Friendship and the internet…


Friendship- it just might save your life.

Not just in the obvious roped-together-climbing-up-the-Matterhorn kind of way, but in a thousand more subtle ways.

I have benefited enormously from all this on-line networking and blogging. But have long been concerned that online friendships lacked something vital to human experience. For us, they were expedient- given our somewhat isolated geographical location, but in my mind can never fully replace flesh on flesh contact.

I would go a little further (although I am hesitant to be categorical) and wonder if the real community that Jesus called us to (and modeled for us with his traveling companions) can only be experienced in close contact. I say this with some trepidation, as this kind of community is rarely comfortable, tidy or easy. I liked what Mark Berry had to say here about this.

On-line communication seems to have something of the autistic spectrum about it. It allows for the sharing of lots of informational data, but for the most part lacks the nuanced, multi-layered complexity that characterises human face to face exchanges. to extend the analogy, people who have autistic spectrum difficulties can find techniques that might help manage some of the contradictions and complications life brings to them. They might also have real strengths that are revealed in a capacity to perform some non-social tasks extremely well.

In the same way, on-line networking (such a recent phenomenon) does some things very well, and might yet develop techniques that make the interface more human. Before we rush to condemn, we should bear in mind that each step-change in communication technology has been greeted with much suspicion- the printing press, the railroads, television. These things result in change and adaption as they penetrate deeper into the human experience.

But I remain convinced that communication at a distance will never be enough. At present, I think the autistic analogy remains a good one.


I came across an article from the journal ‘Biologist’ the other day, which was quoted by the Dranes on their 2churchmice’s blog. It makes some startling statements.

Britons now spend approximately 50
minutes a day interacting socially with
other people (ONS, 2003). Couples now
spend less time in one another’s company
and more time at work, commuting, or in
the same house but in separate rooms using
different electronic media devices. Parents
spend less time with their children
than they did only a decade ago. Britain
has the lowest proportion of children in
all of Europe who eat with their parents
at the table. The proportion of people who
work on their own at home continues to

Britain’s disinclination for togetherness
is only equalled by her veneration of communicating
through new technologies. The
rapid proliferation of electronic media is
now making private space available in
almost every sphere of the individual’s
life. Yet this is now the most significant
contributing factor to society’s growing
physical estrangement
. Whether in or out
of the home, more people of all ages in the
UK are physically and socially disengaged
from the people around them because they
are wearing earphones, talking or texting
on a mobile telephone, or using a laptop
or Blackberry.

Does this matter?

Well the study goes on to list the benefits of close human contact and friendship. Here are some highlights;

  • Measurable genetic and immunological benefits.
  • Biological changes as a result of physical contact- hugs for example.
  • Increased incidence of cardiovascular problems in people with lower amounts of social connections.
  • Lower general morbidity associated with higher amounts of social contact.
  • A study finding lower incidences of strokes on women
  • Lower blood pressure in men, and a faster return to normal blood pressure after stress.
  • Measured differences in the narrowing of arteries.
  • The unexpected fact that if you have contact with more people, you are LESS likely to have colds.
  • Memory loss in old age declines at twice the rate in those poorly integrated.
  • General links between enhanced cognitive performance and social interaction.
  • A reduction in mortality for those who attend regular religious services! (But not just to ‘warm the pew’.)

The review ends with a description of an old study (10 years ago) which may or may not have been prescient.

While the precise mechanisms underlying
the association between social connection,
morbidity and mortality continue to be investigated,
it is clear that this is a growing
public health issue for all industrialised
countries. A decade ago, a detailed classic
study of 73 families who used the internet
for communication, The Internet Paradox,
concluded that greater use of the internet
was associated with declines in communication
between family members in the
house, declines in the size of their social
circle, and increases in their levels of depression
and loneliness. They went on to
report “both social disengagement and
worsening of mood…and limited face-toface
social interaction … poor quality of life
and diminished physical and psychological
health” (Kraut et al, 1998).

So, what can we make of all of this? The study clearly takes the view that on-line contact is not enough, and indeed may be problematic.

I still hope however, that when used well and purposefully, on-line connections might facilitate community building. This is where I still place my energy, and why I started out trying to establish this ‘Emerging Scotland’ thing…

It is almost as if we humans were made to find our highest expression in community. As if we were wired and plumbed for this.

So for now, my own conclusion is like this;

The internet is great. It gives me access to loads of great stuff (and lots of rubbish too I suppose!) It also allows me to connect with others. But it does not allow me to commune with others in the way that I think Jesus intended. In order for this to happen, the whole of me has to be engaged in this process, in all of my contorted brokenness, aware that in the joys of serving and loving will also be pain and suffering.

There is no other way.