Opinion | We’re in a Loneliness Crisis: Another Reason to Get Off Our Phones

Both Richtel’s article and another article released the same week by The Times highlight the emerging trend of people having romantic relationships with fictional characters, rather than human beings. There is evidence that teenagers are consuming more pornography, even as fewer are having sex. In a piece for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson highlights the growing concern that screen habits are displacing beneficial experiences for kids, noting that compared with the early 2000s, teenagers are less likely to “go out with their friends, get their driver’s license or play youth sports.” They are also less likely to get enough sleep.

“Children today spend less time outdoors than any other generation,” the National Recreation and Park Association reports, “devoting only four to seven minutes to unstructured outdoor play per day while spending an average of seven and a half hours in front of electronic media. ” I realized recently that I can identify more apps by sight than species of trees.

We are made to enjoy the physical presence of other human beings. We are made to enjoy rainstorms or sunshine or walks in the woods. We are made to enjoy touchable things. We cannot escape or overcome this need through technology. Our attempts to do so go against the grain of our deepest human needs and longings.

Claims that we can fundamentally alter how human beings have learned, lived and interacted together in essential institutions and activities like education, worship, friendships, dating, communities, work and parenting without large unforeseen social consequences smacks of the hubris and reductionism that told us to throw out apples and make way for processed fruit snacks. But instead of yielding increases in heart disease and cancer, this revolution gives rise to social disintegration and pathologies of the soul.

Reading Pollan, I’m struck by how there is something irreducibly mysterious about the way food nourishes us. Pollan points out that traditional ways of eating are good for us in ways that scientists do not understand. He says that oceans of ink have been spilled analyzing the Mediterranean or French diet “hoping to identify the X factor of its healthfulness.” But the “whole” of traditional eating is “evidently greater than the sum of its parts.” It simply cannot be reduced, measured and engineered without losing something essential to health.

In the same way, I think we are finding that there is something essential and mysterious — dare I say, holy — about human beings interacting in person and with the natural world that simply cannot be replicated in virtual reality.

So what do we do? In his book “Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing,” Andy Crouch writes, “Perhaps the two best beginning moves, for those of us swaddled in affluence and intoxicated by our technology, are into the natural world — the world of stars, snow and rain, trees and deserts — and into the relational world — the world of real bodies and heartbeats, hands and faces.”

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