‘All the lonely people, where do they all come from?’ (Lennon & McCartney, 1966)
Current social development is profoundly influenced by processes of urbanization, globalization, fragmentation of society and societal immersion in technology-mediated environments. The Internet, most notably, is often quoted with negative effects across nations such as contributing to the decline of face-to-face social interaction, social isolation and corresponding increase in loneliness and depression (Amichai-Hamburger et al., 2011, p.584). Online communication in virtual communities does not translate into extended offline networks and friendships (Pollet et al., 2011) while promoting loneliness, dating anxiety, communication anxiety and unpopularity anxiety (Odaci & Kalkan, 2010).
On the contrary, online users appear to enjoy larger personal networks than non users (Zhao, 2006) while Internet use is positively related to extended contacts with people of the same political interest, same religion, same profession as well as contacts to friends and family (Amichai-Hamburger et al., p.587). Both opposing findings lead to conclude that a distinct ‘Internet effect’ does not exist (Haase et al., 2001). The Internet appears to exercise an amplifying and bifurcating effect on predisposional conditions such as e.g., for low- or high-self esteem individuals (Utz & Beukeboom, 2011). The effect on children who use electronic media too early and unsupervised for extended periods of time may however be devastating. Frequent exposure to violent content of TV programs in middle childhood is a strong predictor for aggressive and abusive behavior extending into lifespan (Arnett, 2012, p.330).
Children who spend their time online and miss out on forming peer relationships are unlikely to develop essential social skills such as pro-social intentions and behavior, dealing with social values and norms, others’ variability, issues such as intimacy and self-disclosure, intrapersonal development fostered in peer-relationships, the resolution of internal conflicts, development of identity and the ability to deal with critical feedback from others (Parker et al, 2006).If such ‘internal working models’ (Bowlby, 1982) are not developed early, problems such as depression, loneliness, increased risk of mental disorders and maladjustment are likely to appear in later life (Parker, p.119-130).
How single adults may improve their social-emotional development
Adult singlehood appears not primarily related to insecure attachment styles. In individualistic cultures long-term singlehood is related to higher levels of depression, general anxiety and sexual dissatisfaction while it is associated with factors such as painful life events (Schachner et al., 2008, p.489-490). In socio-centered cultures singles often care for their ageing parents (Arnett, 2012, p.533) and have a meaningful role to play. Singlehood is on the rise across Asian countries (Jones & Zhi, 2012, p.732). Co-residence with parents, networks of gratifying friendships, career-advancement, creating patchwork families(Leeson, 2013), cohabitation (Arnett, p.438-439) or mentoring and developing the next generation with the experience of middle adulthood render options for social-emotional development. Online dating sites offer opportunities although criminal exploitation casts some shadow on online-dating (Whitty & Buchanan, 2012).
Social development in middle adulthood is characterized, according to Erik Erikson’s developmental theory, by the conflict of generativity (caring for the well-being of the future generation) versus stagnation (Arnett, 2012, p.2012). This includes, as a late parent or grandparent, assisting and helping children through their development and to educate them in digital media. An adult person with high IT-skills combined with mid-life expertise would be of tremendous benefit to his/her family and others. The high level of self-acceptance, autonomy and environmental mastery of adults (Ryff, 1995) empowers persons in middle adulthood to play key-roles in education and organizations. Social networks are an ideal medium to facilitate such role.
Besides the influence of digital communication factors such as urbanization and the promotion of individualistic lifestyles diminish spheres for social interaction. A critical discussion would need to assess how compensatory interventions such as social-emotional learning programs (Durlak et al, 2011)need to be accompanied by a general discourse on social lifestyle values and digital media literacy.
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