by Andrew Zirschky
Editor’s Note: Read Teens and Social Technology: Searching for Intimacy – Part 1 and Part 3 here.
Teenagers don’t want technology, they want what technology promises: Meaningful access to real people and relationships. This was our conclusion in Part 1 of this series as we surveyed the findings of recent ethnographic research on teenagers and social technology. We found that the rise of social media points to an adolescent hunger—not for new and novel gadgets—but for relational intimacy not easily discovered in the disconnected landscape of modern American society—or in many of our churches, for that matter.
Drawing from both theology and developmental psychology, youth minister and practical theologian Kenda Dean sheds light on this adolescent desire for intimacy so poignantly expressed by today’s teenagers through their use of social media. Despite popular misconceptions, intimacy is not identical with sexuality. Rather, Dean clarifies intimacy as “the deeply spiritual search for another who knows what it is like to be ‘me.’” Along with a desire for fidelity and transcendence, this search for intimate knowledge is at the core of the adolescent quest for identity. What teenagers are dying for, says Dean, is “someone who will be there for them, someone who can draw them beyond themselves into the mystery of ‘we’, someone who is “one” with them and therefore holds out the gift of ‘being known.’”
It is in their quest to know and be known that teenagers are increasingly turning to social networking, text messaging, and other forms of digital communication. Young people’s online search for intimacy, and the belonging and identity that cohere to it, is driven in part by the “absence-in-presence” they experience daily. Ride the subway in New York and you’ll encounter a perfect example of absence-in-presence through people who are physically present but emotionally and spiritually detached from one another. Whether engrossed in a newspaper or simply their own thoughts, New Yorkers have honed the ability to ride inches from other human beings without making eye contact or even acknowledging the others’ existence. Riding the subway is a truly amazing experience that confirms that mere proximity doesn’t create intimacy. But New Yorkers aren’t alone in their practice of absence-in-presence. The rest of us have generated similar skills though often hidden under a thin veneer of social pleasantry. While pleasant conversation ensues at the grocery checkout or the restaurant counter, this is far different than the intimate knowing that we long for. Even in our homes, neighborhoods, and churches, the lives of most Americans are pervaded by shallow interactions, devoid of the intimacy of knowing and being known that we all truly seek. All this has led Cambridge theologian David Ford to say that Western young people are inheriting “a faceless” face-to-face society in which daily interactions with others are so impersonal and distanced that establishing intimacy and identity is nearly impossible. The human desire for intimacy with God and others is divinely appointed, but we find ourselves in a defaced society where we are not deeply known by another.
Teenagers experience this acutely. Whether walking through the mall or down the hallway at school, they are constantly surrounded by others and yet experience the profound reality of being totally alone. In our society it’s possible to be physically surrounded by others and yet to find oneself both alone and utterly unknown even in the places that one frequents.
In the absence of opportunities for substantive face-to-face intimacy, young people seek this intimacy through constant connection and sheer volume of communicated messages. Social media allows them to turn the absence-in-presence bequeathed to them into its opposite form: presence-in-absence. Through Facebook and Twitter status updates, text messages, and other forms of digital communication, teenagers emit a constant live stream or “feed” of their lives, as if they believe that if they can send just enough information, someone will “know what it’s like to be me,” and some form of relational intimacy will take root.
In effect, what teenagers are doing is lifecasting. You may have heard of Justin Kan, who in 2007 attached a wireless video camera to his head and begin broadcasting his entire life online for whomever wanted to watch. The point was for viewers to see and hear what Kan himself experienced in order to understand what it was like to be Justin Kan. His experiment was short lived, but it spawned a small movement of people who broadcast mundane portions of their daily lives online via sites like Justin.tv. It’s unlikely that any of your teens are streaming video of their lives online, but I would contend that almost all of them are doing something similar to lifecasting. Instead of employing video they use status updates, text messages, blog posts, tweets, and instant messaging to broadcast their lives in a search for intimacy, for another who knows what it’s like to be me.
That teenagers are searching for meaningful relationships through online communication might seem like a ridiculous notion to anyone who has actually analyzed the content of teenagers’ digital messages. By all accounts their texts, Facebook wall posts, and Twitter feeds are nearly devoid of meaningful (or at least decipherable) content. But that’s not the point. It’s not the content of each individual message, but the cumulative effect that establishes and strengthens deep relationships. Most teens are in constant contact with a small group of friends maintaining presence-in-absence through a bevy of text messages and wall posts. In the research interviews I’ve conducted with teens, many describe how they maintain one ongoing conversation with friends throughout the day seamlessly moving that dialogue from face-to-face discussion, to phone, text, Facebook, and beyond. In effect, teenagers take their friends with them wherever they go, communicating with them a few characters at a time.
Further, within that ongoing dialogue many of their communications are meant to be “phatic interactions”—communication not meant to inform but rather to maintain social and psychological contact. If you remember the old Budweiser commercials in which grown men communicated with little more than a head nod and a, “Whassup?!” then you know all about phatic communication. Very little content is communicated through a “whassup,” but it nevertheless carries with it immense emotional and social meaning. When adults critique teenage text messages as trite and meaningless, they’re missing the sheer power of phatic communication to maintain social contact and prepare teenagers for further (and deeper) communication both online and offline.
“Technology over the last 50 years has mostly separated us, and I think that technology is now actually starting to bring us back together again.” Philip Rosedale, founder of Second Life, said recently in a PBS interview. Undoubtedly, social technology provides connections between people that could not have been fathomed even a decade ago. But establishing such “connections” with others is not equivalent to the overcoming of estrangement, alienation, and the facelessness of society. From a theological perspective, these are symptoms of a basic brokenness at the heart of human existence—a brokenness and separation that mere human effort, even if coordinated through a Facebook group, cannot overcome. From a Christian vantage, teenagers are ultimately seeking that which mere human-powered connections—whether fostered online or offline—cannot possibly offer unless transformed by the Holy Spirit. It is precisely such transformed human community—communion—that the church is called to live. Sadly, those of us in youth ministry have been far more concerned with Facebook status updates than the status of our congregations as locales of Spirit-transformed communion. In the third installment of this series we’ll explore what it would look like for youth ministry to respond to social media by emphasizing the church as communion for young people.
 Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion (Eerdmans, 2004), 129.
 Dean, 129.
 Teenagers who text message send on average 2,722 messages per month, roughly 80 per day [Amanda Lenhart et al., “Social media & mobile internet use among teens and young adults,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2010.] This is in addition to other forms of digital communication such as Facebook status updates. In 2010 the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the average teenager spends 10.75 hours of screen time daily, much of it engaged in mediated social interactions [Kaiser Family Foundation., Generation M2 : Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Old. (Menlo Park: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010).]