Technology Has Changed How We Relate – Part One

I was away on my annual holiday for three weeks in July. And, every morning over my first cup of coffee I wrote a group text to everyone in my home church. Most were not aware that I was away and not at home in my office. It led me to think and briefly research how technology is changing the way we relate to the people in our lives. As we explore these ways, consider how each applies to your life and how you are using technology and social media to relate to others. 

1> The term “friend”is evolving

It used to be that when someone said another person was a friend, you understood exactly what they meant. A friend was someone who shared common interests or bonds, someone you enjoyed being around, someone you did life with. But it’s not that simple anymore, is it? Now a friend can be someone you’ve never met IRL (in real life). Friends can be people who follow what you post on social media. If they follow you, and you don’t follow them back, that’s one kind of friend. If you follow them, but they don’t follow you, that’s another kind of friend. And if you both follow each other, that’s yet another kind of friend. 

Currently, the average Facebook user has 338 friends. But surveys indicate that the average person has only two friends they consider to be close. As shocking as that statistic is, there is one that is even sadder: 25 percent of people in North America today say they have zero close friends! The struggles are real. Does it really matter that you have 338 Facebook friends if you have no one to share your life with? And I’m not even talking about the kind of friend who listens as you pour your heart out or share your latest struggles, Many people no longer have friends they can hang out with or who can drop by unannounced as a welcome surprise. (When was the last time you did that to someone, or they did it to you? Doesn’t it sound intimidating?) Technology supposedly saves us time, yet we seem to have even less time — at least for really relating to people. We have lots of online interactivity, but that doesn’t mean we have any personal intimacy.

Friends just doesn’t mean what it used to.

2> We’re addicted to immediate affirmation

Let’s say you were at home alone back in the old days (ten years ago), and you started feeling a little lonely. What would you do? You might pick up the phone and call a friend. You might even make arrangements to get together. You might walk outside and visit with your next-door neighbour. Any of these were reasonable choices, and they were all pretty easy, right? Apparently, they just weren’t easy enough.

What do we do today when we feel lonely? Text a friend, post an update, or share an old favourite picture. If you’re feeling really creative, we’ll surf for items to pin to Pinterest or make a new YouTube video. We might take a picture of our homemade chocolate chip cookies (gluten free, no GMO, hand-whittled, and carved from organic cocoa) and share it on Instagram. Or we Vine or Tic Tok a little clip about being bored.

Then there’s my favourite. If we’re really bored and lonely, we always have ourselves. That’s right, we can snap a selfie, right there on the couch. It we’re really motivated, we might even go into the bathroom and fix ourselves up a little first, then snap a selfie in the bathroom mirror. We tousle our hair, puff out our lips (duck face), and tilt our heads, snapping picture after picture, trying to get the light just right, determined to achieve a ‘perfect’ shot. We might even go as far as to wear our trendiest clothes, find a local you-wish-you-knew-where-I-was ally, and let the self-timer rip.

But we don’t have to stop there. We can touch up the photo, tweak the lighting a little more, maybe use a filter. We are nowhere near perfect, but we can manipulate images, apps, and filters to create an image of ourselves that’s perfect for the moment. And don’t forget the all-important caption. Is it inspirational? Clever, but not too obviously clever? We can even add a Bible verse for extra ‘Likes.’ Once all is in place we can post it. Then we can compulsively check our updates, hoping to hit the ‘Likes’ jackpot. 

Even if you don’t hit it big, we may score some fun comments. You know, things like: 

    • “Lookin’ good!”
    • “Love that shirt! Where’d ya get it???”
    • “omgosh amazing *swoons*”
    • “where r u? Totes adorbs!! [sexy, smiling emoji]”

We often get immediate feedback. But the problem with this kind of immediate feedback, this quick affirmation, is that it’s addicting. Even when we know it’s shallow, even when we don’t believe the sender is sincere in their flattery, we still love receiving it. To be fair, it’s not our fault. Scientists say that receiving positive affirmation like this release dopamine, a chemical in our brains that gives us a kind of euphoric feeling, a little rush. Just like similar drugs, we can get addicted to that high.

If you don’t believe me, consider the last time you posted a selfie and didn’t get much response — at least in the first hour. Do you remember having an empty feeling and thoughts like these running through your mind?

    • “Where is everyone? What’s up with that?”
    • “How many have clicked on it? Did they ‘Like’ it?”
    • “Who ‘Liked’ it?”
    • “Why didn’t she ‘Like’ it? She never ‘Likes’ my pictures. I’m going to stop ‘Liking’ hers. Just keep that up sister, and you’re gonna get yourself unfollowed.”

Many of us are addicted to immediate affirmation. What is this addiction doing to us? How is it affected our relationships?

Sociologists call all this “deferred loneliness.” We’re trying to meet some short-term need, but in the process of meeting this need, we’re deferring a deeper, longer-term need. We are meant to have deep, sometimes difficult feelings of loneliness to motivate us toward the kinds of contact with others that meet our deepest, long-term needs. Every time we seek instant affirmation, we ignore our basic human condition of loneliness and the opportunity of loneliness that drives us toward real friendship, real intimacy, first with God and then with others.

So our addiction to instant gratification can stunt our relationships. We’re living for ‘Likes,’ but we’re longing for love. 

More next time …