those who are not.
Life is a beautiful struggle. There is no way to get around the fact that we face resistance along our journey to self-actualization. It is with in this struggle that many of our most meaningful relationships are forged. We always remember the person who stood up for us when we faced injustice, the people who came to our rescue when tragedy struck or the faithful friend that stood by our side when adversity called our name. It is in these moments that the value of our social capital is revealed. However, technology is fundamentally changing the way young people cope with the world around them. Building relationships is hard work. It requires us to invest our time, to become vulnerable and to take risk by trusting others to lovingly receive who we are in daily life.
There is a Chinese proverb that refers to friends as those I have sat down with and consumed an entire sack of salt. The moral is clear, it takes time and investment to get to know the depths of the person you call friend. Internet media offers instant connection with no risk. I can scroll through various social media profiles of those in my “friend network” for hours without end. I can engage in highly stimulating virtual worlds connected to people around the world. I can even consume sex from an unlimited supply of people who will never know my name or see my face. Young people are given the opportunity to temporarily tune out their problems, feelings, anxieties, stress, depression, etc. through dopamine reward. Every social media, gaming platform and especially pornography functions on the principle of instant dopamine reward because the longer youth are online the more money the industry makes and the less youth learn that real life encounters that lead to lasting sustainable relationships not connection bombardment is the best way to cope with inevitable struggles of life.
Here are three tips we recommend for helping youth build meaningful connection offline:
Have them make a list of peers and families that they see on a regular basis.
Identify those that carry the values that are important to them (kindness, integrity, inclusive, see others).
Come up with a plan to build more shared experiences with those kids and families (hosting events at your house, planning hiking adventures, inviting families over for dinner, etc.) Be a force of opportunity for these relationships to grow.
It starts with intentionality and ends with with being the change we want to see.