A Parents Perspective
Parents worry about the amount of time that young people spend on social media. I have concerns about the nature of some of the content they might see, the hours of time wasted and the need to measure up to others they see posting online, but I have another misgiving. Being a Facebook fan myself, I love the posting and browsing; chatting and interacting and the fact that there’s a constant stream of interesting articles, stories and information. There’s always a new event where you can tick that you’re “interested” or “going”, creating a feeling of being part of a bigger picture, a member of the crowd. Chats and private groups offer a sense of inclusion and being part of something bigger. That can be a good thing and, for teenagers, it feeds into their deep desire to belong, but can there be a down side?
A few years ago I was ill for several months and would have been lost without Facebook. I talked, laughed and cried online, shared all my fears, tears, highs and lows, but it still wasn’t enough. When I was finally fit to get out and about again, I was exuberant. There is nothing in this world that replaces the human touch; that grip of a strong hand that reassures you that everything will be alright, or that face-to-face contact that can never be substituted by the online experience. When I finally escaped the confines that my sickness had imposed, I felt an irrepressible desire to get out and to connect with people. It’s a connection we all long for and that won’t be satisfied by sitting poring over a small rectangular patch of light for hours on end.
There’s a reason why physical touch and contact between human beings matters and why we’re not meant to live in isolation. Apart from being expressions of our love, joy, empathy and friendship, there are proven health and psychological benefits. Studies have shown that the release of the hormone, oxytocin, in women has a role in feelings of connectedness to their babies and that interacting with a baby can cause the child’s own oxytocin levels to increase.
A study published in American Psychologist in 2017, ‘Advancing Social Connections as a Public Health Priority in the United States’, presented a strong body of scientific evidence which suggests that being embedded in high-quality close relationships and feeling socially connected to the people in one’s life is associated with decreased risk for all-cause mortality as well as a range of disease related deaths. It’s not an altogether surprising conclusion to find that humans need others to survive. Mother Teresa, now St Teresa of Calcutta, spoke often of the great need for love in the world, once saying – “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.” We only need to look around us to see the loneliness and lack of love in society that Mother Teresa referred to. Many elderly people are treated for depression but when their symptoms don’t improve, it could be partly due to the fact that no one addressed their loneliness. The charity, Alone reported some years ago that up to 60,000 elderly people in Ireland rarely have a visit from a family member or friend. The problem of loneliness also affects younger people with the children’s charity, Jigsaw, reporting that feelings of isolation and withdrawal from others are regularly mentioned among young people seeking help.
I’d urge the parents of children who feel lonely or cut off from society to get them to abandon their phones and computers for a while and to focus on one small step that they can make towards becoming more involved in life outside their four walls. I started attending a catechism class recently in my local parish centre which my 20 year old daughter is also going to. Many events focus on youth and, while this is great, there’s something reflective of wider society in having events open to young and old. This group had a variety of different ages present and my daughter commented afterwards on really enjoying this aspect and how it was a major factor in the depth and broader range of interactions during the gatherings. It was also lovely to have the social interaction and to mix faith with friendship. While this group wasn’t set up to combat loneliness, it’s small initiatives in local parishes and communities that bridge the gap, not only between young and old but between the involved and those who feel as if they’re on the fringes.
In the first encyclical letter of his pontificate, Deus Caritas Est ( God is Love), Pope Benedict XVI talks about how seeing with the eyes of Jesus, we can give to others more than their outward necessities, we can give them “the look of love which they crave”. Going out beyond ourselves is an extension of developing an intimate relationship with God so that we start to see people with new eyes and respond to their needs including that very basic need for friendship and companionship. Not only do we benefit by reaching out to others, but by seeking to give rather than receive, we may find that the focus on our own troubles has disappeared.