A recently released survey reveals that millennials struggle with friendships. 30% of this generation say they either always or often feel lonely, compared with 20% of Gen Xer’s and 15% of Baby Boomers. 22% of Millennials claim they have no friends, while only 9% of Baby Boomers say the same thing.
The irony of this revelation is that the Millennial generation was the first to dive headfirst into the world of social media. Those of us who are Gen Xer’s were introduced to the virtual friendship arena after we’d reached young-adulthood, and after years of developing relationships the old-fashioned way. As teenagers and young adults, we either picked a phone and called a friend, or we met that friend (and normally several more) at a mall, theater, restaurant, church, or some other venue and we spoke to one another face-to-face. Our interactions with one another didn’t travel through the medium of a screen.
The Millennial generation came of age alongside the meteoric rise of social media. Friendster, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, and Snapchat were released within a 10 year timespan, from roughly 2002-2012. This period just happened to coincide with most of those in the Millennial generation entering into their teenage years, a time when the word “friend” becomes one of the most important words in our vocabulary. Even in healthy families, there is a relationship transition in the lives of teenagers. Friends become of greater importance than parents. One’s social life takes precedence over one’s family life. Parents will fight this and insist that their teenager needs to reevaluate this way of thinking, but we’ve all been there. We would rather die than become a social outcast.
However, the Millennials quickly discovered that they were able to cultivate friendships without having to leave their bedroom. Moreover, with the simple touch of a finger to a screen, they could have hundreds, even thousands of “friends.” Their desire to have a social network was quickly filled through a virtual world. Via social media, they could keep up with the lives and latest happenings of these friends. The pictures and words posted by their online companions allowed them, so it seemed, to maintain an intimate knowledge of their peers. If asked about a friend, one could easily describe the latest events and “status” of her life: “She’s dating Bill, going to the University in the fall, and yesterday had the best hamburger she’s ever eaten at Joe’s Hamburger Shack.” On the surface, it seemed that there was a friendship with this person. Otherwise, how could you know so many details about her personal life?
This virtual world appeared to be filling the friendship tank well. Interaction with peers and feelings of popularity were gained through social media. If asked, the average Millennial could quickly let you know exactly how many “friends” they had. It would be an exact number they’d see every time they logged in to their account.
Yet, something was missing. There wasn’t the interpersonal touch. The innate need for the physical presence of another human wasn’t being met. Face-to-face conversations were replaced with face-to-screen “convos” in the strange language of texting and emojis. The widespread use of phones, apps, and texts during their years of social development, in the end, hurt their ability to develop friendships.
I believe Millennials have a broader knowledge base than any generation before them. They have information literally at their fingertips. The average Millennial knows more about everything than I did at their same age. Nevertheless, I’m convinced their emotional intelligence is much lower. They’ve not learned how to navigate relationships and the art of conversations. I’ve especially noticed this in interviewing Millennials for jobs. While there are many exceptions to this rule (we like to hire those exceptions), they are generally poor interviewers. They are uncomfortable with eye contact. They seem nervous without the protection of a screen between them and another human being. Most of all, they don’t know how to ask questions and really engage the interviewer.
Google the word, “Millennial” and click on “images.” The majority of pictures will show a group of young adults sitting together, in the same room or at the same table, but none are engaged with the people closest to them. They are all on their phones, “talking” with other “friends” or groups of “friends” in other places.
I’m not blaming this generation. I truly believe they have been conditioned by their environment. They came of age during the explosion of social media, and now they are feeling the affects of this reality: Having tons of friends, but no real companionship. If the latest research is accurate, this is an incredibly lonely generation.
If you’re part of this group, what can you do? Let me offer three suggestions that may help you fight against feeling isolated:
1. Schedule phone-free friend outings.
Maybe it’s going to dinner with friends, or a group of guys playing poker, or just getting together for coffee at someone’s house. Whatever the event, insist that everyone put their phones away and on “do not disturb.” Fine, do the thing where it’ll still ring if a favorite calls, but go ahead and set the expectation on the front end of the evening that no one will answer or respond to any calls, texts, or notifications unless it’s an emergency. Spend the time together actually together. Look at one another and talk rather than just being in the same room but with eyes glued to your phones.
2. Limit your time looking and posting.
Millennials (along with other generations) aren’t just on social media, they are always on social media. So many seem to be online virtually all the time, with very few breaks. I went to Israel recently and (because I’m cheap), didn’t get an international calling / data plan while there. Meaning, my wireless access was limited to the hours I was at the hotel in the evenings and mornings. It was wonderfully refreshing to disconnect from the online world during the day. I was better able to converse with my wife and other fellow travelers. I enjoyed my experiences more. I simply felt more present in every moment.
I try to have similar “breaks” in my life at home: intentionally putting my phone and tablet aside to better relate the the people and environment around me.
3. Focus on quality instead of quantity.
I have no data to support this, but I would bet my next several paychecks I’m right. The average Millennial has likely has twice as many “friends” on social media as the average Gen Xer, and four times as many as the average Baby Boomer. Your problem is that you are trying to keep up with your friends from elementary school, middle school, the soccer league you played in twelve years ago, your high school, college days, and the friend of a friend you made online whom you’ve never actually met but you discovered a mutual love for up-and-coming musicians. It’s too much. You can’t realistically manage that many friendships, so quit trying. You don’t have to de-friend anyone, but you don’t have to worry about pouring time and effort into so many relationships. Focus on the ones that really matter. Think about the individuals you did / would ask to be groomsmen and bridesmaids in your wedding. The ones you actually talk to on the phone. And think of those who are physically close to you. Those you can call and meet for coffee or dinner. Ask yourself: Who are the real friends you can call when there is a crisis? Who will drive to you at a moment’s notice? Nurture those relationships. Reach out to those individuals. Schedule a phone-free lunch. Or a girl’s weekend get-away. Or a guy’s golf outing. Put your time and energy into those friendships.
It saddens me to think about any one person — and even more an entire generation — feeling lonely. You and I were designed to be in community. To have and enjoy friendships. To experience companionship as we go through life together. I’m sorry that the virtual world in which we live has done more harm than good in this area of life, and I hope current and future generations will find a way to cultivate true, genuine friendships.
Kevin Mills is the Lead Pastor at Northway Church in Macon, Georgia.