Emotional Health

Social Wealth — Our Most Precious Commodity

The most rapid agent of change, accompanying and perhaps overshadowing these others, is technology. New research suggests that this factor, while giving us the illusion of ultimate “connectedness,” is contributing to loneliness and depression. Brooks writes, “In the 1980s, 20 percent of Americans said they were often lonely. Now it’s 40 percent. Suicide rates are now at a 30-year high. Depression rates have increased tenfold since 1960, which is not only a result of greater reporting.” The recent suicides within the same week of designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain underscored the fact that no one is immune from depression. Reportedly, Spade worried that her brand would suffer if she were hospitalized for emotional problems. And technology has made it possible for any negative news to spread around the globe in minutes, if not seconds.

The younger generation may be suffering the worst from the tech threat to social wealth. Jean Twenge, writing in The Atlantic, asks “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” She writes,

“More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.

Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

Kids, obsessed with their phones, are spending almost 40% less time hanging out with friends than they did in 2000. They may think they are doing this because they want to, yet the more screen time a teen reports, the more symptoms of depression they report as well. Twenge says, “Eighth graders who are heavy users of social media are 27 percent more likely to be depressed.” The converse is also true: the more time kids spend on non-screen activities, the happier they are. They are an average of 20% less unhappy than heavy users of social media.

On the plus side, the murder rate for teens has gone down. This may be because they are spending so much less time together. Unfortunately, the suicide rate has risen and has overtaken murder as a cause of death for teenagers for the first time in 24 years.

Evidence suggests that lonely people experience social media not in a spirit of connection, but isolation. They see how much fun everyone else is having, how many more friends they have on Facebook, or how many more “likes” others’ Instagram posts get. Meanwhile, often, they are invisible to us, suffering alone at home, feeling left out and miserable.

If you have millennial children, chances are you already distressed by how much time they spend hunched over their screens. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it is harmless. At the very least, it is not a substitute for face-to-face social interaction.

As adults, we need to lead the way, not follow them, the way so many of us do now with tech-savvy younger people. Do not allow cell phones to take the place of socializing, and when with others, put them away. Keep in mind how fragile social connections are—a brief email is not as good as a good long talk on the phone, or better, a cup of coffee with a friend. Just because you may be “in touch” with someone doesn’t necessarily mean you are connected to them. Above all, let’s remember to build and guard our social wealth as carefully as we would any precious commodity.

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  • Patricia Wilson August 15, 2018 at 11:13 pm

    Where and how do individuals begin to change these scenarios, at least by even small yet important measures?