A recent newspaper article began with the observation of families in a restaurant who were so absorbed by socializing with their remote contacts that they were oblivious to each other. They placed their orders and ate together, but didn’t share any conversation.
The article had the seemingly ironic title: “Social media: the age of disconnection”. We are beginning to learn that this always-on connectivity is addictive, but not nurturing. The relentless participation in social media too often leads to a growing distance from those around us. The unmet need for rich interaction raises the alarm feeling of disconnection. The feeling of disconnection has always been with us, but now we find it entering our lives in new ways that affect far more people. Worst of all, we are feeding our children this new trend of being social, but disconnected from those around us, without any awareness of the long-term consequences for individuals, families, and society.
This is not an argument against social media; it certainly brings people together in new ways. But its indiscriminate use takes us down a dangerous path.
We are family
The family is the most fundamental community, from which children begin to extend themselves out into the world. Parents are wholly dependant on their attachment investment to be allowed to help their children navigate the world. Young people, teenagers especially, often temporarily distance themselves from their family as they sort through the internal turmoil that is a part of growing up. During these times there is often little that parents can do except to continue modelling what they consider to be socially acceptable behaviour. When a family cannot even put aside their external connections long enough to be truly together for a meal, an intimate act of sharing and nurturing bonds, we have to question whether they are really a family.
We have to stop hurtling through the day long enough to acknowledge each other’s presence and reaffirm our mutual importance. We check the condition of those around us, the unsaid things, even as we check ourselves. Our undivided attention feeds the others as much as the meal we share. We are re-energized by the reaffirmation of our belonging. No amount of text can replace the depth of what we receive from our being together and engaged.
Unfortunately in the opening story, the parents are showing their children that peers are more valuable than partners, children, and siblings. Their actions are showing that maintaining dozens or even hundreds of virtual connections is more important than acknowledging those around us. They are allowing their children to be nurtured by outsiders on a diet devoid of essential nutrients. They cannot nurture, or be nurtured, without noticing and being noticed by each other.
Children need strong families
One of the biggest factors in forming strong bonds is simply the amount of time we spend together. Families such as those above are neglecting their familial bond in favour of their extra-familial connections. We all need tangible engagement to feel real. Children will seek it elsewhere if this is not available at home. When the going gets tough, how will these families hold together? Without practising togetherness each will continue to look outside the family. However, these external, social connections may not always have their best interests truly at heart and certainly lack the deep internal bond that simple togetherness creates.
How will the parents have any hope of helping their children learn to make good choices? Even strong families struggle through various stages of growing up and growing old. We certainly do not want to avoid these inevitable and necessary storms. But the only real leverage a parent has is a strong bond that has been carefully nurtured over many years of building and maintaining trust. This requires us to be fully present, physically and mentally.
Strong families make strong societies
The relationships that we nurture with our children and our partner are the models they will carry with them as they venture out on their own. Placing a low value on togetherness will lead them to do the same.
With whole societies hungering to feed their deep need for affirmation, yet all trained to look in the wrong places, we are leaving our children at the mercy of the quick fixes: unchecked consumption, increasingly risky behaviour, lack of perseverance (and therefore depth and richness) in relationships. We will lack any real resilience to weather the inevitable storms of life. When we constantly seek satisfaction outside of ourselves we cannot know ourselves or our passions. And then no one else can know us either. Obsessed by an infantile “feed me” nature, we will be unable to transcend ourselves to recognize our unique gifts in meaningful contribution. It is up to us to model moderation and self-restraint when using social media.
Do you know of families that heading down the path of disconnection? How are you balancing real engagement with social chatter? Share your experience here.