Social media and its associated subcultures have become a proxy for the in person socialization our human psyches actually require. But it isn’t an adequate substitute, by any measure. I posit adolescent girls have been the hardest hit by the worsening trend of social isolation, due to their specific developmental need for social connection and personal differentiation. What others have referred to as an epidemic of loneliness is not new to the smartphone era, though the last decade has exponentially worsened it, but is more fundamentally the result of generations of economic and social restructuring.
We’re becoming more secular and less inclined to attend religious services, which this atheist initially saw as progress, but this trend is yet another loss of social connection and community. A church is a network of human beings sharing a moral core and purpose as well as important life events together, not simply worshipping creepy old books. And we have yet to find a secular equivalent. Sports and sports team allegiance provide a similar sense of purpose and belonging, albeit more superficially, but sports have become regarded as dangerous and fewer kids play. In fact, play in general has become more isolated and sterilized. No child has yet to break their arm or get a concussion playing Minecraft.
We spend so much time alone. Even people who live in traditional ‘nuclear’ family homes do not interact with one another nearly as much as we used to, not now that everyone has a personally cultivated network of entertainment, information, and fellow ‘users’ inside their handheld computer. Even those of us who live in dense cities and commute via public transit; our ears are muted to the people around us as we listen to the media of our choice and stare into the screen as soon as our feet stop moving. We are lonely and we usually don’t notice it because we’re so distracted with digital input.
What we find in our smartphones is a world of likeminded people. People who ‘get’ us. People who have similar grievances, experiences, struggles, passions. This is especially intoxicating to teenagers who may not have strong social bonds in their physical worlds. Teenage girls especially, who are more socially driven than their male peers, are fulfilling that normal impulse for group inclusion and personal identification ever more intensely via virtual means.
One of these online groups is especially appealing because it provides a set of moral codes, an immediate ‘us vs. them’ framework, and promises relief from normal adolescent psychological suffering. Not only this, but it’s celebrated by mainstream media. An announcement of trans identification comes with showers of love, support, and attention. Any skepticism or criticism is the result of ‘hate’ and ‘bigotry’ from those you have already learned to identify as the enemy. All one has to do to permanently solidify inclusion is transition.
If this sounds alarmist think about any other ‘alternative’ adolescent trend. They carry the same motifs and serve the same purpose; personal differentiation as well as group inclusion along with a strong sense that outsiders and certainly parents not being able to understand. This one is just taken to a level previously unseen because we are seeing the distillation and distribution power of social media combined with the righteous fervor of a civil rights cause. If only therapists trained in human psychology and stages of development could start to see this for what it is.