Author Erin Davis explains how social media and technology in general can lead to isolation and loneliness, and offers help for finding and maintaining strong, healthy relationships. (Part 1 of 2)
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Jim Daly: Erin, describe what loneliness feels like?
Erin Davis: I think it's just the sense that nobody really knows you. I don't think it has a lot to do whether or not you have people in your life, but it's that feeling that the people who are in your life don't really know you and you don't really know them.
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John Fuller: Well, you might be feeling lonely and if you are, stay tuned for this Focus on the Family radio program with Jim Daly. I'm John Fuller and we're gonna talk about that sense of loneliness that we all feel at one time or another.
Jim: John, we do live in a world where we're connected, just as Erin has said, but there is so much disconnection. I mean, I see it in my kids and myself, to be honest, with the SmartPhones and iPhones and texting and we can communicate. I used to have to call Jean and say, "Is there anything you need from the grocery store?" Now I just text it out, so there's no real verbal communication. I'm not cueing into what her emotions are for the day.
John: And a text doesn't convey a whole lot of emotion or it conveys the wrong emotion—
Jim: (Laughing) Right.
Jim: How many times have you texted, "Is there anything I could get?" "What's wrong with you?" (Laughing) "Nothing, I was just asking the question." But, um, we want to talk about that today, because it's important. God has wired us for relationship and I don't think it's digital relationship.
John: Well, we have Erin Davis back with us to understand this a little bit better. She's been here before. She's an author and speaker. And she and Jason, her husband, live with three boys on a small farm in Missouri and her newest book is called Connected. And Jim, I really like the subtitle, because I think it's very descriptive, Curing the Pandemic of Everyone Feeling Alone Together.
Jim: Erin, welcome back to "Focus on the Family."
Erin: Thank you for having me.
Jim: This is an interesting subject and I don't know that we've covered it from this angle. We usually talk about it with parents, how to control technology for your kids, how to keep them safe. But this is really including the adult side now, how to not be too distant from relationships that God wants you to have, right?
Erin: Right, I think that this is an issue that jumps across all kinds of boundaries—where we live and our age and no matter really how dialed in we are to technology or not. I think technology plays a role, but as I started to kind of investigate this out of my own life, I realized that many of us are struggling with disconnectedness and certainly it's trickling down into our kids, but I think it's starting with us.
Jim: I've gotta ask you though, when I read Facebook posts, I'm often surprised at how vulnerable people are. I mean, they're talking about things that I don't know that they would share in a face-to-face conversation, I mean, things about their in-laws or their spouses or troubles they're having. It can be pretty wide open. How can you be that wide open and be lonely?
Erin: Well, and what we're finding is that, that's not translating into connection. Those same people who are very vulnerable on their Facebook page or maybe very vulnerable on a blog, when we interviewed those women would say, "But I feel like nobody really knows me." Or "I feel so alone."
So, there's these new waters that we're all trying to navigate, where suddenly people can read our thoughts. They can read our Twitter feed. They can read our Facebook wall. So, it's as if they're reading our most intimate thoughts, but we're not intimately connected with those people.
Erin: So it does leave us feeling very alone, 'cause we're throwing things out there for people to read and they're not responding or not responding in a way that's (sic) really communicates that they know us.
Jim: Right or it's short. I tend to be really short, you know, "Okay."
Jim: (Laughing) Or "Will do."
Jim: That's usually the extent of my intimacy on text messaging. (Laughing)
Jim: I mean, there's not a lot of connection there—
Erin: And I think if we were to get honest, we would all have to sort of admit that it's an illusion of connection. That yes, we have people that we're Facebook friends with or we have people that we can text, but we would have to admit it feels like an illusion when we really get down to business, that those aren't necessarily people that we could call in the middle of the night if we needed. Or those aren't necessarily people that we could be vulnerable with face to face. So, that's the tension. We have this illusion of connectedness. But really if we're honest, we're all feeling very disconnected.
Jim: Well, is it fair to give it a label of "a mile wide and an inch deep?"
Erin: Absolutely. And in some ways, it's not a new problem. I think technology has maybe exaggerated some issues that have always been there. But relationships have always been hard to. To have true connection and intimacy with our spouse, with our children, with our friends. That's always been a challenge. But our technology has sort of put a magnifying glass on that, I think, because we can look like we're connected, but we're not. And we have that illusion of deep relationships, but they're shallow.
Jim: Well, let's talk about that. I know for Jean, for example, your kids are how old now?
Erin: They're 7, 5 and 1.
Jim: I mean, you're livin' the dream, right?
Erin: I am. (Laughter) I don't know whose dream, but I live in a frat house for toddlers. That's where I live.
Jim: And they're all boys--
Erin: They're all boys.
Jim: --my two are boys, as well. But you're in that space where it's all day long.
Jim: I mean, you're chasin' the kids around. You're tryin' to, "Don't do that;" "Do this;" "Where's Johnny?" I mean, all that stuff. Do you find connection through your digital relationships? Or is it a burden?
Erin: I find as a mom in these "little" years, it's a way to disengage and kind of pull myself out of mom world. And sometimes that can be good. It can be a way to connect with others. But sometimes it's just really difficult for me to peel myself away from the phone or the laptop or the iPad and just be with my kids.
I really struggle to play in the backyard, for example. Or there's a story in the book where the kids invited me into a blanket fort we'd made. And instead of going into the blanket fort, I just sat on the couch and kept checking my phone, for what? I don't know. I wasn't expecting a call. There was no news coming in, but it was hard for me to peel myself away from those digital relationships and actually be with my flesh and blood people and go into the blanket fort.
Jim: Well, let me press you a little bit, because I think you're saying some of that distraction is a good thing, 'cause you need some connection.
Jim: Is that the way you would advise other moms that are in that stage of life with young kids, that you're taking care of all day? Is it a healthy thing to look at your phone and to engage people at a superficial level?
Erin: I think, no, it's not gonna do anybody any good to demonize or go on a witch hunt for technology. Technology is here to stay and technology I think is really kind of neutral. Our iPhones aren't out to get us. They're not bad inherently and there's a lot of good that can come from technology. I'm a blogger. That's how I connect with people.
But I think we all kinda need to get honest about the fact that sometimes we substitute real authentic relationships for digital relationships. And we are wanting that connection that comes online and there's an opportunity cost. Sometimes we're exchanging relationships with our real people in our real homes. So, I don't think there's anything bad with being on our phones or our laptops or whatever it is, but at some point, we need to put 'em down and play T-ball in the backyard.
Jim: What's the difference between being known and being loved? You talked about that in your book. That got my attention.
Erin: I actually think that's the heat of the issue. I think that's the big exchange we've made in our culture. And I think you can look at the celebrities of our culture who are very loved. They have adoring fans. They may have a big social media following. But they aren't known and "known" is very different and known is intimacy. Known is somebody knows me and knows my good and my bad and still chooses to weave their life into mine.
There's a story in the Bible that talks about Jonathan and David's friendship that I think really defines being known. And it talks about the soul of Jonathan being knit to the soul of David. And so, that image of knit together souls, I see who you are; you see who I am and we weave our lives into each other. That's "known."
And "loved" is, I like you. I adore you. I retweeted what you tweeted. I think you're great. And love's great, but it's not a substitute for being known. So, I think we're kind of all chasing adoration—
Erin: --and instead of chasing being known and knowing others. Certainly being loved is easier and being known is messier. So, maybe that's why we've made the switch.
Jim: Erin, we're sounding maybe like we're only about getting rid of the technology, but you attempted that. You (Laughter) fasted.
Erin: I did.
Jim: And it didn't work out so well. Tell us what happened.
Erin: I did a couple social experiments (Laughter) while writing this book. And one was, I decided I was gonna go technology free for a whole month. Now I'm a bit of a[n] earthy hippy anyway, so we don't have a TV, so that was pretty easy. And I'd broken up with Facebook a long time ago, so that was also pretty easy. But I'm addicted to my SmartPhone.
So, I bought it a little hotel, which was a Rubbermaid and I was gonna put it in the hotel for the month and not use it.
John: So, the phone goes in the container—
Erin: The phone goes—
John: --for a month. (Laughter)
Erin: --in the container--
Jim: The little phone hotel.
Erin: -- for the little phone hotel. (Laughter) Well, the first day I busted that baby out of the hotel like 10 times. (Laughter) And I was like, what is wrong with me? And I –
Jim: Now, but why? Why? I just need to know.
Erin: --Well, during all of this, I said something is happening in my brain, because I used to be able to sit through a red light without getting my phone out, couldn't you? And no longer. So, I wanted to find out what was happening in my brain.
So, I did some research and what happens, anytime we get a technological ping, so that could be somebody retweets you or that could be an e-mail or something—
Jim: But it's that—
Erin: --you wrote goes viral.
Jim: --a stimulus—
Erin: A stimulus—
Jim: --of some sort.
Erin: --a technological pink, your brain gets a little hit of dopamine. And dopamine is a feel-good chemical. And so, you're getting a little hit of dopamine every single time. Dopamine controls your reward center in your brain and so, you get some sort of reward. What is the reward? Well, you sorta feel like you're known, for a minute.
But what researchers have found is, that when dopamine ekes in, in little tiny doses like that, we end up addicted. However, when we get large downloads of dopamine, like right now we're getting a large download of dopamine, 'cause we're together. If you were having lunch with a good friend, you'd be getting dopamine in your brain. It doesn't leave you addicted. You still get the feel-good reward, but because you're getting dopamine in large downloads, you're not addicted. So, we are addicted. We're getting these little tiny hits of dopamine to our brain.
Erin: Our brain says, you're known; you're known; you're known. But it's eking in at such a low level that we're addicted. So, that was it. I was addicted to my SmartPhone.
John: So, the … the monthly fast was a day and—
Erin: Well, I—
John: --and not even that.
Erin: --yeah, not even a day. Well, I kept trying, so I put him back in the little hotel and that didn't work. So, I went to Walmart and I traded in my SmartPhone for a dumb phone. So, no Twitter, no email, no Internet.
Jim: What's you do with the SmartPhone? Did you …?
Erin: I think I just put it in a drawer, but he was just—
Jim: --disconnected it.
Erin: I call it "he," like it's a person. No, it was my, it was an "it." (Laughter) I disconnected it. Well, I made it with my dumb phone I think three days and I was like, "I can't handle this." So, then I traded it back and so, I was just terrible, terrible at technology fasting. (Laughing)
Jim: So, you didn't succeed in your little fast.
Erin: I didn't succeed. However, I started to gain some ground and I feel like its hold was lessened on me. And so, then there was a spell there where I wasn't using my phone. And so, during that fast, I gained 30 Twitter followers, proving that I'm more interesting when I'm not saying anything.
Jim: The fact that you know the number is–
Erin: I know, right? (Laughter) But I do feel like maybe my SmartPhone's grip was lessened on me.
John: Well, Jim, we have a conundrum, because I want to encourage people to get the CD or the download or Erin's book, Connected, but they have to go online to do that (Laughing) or perhaps call us. Maybe that would be a better way.
Jim: Yeah. (Laughing)
John: Our number is 800-A-FAMILY; 800-232-6459. And this is "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly. Our guest is Erin Davis and that book is called Connected: Curing the Pandemic of Everyone Feeling Alone Together.
Jim: Erin, you talked about a seismic shift in your awareness, I think. What happened and why did it get ahold of your heart?
Erin: Well, my husband was on staff at a church for 12 years and so, our church was really the beehive around which all of our relationships were formed, which I think is as it should be. And we were very, very busy in ministry. Our calendar was very, very full and if you would've asked me during that season if I had friends, I would've opened up my phone and said, "Let me show you the list." If you would've asked me if I was lonely, I would've said, "No way. I have all these people in my life, all these things to do. I have a lot going on."
And then my husband resigned his position at that church to work for a parachurch ministry and there was no ugly church stink or anything like that, but in order to make room for the next guy, we left our church, but we stayed in our same community. And the seismic shift happened when those relationships just ceased to exist. There—
Jim: They just faded.
Erin: --there was no fighting. There was no big fallouts, but people stopped calling, because the convenience factor was removed. We weren't convenient to have relationships with each other anymore. And I had to really wrestle with the fact that I had really traded in connection for busyness. I thought because I was busy and with people, that my relationships had a quality and to them. And the first emotion that hit me was loneliness. And it hit me like a tidal wave.
And during that time of wrestling with that, I was scheduled to speak at a big women's event and I don't know what I was supposed to speak on, but I just felt like the Lord said, "I want you to talk about loneliness." And I didn't want to 'cause this is a very vulnerable thing and I didn't have the answer.
So, I essentially stood on the stage and cried and said I was lonely. It was not my most eloquent speaking moment. But at the end of that I said, "Would anyone in here be brave enough to say in this room full of people that you're lonely, too?" And I bet two-thirds of the audience stood up and wept. I mean, something had been broken open in all of our hearts.
And I just stood on the stage in wonder and thought, I don't have the answer. I'm lonely. They're lonely. I don't know what to do. And I often counsel women after those kinds of events, but at this event, women stood in line for over an hour and just would come to me and they would say, "I'm lonely." And I would say, "I'm lonely" and that was all we knew to say to each other.
So, the Lord walked me through a lot of that in my own life, but as that was happening, I just was so aware of lonely teenagers and lonely middle-aged women and lonely elderly women and women just all over the map. And that's why I call it a "pandemic," because when I started digging, I realized, wow, there are really a lot of us who are affected.
Jim: Well, and another, I think critical point in your book [is] you talk about how loneliness can lead to sin.
Jim: I found that fascinating, because it is that picture that Jesus talked about, where the enemy of our soul tries to pick us off and separate us--
Jim: --like a lamb from the herd, you know. And he begins to work on us, self-doubt, all those things that he will speak into your heart to get you to be discouraged, to not trust in God—
Jim: --to not believe in your relationships, your spouse, whatever it might be. Talk about loneliness leading to sin. I found that powerful.
Erin: Well, I think that in this way, loneliness is less of an emotion and more of a military strategy by our enemy. And we see it first in the Garden. I mean, I believe the serpent was hunting Eve, waiting for that moment where she was isolated. The Bible tells us that Adam was nearby, but he wasn't right there or he didn't pipe up. And so, he waits till she's kind of isolated and he slithers in.
And we saw that so many times in the women that we interviewed. They became isolated for whatever reason. Maybe it was just their life circumstances and the enemy saw that as an opportunity to attack.
So, then they would sin and then the enemy would say, you can't tell anyone about this ever. So, then the shame would lead, much like in the Garden, the shame would lead to hiding, which would lead to increased isolation, which would cause the pattern of sin to be repeated.
And I was studying how lions hunt antelopes and it's the same thing. The way that lions hunt their prey, it doesn't matter who it is or what kind of animal it is. They don't look for signs of weaknesses like other predators. Their strategy for hunting prey is they separate one from the pack. And that's how lions can take down giraffes. It's how they can take down elephants, 'cause if they can separate one from the pack, then they can take him down.
And I think that the enemy uses that so often for us. If he can separate you from your pack, your family, your church, your small group, then you're more vulnerable to sin and then once you sin, if he can convince you to hide in shame, then that sin can really take you down.
Jim: You know, Erin, you speak to women's groups often. I'm trying to translate this, as well, for men. It seems to me and I'm sure there's the 80-20 rule, John, so I don't want to be overly simplistic here. But someone once said to me, men are kinda wired to be loners. And that's sad in many ways, but there seems to be a gender distinction here, too. And I just want to explore this a moment with you. I think women, I see it in my wife, Jean, she's social. I mean, she just like[s], the dopamine, you know—
Jim: --she just enjoys being with her girlfriends. She loves to go out and have lunch with them and she'll come back, you know, not exhausted. She'll come back energized when she spends times with her girlfriends. Guys on the other hand, we may want to do that, but sitting at a table and talking isn't gonna, we're not gonna come back energized from that typically. If we go out and play a sport together or do something together, we'll be energized by that. But talk about that difference between men and women, 'cause I'm feeling like men that are listening [and] we can say I don't mind bein' alone. Actually, I like it.
Jim: I don't like havin' to be forced to talk to somebody.
Erin: Well, I think one thing we have to address is that there's a difference between loneliness and solitude. And one thing I think we've lost a little bit in our culture is the beauty of solitude. I think solitude's a great thing for our faith and for shoring us up against sin.
We see that in the life of Jesus. He sought solitude often, so solitude is a great thing. I'm actually kind of a loner myself, so I don't think there's anything wrong with that. But one thing we don't have as much form in is just being a part of a tribe. And that doesn't mean sitting around in a circle and talking about your feelings but it does mean I know who my tribe is. And when I am tempted to sin, I have a tribe that I can go to. And if you don't have a tribe and you don't know who your tribe is, when the attack comes, when the temptation comes, then you're just as vulnerable.
Jim: Let me ask you this in terms of connection, 'cause that's what we're talking about today. Your book is titled Connected. Do you think when people are connected—men and women, teenagers, too—when they're connected in a healthy way, is it more difficult to fall to those temptations?
Erin: Absolutely. I think that's the Lord's design. We see that in James, "Confess your sins one to another and pray for each other, that you may be healed." And that's the church. That's the goal of the church. Yes, the church is a light to share the Gospel, but it's also a safety net for those of us who believe, a place to fall into when life is hard and when we're tempted.
So, I think when your life is interwoven, you are safer. There is a place to run to when you're tempted and also, I think that's part of the reason that we're lonely, because when your life is interwoven, you have people to hold you accountable. You have people to call you out when you're heading down a path that you shouldn't. And we don't like that. We don't necessarily want that accountability.
Jim: Why do we not make that connection, that vulnerability and our own confession is actually good for us, but it's also good for those we're talking with, because then they feel better that, you know, okay, they're not perfect, but they haven't told anybody they're not perfect. We're all tryin' to act perfect--
Jim: --but we're not.
Erin: Well, I think it's really, really layered and as I started to try and figure that out, I was kind of glad to find there wasn't one cure or one easy fix, but that there's lots and lots of layers of that. And I think it's hard for us to be vulnerable. It's hard for us to show people that we're not perfect. It's hard for us to be real. And also we're just really, really busy. Busyness is no small factor. So, even if we would want to be vulnerable with each other, we don't have time to be vulnerable with each other, 'cause vulnerability doesn't fit into a slot on our calendar.
Erin: So, it's a very layered equation and I feel like we've made lots of trade-offs over time that we've exchanged, you know, we like convenience and we like to be busy and we like people to think we've got our act together. So, there's lot of factors at play.
Jim: And there's fear. Fear has got to be part of that and connectedness when we're looking at it so often when people are vulnerable and they hear you even speaking--I mean, for those of us that speak publicly—when you talk about those things that didn't go right in your life or those wounds or that pain there's two responses that you typically get. People will be amazed that you were that vulnerable and secondly, they'll say, "I had that same situation," or something similar. And they connect with it. And that allows them in some ways to heal, I think, to say, okay, I can get through it, whatever that might be. Do you find that to be true?
Erin: Absolutely and this is why the Bible encourages us to bear one another's burdens, not to hide your burden so no one ever sees it. There's this sense that, oh, either they will say to us, "I've been through that, too and you're gonna make it." Or "I'm going through that now." And there's this sense that we can carry each other's burdens is really a gift to each other, but it's hard and it's not our natural way of doing things. And I know, I personally would rather everyone think I have my act together.
Jim: In fact, you talked about a story with your husband, to put some skin on the bones of this, where he asked you for prayer, but it created a little bit of a problem.
Jim: What happened?
Erin: Right. I was working on a tight writing deadline, one of those where I didn't have a spare moment for any kind of interruption. And the staph (Laughter) infection that invaded hand did not get the memo. I was home with our [children], we had two small boys at that time, and it was like the manuscript was due any day and every moment was planned to get it done.
And he calls and a wound that we thought was a bug bite was actually a raging staph infection that wouldn't respond to medicine—MRSA. And they told him, you know, you're gonna lose your hand and there's a good chance, about a 10 percent chance you're not even gonna survive this. And he calls me and it was one of those where the world kinda goes quiet and fear is knocking at your front door. And I didn't know what to do and I didn't know what to do with my kids. I didn't know if I should go to the hospital. And in the back of my mind I'm still thinking about, but I have this major project due and I just didn't know how to handle it.
And a friend from church called in that moment and I don't think normally I would've been as vulnerable as I was with her, but my guard was down, 'cause I was afraid. And she said, "What's going on?" And I didn't say, "Fine." I said, "This is what's going on. Jason's in the hospital with an infection. I'm home with our two kids. I don't know what to do." And she just said, "Can I pray for you?" And I said, "Sure."
And she alerts other people to pray for us and strangely what I didn't feel at first was grateful. I felt embarrassed, because she'd kinda seen behind the curtain that Erin didn't have it together and I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to handle it and I didn't really like that a bunch of people knew that and I didn't know who knew that. And she brought dinner over that night and she really was what I think God intends the church to be for us and I just felt embarrassed, because my mask was off, you know.
Jim: How did it play through your relationship? Did you have a more intimate relationship after that? Did you feel more comfortable talking with her?
Erin: Yeah, eventually we kinda got to the other side and Jason's hand was saved and I actually think prayer is what turned the tide, so I'm so grateful for her intervention. But yes, she saw the real me and she didn't run and hide. She didn't decide she didn't want to be friends with me anymore. She didn't decide because I wasn't the perfect mom who couldn't handle everything that the relationship was over. And I've seen the same vulnerability in her since and we're still friends and I think we will be for a long time.
Jim: Ah. Erin Davis, author of the book, Connected, the subtitle, Curing the Pandemic of Everyone Feeling Alone Together. Thanks for being with us. But, we have so much more and I've got additional questions I'd like to probe. And really start next time with another fast that you did that maybe didn't go so well, either. Can we go there?
Erin: Sure. Absolutely.
Jim: Let's do it.
John: We're looking forward to hearing more from Erin Davis on the next program. And I hope you can be with us then. And if you've identified with her journey through loneliness into fellowship you're gonna want to get a copy of her book, Connected, which is full of insightful chapters about this topic and has a study guide actually, for reflection and further discussion in a small group or with a friend.
And today's program really highlights our desire to come alongside those who are in a tough spot of life. They're struggling. There's a life-challenge. We count it a privilege to be there with you and walk through those times with you. And according to recent research that we've conducted, in the past 12 months we've been able to see 130,000 marriages that have reconciled or improved dramatically because of the work of Focus on the Family. That comes down to about 356 marriages a day or one marriage every four minutes that is improved dramatically because of the work of Focus on the Family.
Now that kind of outreach is only possible because of God's desire to use FOF in a powerful way and because of your partnership. And I'd like to ask you to continue praying for us as we have such tremendous responsibility to help those marriages and also, if you can, to support us financially. We rely on the gifts of generous friends like you and your donation counts. So please, donate online or over the phone or send a check today.
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Our program was provided by FOF and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I'm John Fuller inviting you back tomorrow. We'll hear more from Erin Davis about cultivating deeper, more meaningful, relationships as we once again offer encouragement to help your family thrive.
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Erin DavisView Bio
Erin Davis is a popular speaker and blogger who has addressed women of all ages nationwide. She is also the author of several books including Graffiti: Learning to See the Art in Ourselves and Beyond Bath Time: Embracing Motherhood As a Sacred Role. Erin and her husband, Jason, have two sons and reside in Springfield, Mo.