“Social-networking sites like Facebook promise to connect us to friends. But the portrait of iGen teens emerging from the data is one of a lonely, dislocated generation,” Twenge said in a September 2017 article for The Atlantic. “Teens who visit social-networking sites every day but see their friends in person less frequently are the most likely to agree with the statements ‘A lot of times I feel lonely,’ ‘I often feel left out of things,’ and ‘I often wish I had more good friends.’ Teens’ feelings of loneliness spiked in 2013 and have remained high since,” Twenge said.
The Culture Project itself started out as a community of friends that came together, bonding over the fact that they had tried the culture’s path to happiness in various ways and had found it wanting, Barba noted.
Instead of “sitting around and moaning” about it, Barba said that group of friends decided to do something to make a difference. They started living in community, and forming the mission of The Culture Project, which gives talks to teens throughout the country about chastity and living lives of sexual integrity.
But while community has been a “key pillar” for The Culture Project, they’ve found that technology has made it so that teens today do not know how to form community or even friendships among themselves, let alone romantic relationships.
“We’ve had parents coming to us and say, ok it’s great that you’re talking about virtue and dating, but my kids don’t even know what it means to have a friend. Can you talk about friendship?”
Today’s teens are a generation that has been raised on the internet and social media, Barba said, which means that their idea of friendship equates to that of a follower.
“It’s like a show that you’re putting on,” she said, “it’s people that follow you and people that you follow. It’s not an interaction, the only interaction is to make others jealous, or to be cooler than or to prove yourself. There isn’t actually a meeting of common interests, or someone you do stuff together with, someone you care about. All of those things are lost through social media at a young age.”
'Encounter' as a solution
Culture Project missionaries address the friendship crisis in multiple ways throughout their encounters with teens, Barba said. One of the most effective ways to address this crisis has been simply modeling authentic, healthy friendships among the Culture Project teams.
“It’s actually them seeing the interactions of our missionaries - a couple guys who are normal, fun, attractive young men and women who are a little bit older than them...and they see these people interacting and it’s a beautiful, healthy, normal dynamic of friendship,” she said. “What we model in our interactions is what is profound and shocking to them.”
They also take the time to address social media, and bring to their students’ attention how much time they are probably spending on social media, and how it could be impacting their relationships.
Pornography and sexting - major pitfalls for young adults in a technology driven world - are also important to address.
The idea is not to bash technology, which is a neutral tool, Barba said, but to raise awareness of how addicted they have likely become to their devices, and to offer practical tips to counter that with more human interaction in their lives.
“We just bring to their attention - what are the ways that we use this? And wow, how many hours a day am I really on that?”
The challenge students to do media fasts - whether that’s an hour a day, or even a week, that they don’t use social media, and see how they feel during that time.
They also challenge them to fill that time with real human interaction - and they’ve had to come up with basic friendship guidelines to teach students how to do this.
“We’re literally making suggestions - and I just have to laugh - it’s the way people need dating guides right now, but it’s like friendship guides,” Barba said. “Like what do friends do? You could meet and go to the mall. You could meet and go to the movies. You could meet and go for a walk. I’m not even kidding.”
While the problem is not one that is easily fixed, Barba said she and her missionaries have found that little efforts can make a big difference.
“I think even just providing a space for young people, whether its a physical space or an event, but providing activities they can do together,” she said.
“It’s so basic, just basic human things, like families and parents spending time together. Or basic community, what parish life used to be or should be - people living near each other, that care about each other, that worship together, that have fun together, that have meals together, things like that,” she said.