On But Alone

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, June 22, 2015

On But Alone

The Net Generation has come of age constantly exposed to computer-based technology. They do life differently than any other generation; the way they think, learn, play, interact, communicate, purchase, build wealth, create … it’s all different from the way previous generations went about the same tasks. And not only is this transforming our minds, but also the very nature of our relational world.

But what does this mean?

While we live in a world that is “always on,” the heart of the change to our relational lives is simple: “We spend more time alone than ever before.”

And apparently, more time doing nothing.

Studies show that for people under the age of thirty, the Web is mostly a time killer. On any given day, 53 percent of all the young adults ages eighteen to twenty-nine go online for no particular reason except to have fun or pass the time. So what is isolation and waste doing to us?

More than you might imagine.

As Maggie Jackson titled one of her books on the matter, we are distracted. Relationally distracted. Her lament is simple: How did we get to the point where we keep one eye on our Blackberry and one eye on our spouse – in bed? How did we get to the point where we tweet on vacation, text during family dinners, read emails during meetings and classes, and learn about our spouse’s day on Facebook?

Of course how we got to this point may not be as important as what it is doing to us. Jackson’s conclusion is direct: “The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention – the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress.” Studies bear out her concern.

According to the psychological research of Larry Rosen of California State University, teens who spend an abundance of time on social networks like Facebook are more likely to show narcissistic tendencies and display signs of other behavioral problems. Specifically, they become more prone to vain, aggressive, antisocial behavior. It’s certainly giving rise to new forms of harassment, from cyber-stalking to cyber-bullying.

The 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study also found that heavy media use, amplified and energized by the internet, is associated with behavior problems, poor grades and obesity. According to the study, the “heaviest media users were also more likely to report that they were bored or sad, or that they got into trouble, did not get along well with their parents and were not happy at school.”

Perhaps one of the more intriguing studies related to the way the internet affects our behavior researched the relationship between texting and lying. A study published in 2012 in the Journal of Business Ethics found that people are more likely to lie via text than any other form of communication, such as when compared to face-to-face communications, video conferencing, or audio chat. The researchers say that lying via text makes intuitive sense because it is known as lean media, which means it doesn’t convey the important emotional cues that signal someone may be lying – such as stuttering, twisting your hands nervously, or darting your eyes. When lying is covered up by lean media, it opens the door of temptation to lie even more.

So it isn’t simply that the new media are changing how we do life, they are changing the very character of our lives. We do not simply text each other; who we are to each other changes because we text.

In the past we have called ourselves a race of Homo sapiens, which means “thinking beings.” Lee Siegel suggests that perhaps we should consider a new name: Homo interneticus. Our primary identity is quickly becoming “connected beings.”

But all this connecting seems to have left us feeling more alone than ever before.

On … but alone.

James Emery White


Adapted from James Emery White, The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker). Click here to order this resource from Amazon.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.