Socially alone

Socially lonely?

One question I often get from parents of Gen Z’s after they hear of my dabbling with digital theology is: What can I do? My child is always hooked on their mobile device! I am afraid there is something wrong with them! The aim of this short reflection is to try to answer whether we should be worried that our youth are socially alone or rather they are teaching us a new ecclesiology?

Very often us adults tend to diss the younger generation as being a-socially, lonely and slave to their mobile devices. However, as research tells us, we cannot be further away from the truth. Our teenagers, known as Generation Z (Gen Z) tend to experience presence in absence when present presence isn’t possible.

You might be questioning what I mean by that statement. If one were to look at our human history, we always attempted to be present to each other through our technology: against the geographic limitations we invented letters, and against the time limitations we invented biographies (just to name but two examples). Humankind’s solution to beat the space and time distance was to invent new technologies.

Bridging the social gap

It is in this understanding that we are to interpret Gen Z’s fascination with their mobile devices. I am purposely not limiting to social media to avoid the risk that one limits the interpretation of social media to the usual suspects (Facebook and Instagram). In their devices, Gen Zd find a lifeline through which “they are able to maintain and enhance a social presence together amidst the loneliness and social isolation” which real life might be presenting them.

To understand the above, imagine yourself at a dinner party surrounded by people who make you feel out of your comfort zone. You are surrounded by people, but not necessarily enjoying yourself, and surely not with people you count as friends. A Gen Z’s solution would be to take out their mobile device and bring their friends into their situation. Through their devices they mediate their ‘real’ friends into the real life. This is one thing which really confuses us Millennials. Gen Zs prefer to practice a selective sociality which allows them to choose their friends, even amongst their own physical friends.

What I mean by the last phrase is that while for us Millennials, when one observes a group of friends it is safe to assume that they are all deeply involved with each other’s lives. On the other hand, a group of Z’s can stick together and share ‘real life’ experiences but are not really friends. They tend to have fewer real friends and don’t necessarily need to be from their geographic boundaries.

Moreover, a breeding ground for such deeper relationships would be video-games (Yes I’m mentioning again games!). Very often you would hear people snubbing gamers as lonely people, but research suggests that “video games play a critical role in the development and maintenance of boys’ friendships.” PEW’s research (2015) shows that 89% of gamers play with their friends, and 84% of boys and 62% of the girls researched report that they feel closer to their existing friends through gaming.

Given the above, it is evident that this generation asks of us, to re-think our ways of doing youth work. We cannot see the mobile device as an enemy to fostering relationships, but rather as a wide gateway to fostering and extending meaningful relationships. Let us remember that teenagers seek to “turn every public space into a place of private gathering between them and their friends.” In other words, to quote youth theologian Andrew Zirschky: “just as proximity doesn’t create presence, so lack of proximity doesn’t have to prevent presence!”

Gen Z’s require of us youth workers to invest time in their relationships. We tend to make time to help when a crisis hits the fan, but Zerres need us to invest in ‘phatic communication.’ A quick cursory look at how they live on socials, one can see that most of the communication is just to acknowledge one’s presence and affirm it with a reaction: in other words, creating a sense of connectedness and personal availability and binds together. Emoticon reactions, GIFs et al, are all fine exemplars of such communication. Less emphasis on the content but more on the “belonging, security, and identity they impart.” Theologian Kenda Dean summarises this existential search: a “deeply spiritual search for another who knows what it’s like to be ‘me’.”

A mundane chattery curated social life

This brings us to a theological theme which is very important when dealing with our youth. Just as God the Father is interested in mundane things – Cf: the hairs are counted (Lk 12:7), we as youth ministers are called to be interested in their mundane chattery life. Gen Z’s world is overwhelmingly inundated with information, but our calling is to be attentive to their chatter.

And this chattery lifestyle brings us to what I believe is a new ecclesiology, or rather, a re-interpretation of Pope Francis’ field hospital ecclesiology. He invites us ministers to be with our congregation, and more so to share the pains of those around us. In essence there is nothing new in what the pope is saying: being attentive to the needs of the other is the main tenant in Christianity. What might be new is the interpretation. If one observes general Christian behaviour (I apologise for the generalisation) we tend to practice our Gospel-inspired values in the big traumatic events, but this generation invites us to be attentive to the whole selves. I use selves (plural) because social media has fragmented our self (if there was ever one self) and thus, this generation more than any other, continuously reminds us to think of koinonia beyond the space and time but really embrace, inhabit and incultarate the digital.

Very often we use social media a-socially: imparting information. However, they demand, need even, the presence of a caring person, who is not only interested in helping them in their traumatic events but is really interested in their mundane life. Thus rather than dissing the overtly social curated life they end up building, we are to embrace this technological shift and incarnate the Gospel on the socials. Hence, rather than seeing the excessive use of mobile devices, as escaping the real, let us start seeing it as embracing the Real, and rather than seeing video-game usage as being an isolation exercise, start to see it as a deep way (possibly deeper than what they can do in real life) of fostering relationships.

Gen Z puts us at the crossroads of re-thinking ourselves. What will our response be?

This reflection was inspired after reading Andrew Zirschky's Beyond the Screen. 
In fact any non-referenced quotes are from this highly recommended book.
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