Social isolation has certainly increased in Japan, where half a million young people live as “hikikomori” — recluses who don’t leave their homes. And loneliness in Britain has increased enough that the government has created a “minister for loneliness.” According to a new survey, 86 percent of American and British citizens believe that “increased use of technology” is contributing to social isolation
Some of the earliest philosophical work on friendship comes from Aristotle, who pointed out in his “Nicomachean Ethics” that friendships of pleasure and utility are easily formed but also easily abandoned because such bonds are flimsy. Deep friendship, by contrast, is when you care for your friend for her sake, not for any benefit you can accrue from the relation. This is selfless friendship. You can have only a couple of these friends because they require a lot of time, work and effort, and a general blending or intertwining of two lives. You have to clock time with these people, and you must make sacrifices for each other.
Classmates and workmates can become friends, as can fellow members of sports teams and musical groups, spouses, religious or military colleagues, and so on. These examples suggest that friendship needs three criteria for full realization: shared experience, loyalty and shared intentionality, or mental connection.
What about in the digital sphere? Our online “friends” — whether it’s Scuzzball or the Facebook friend you’ve never met — satisfy the intentionality criterion because we communicate extensively with language and report to each other long-term goals, disappointments, beliefs and other facets of mental life.
We can share experiences with a person online, but the experiences seem thin when compared with face-to-face experiences. Online adventures (social networking, gaming
) can certainly strengthen friendship bonds that were forged in more embodied interactions, but can they create those bonds?
Teenagers playing “Call of Duty” with online teams, for example, are having collective emotional experiences, as in the case when my son’s squad must work to capture the enemy’s munitions. And these shared adventures strongly trigger the dopamine pleasure system, so it seems like there should be bonding. However, the online “friends” may be little more than dopamine-dosing tools and easily replaced without much dissonance. Indeed, one doesn’t even know who Scuzball is, or where he lives, or if he’s a he, or if he is a person or a bot.
The kind of presence required for deep friendship does not seem cultivated in many online interactions. Presence in friendship requires “being with” and “doing for” (sacrifice). The forms of “being with” and “doing for” on social networking sites (or even in interactive gaming) seem trivial because the stakes are very low.
Most importantly, the “shared space” of digital life is disembodied space. We cannot really touch one another, smell one another, detect facial expressions or moods, and so on. Real bonding is more biological than psychological and requires physical contact. The emotional entanglement of real friendship produces oxytocin and endorphins in the brains and bodies of friends — cementing them together in ways that are more profound than other relationships.
It is possible that virtual reality and augmented reality technology will soon be able to generate such friendship-forming experiences. Having embodied adventures with another person — even in a V.R. suit — is more likely to trigger the deeper oxytocin-based bonding. Current social networking, however, seems to privilege the shallow triggers of the brain’s reward system (dopamine squirts in the ventral tegumental area).
Perhaps the most defining feature of deep friendship is “doing for,” as when my friend has my back in a combat situation or, more prosaically, brings me soup or medicine when I’m sick. Only strong bonds, built through embodied mutual activities, have the power to motivate real sacrifices. But it is unclear why online “friends” would bother to do the hard work of friendship. When the going gets tough, wouldn’t my disembodied online friend just retreat to frictionless virtual friends who have few needs and make few demands? When I asked my undergraduate students whether they had people in their lives who would bring them soup when they’re sick, they laughed at my Stone Age query and said they’d just order soup from GrubHub or UberEats.
In the end, there are three possibilities regarding friendship and digital life. First, digital life replicates all of the essential criteria of friendship, so there’s nothing to worry about. I sincerely doubt that. Alternatively, digital life fills and absorbs waking life so that people do not engage in paradigm cases of friendship (like sports, collective arts, free-range childhoods, etc.). In this way, digital life contributes to certain kinds of social isolation. Or last, digital life produces false friendships (because they are relatively disembodied). In other words, young people do not know that they lack real friends.
Maybe our fears about technology are exaggerated. My son reminds me that the average American kid still gets an enormous amount of face-to-face social time in school every day.
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