Ding-dong. The electrician stepped into the house and was greeted by the pungent smell of scorched wires and melted plastic. Guided by a flashlight, he followed his nose to the den. Wisps of smoke still rose from a power strip.
"It looks like your blackout was caused by a connection problem," he said, poking at several charred cables.
"But everything's connected just fine," the puzzled homeowner countered. "I've got the computer, flatscreen TV, blu-ray player and VCR plugged into one adaptor. The Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 are in another. And both of those are inserted in a power strip, along with the stereo, lamp, treadmill, humidifier and the four chargers I need for my handheld gadgets. See? All connected!"
"Oh, you're connected alright," the electrician replied. "So how come you're sitting alone in the dark?"
In many ways, adolescents today are like that homeowner. They're the most plugged in generation in history, yet despite social networking that connects them to each other and the world around them 24/7, something's missing. They've experienced a relational power outage. And now they feel isolated in a darkness that speaker and youth expert Andy Braner writes about in his book Alone: Finding Connection in a Lonely World.
Plugged In: So tell us Andy, from your perspective what's the status of kids today—and I don't mean their Facebook status.
Andy Braner: It's loneliness. It's students who are walking through the hallways of their high school feeling all alone, through their homes feeling all alone. They just don't know who's with them.
And yet this is one of the most connected generations ever with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. How can they be the most connected generation and the loneliest?
What I'm seeing across the board when I visit high schools nationwide is kids telling me, "I don't really feel like I know those friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter. They don't really know me." That includes the athlete who might seem to garner the most attention. So as I'm working in these cafeterias—which I call my laboratory—I'm finding more and more students whose self-worth, self-identity, everything about them is being wrapped up in their social media profiles. And it's doing some harm in terms of helping kids see who they are and their place in the world.
Yeah, who they really are. As you mention in your book, they spend a lot of time trying to tailor these perfect images online, or live up to some unrealistic expectation. They're putting pressure on themselves to come across in a certain way rather than allowing themselves to be real with their peers.
It's amazing. I had a girl come up to me in a cafeteria and pull out her iPhone to show me her Instagram picture. It was something silly, and yet she had 253 likes, which is unheard of. So I go, "What gives with this?" She said that she and her friends have a pact at school that anytime one of them posts a picture on Instagram, they all like it. I immediately absorbed the weight of what she said and thought, What happens when somebody doesn't "like" it or doesn't see it? What does that do? We're watching students who base their self-worth on this illusion of who they are in their profiles on social media. And when somebody doesn't comment or re-tweet or "like" or pay attention to them, it affects what they think about themselves as they face the world.
How do most adults react when you share that with them?
What's interesting is that, when I talk to parents over the age of 35, I get this weird look that says, "What are you talking about? There's no way my kid thinks that whether somebody hits a 'like' button contributes to their self-worth." So I have to remind parents that this is the generation that doesn't know life without Facebook. They don't know life without YouTube or Google. You have to take a step back from what we know to be true about relationships, and engage with students on the level of what they know to be true about relationships. Then help and coach them through, because it's the [means by] which they're going to communicate, so we have to teach them how to use it.
You mentioned the teen who's manipulating her profile. There's no way of knowing how many kids are seeing that profile and comparing themselves, wondering what's wrong with them because they don't have as many "likes."
This is what's really going on in Facebook: We upload these great pictures of the things that we do because we want people to like us. It's the latest food, the latest celebrity, the latest party. And as we're watching that bar upload on Facebook, deep inside we know that's not the whole story. Inside we're thinking life is so meaningless. And down the street, our friend is doing the exact same thing, uploading those cool pictures and saying oh, my life is so meaningless. So then what happens is we start creeping on each other's profiles to see what everybody else is doing, and we conclude, maybe their life is better than mine. You're looking at all the pictures they just posted thinking, their life is so great and mine is so boring. And we're all alone behind that computer screen. Yet we look at our friend clicks and all of a sudden we've got 500 friends. So something's not right. Something doesn't feel like it's normal life.
How do you think the media is contributing to teens' loneliness—not social media, but the entertainment media?
I write about this in chapter three of my book when I talk about spiritual gifts. I think what we've done in our media culture is elevate the gifts [we see on] American Idol. "If I could only win American Idol, my life would be made." "If I could only be the quarterback of this professional team, my life would be made." "If I could only be rich and famous, my life would be made." We see these celebrities on their best days, and we very rarely see them on their worst days. So there's this weird idea in the teen brain that if they could only achieve celebrity status—whatever that is—then I'll make it! We have to kill that. We have to bring kids back and give them opportunities to find out what they are good at and how they can function in the success of their gift.
In your book you share an illustration from a Christmas movie whose main character feels the same isolation many kids are feeling today. Do you want to talk about that?
When I was in the process of thinking about this book, it seemed every movie I went to had a crisis of loneliness that happened before the story line elevated the protagonist to the happy ending. So I was watching Elf a couple years ago, and there's this moment when Will Ferrell is walking through the streets of New York after being so excited about the stuff he was getting to see. He kind of comes to his senses and says, "I'm all alone. I don't belong anywhere." That is what your kids are feeling. That is exactly what's going on in the hallways of the high school, that same sense of "I don't belong anywhere. I don't know who's with me" is pervasive. So I would encourage parents to not be afraid. Don't walk away and say that the world's just spinning out of control. Rather, engage your kids where they are and use those moments to teach them the life lessons that you want them to know.
Each year, Andy Braner speaks to more than 80,000 teens and college students around the world. His other books include An Expose on Teen Sex and Dating, Duplicate This! and Love This! To learn more about Andy's ministry through Camp Kivu in Durango, Colo., visit www.campkivu.com.
Published May 2013
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