As we grow more and more isolated, each of us enveloped in our own social media, entertainment, political and work bubbles, we get more and more depressed, disconnected, and prone to conflict. It’s now common knowledge that social media, the technology ostensibly developed to “bring people closer together,” in fact alienates people from each other. And this trend is especially dangerous for young kids and adolescents who are actively searching for role models and social values. An article on npr.org cites UCSD professor Holly Shakya, who says, “‘We have evidence that replacing your real-world relationships with social media use is detrimental to your well-being.” On the other hand, we know that communities—not online communities—can help people feel safe and supported, loved, respected, and valued; communities can play a part in helping students graduate from high school and college, in increasing physical and mental health, and even in personal and collective economic growth.
So what can you do to encourage your kids—and yourself!—to resist this frightening trend of isolation and alienation? How do you build community when people are increasingly depressed, anxious, socially awkward, afraid and self-absorbed? It may initially seem simple and even naive, but music is a great and effective tool for community-building. Of course, music can be highly personal and individual: if you’ve ever put on some sad music when you’re depressed, you know how intimate that activity can be. But music at heart is a connector. In order to make music with someone, you literally have to connect with them: if you are tapping out a rhythm or harmonizing, singing or playing someone else’s composition, you are communicating. It’s no wonder that almost all religious traditions incorporate some kind of music into their worship practice: actually doing something together strengthens the human bond and makes you feel like a part of something larger than yourself.
Even if you are just listening to music with others—whether at a big concert venue, an intimate bar, or in your living room—you are sharing a joyful, communal experience at the same time as other people, and are therefore permanently linked to those people. Speaking to the Canadian newspaper, The Navigator, folk band manager Cathleen McMahon said that when people—regardless of age, socio-economic status, appearance or profession—share moments of joy (such as those sparked by music) with others, a sense of belonging and togetherness is created, which makes people more likely to “stick around”: “The people then go on to spend money in their communities, and attract others who also come and want to spend money,” investing in their communities, which in turn invest in and supports their members, essentially creating a positive feedback loop.
Even beyond the economic opportunities created by music, for young kids, music can be an important playing-field leveler: no matter how “cool” you are, what grades you get, who you hang out with, or what you look like, you can connect with other young people through music and share a human experience: Before you know it, you are part of a community of kids who love and play music, fitting in with a group of like-minded peers, and even allowing yourself to express difficult emotions and experiences through music.
And what of the smallest and most important community: the nuclear family? Even there, music can play a role in creating and strengthening bonds. Many families already do some singing with very young children—teaching kids the ABCs, Twinkle Twinkle, etc.; singing to them at bed times—but consider some novel ways to incorporate music into your family: The next time you are thinking about going to a movie or out to dinner with your loved ones, why not go see live music with them instead? Or if your child is taking piano lessons, consider signing up for a few lessons for yourself so you can play together? You’ll be forging important connections, enriching yourself mentally, emotionally and psychologically, and creating moments of real joy.