Every other day a survey seems to hit our news feeds about teenagers and technology use. A recent survey from Digital Awareness UK revealed that almost half of young people are checking their mobile phones after they have gone to bed. Of the 2750 young people surveyed, one in ten admitted to checking their phones at least 10 times a night.
For those of us who live in the 21st century and work with young people, it comes as no great surprise that young people are on their phones and digital devices a lot. (Maybe not ten times a night though… that’s slightly more alarming!)
There are lots of great benefits to the availability of technology and information. I never cease to be amazed by how up to date and aware of what’s going on in the world my young people are. They know much more about current affairs than I do, and their capacity to care about the world is far greater than mine was as a teenager. Back in the day, when asked ‘what do you want to pray for’ in youth group, chances are that my answers would range from homework, to boys, to exams. My life was very localised. Now when I ask my young people ‘what they want to pray for’, we get ‘Syria’, ‘the presidential election’, or the latest natural disaster. Our worlds and eyes have been broadened by the internet, and this is a hugely positive thing when it comes to knowing about, and caring about, the world that God made.
But technology comes with challenges, and particularly challenges for those of us seeking to communicate faith to the next generation. For technology use, according to some new studies, actually affects not only what we think, but how we think. While many say that it’s simply a case of balance and the ‘way that we use’ the technology at our disposal, the reality is perhaps a bit different.
Nicholas Carr, in his fascinating book The Shallows: how the internet is changing our brains, says the following:
‘Media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski. Maybe I’m an aberration, an outlier. But it doesn’t seem that way. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends, many say they’re suffering from similar afflictions.’
He goes on to say that we have traded in ‘our old linear thought processes’ for the riches of the net. Our brains - having been fed on a constant diet of information and communication - become hungry for it, and crave that sense of uber-connectedness which comes from endlessly devouring web page after web page. Our brain is not rigid or machine-like but flexible and ‘plastic’, and therefore moulds, adapts and changes according to how we use it. The skills we practice through repetition are ingrained in our brains, whether they are good or bad. Some anthropologists and evolutionary scientists would say that we are in fact human ‘becomings’, not human beings; the way that we use and interact with the world shapes not only our souls, but our very biology.
I think there are three big challenges from these findings for our work with young people. The first two are general observations, and the third is more specific.
Firstly: concentration and contemplation. If what Carr says is true, and our capacity for concentration is decreasing as we increasingly sporadically flit between web pages – what does this mean for the future generation, when it comes to spending time in God’s presence, or even just spending time thinking, pondering or reflecting in the first place? Even if we remove phones and seek to enable young people to concentrate on God, creating an environment in which there are no distractions, is their capacity for contemplation diminished because of the way they use technology? It’s a sobering thought.
Secondly: depth. Skating across the surface levels of the web, we cover an incredibly wide range of content – from videos of cats, to the Syria crisis, to how to bake a cake with rainbow layers. We have a wide range of knowledge, but on a very shallow level.
One of the opening lines of the well-loved Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster says this: ‘The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people’. Where are the deep people today? Where are the deep people of the future? How do we foster deep faith in a shallow world?
Thirdly: Bible reading. Maybe I’m old school (it has to be said, I am a bit of a granny when it comes to technology), but I think there is a huge difference between reading a physical Bible, and reading a Bible off the screen. Whenever I am handed a physical Bible, I am presented with the whole story of scripture. Finding a passage from within it, I am always aware of how far through the book we are, whether it’s in the New or Old testament, and where in the grand narrative it is. As the preacher sermonises, I often find myself reading the surrounding passages which give context and further illumination to the text we are focusing on. The experience just simply can’t be the same on a digital device. The text you are reading appears out of context (unless you go searching for the background), and the chances are that a notification will appear and distract you from what you are reading, promoting again a shallow engagement with what you are viewing. In The Shallows, Carr highlights a research study in which participants were invited to read a piece of text - some of the participants were given a physical copy of the book, and others a digital device. The researchers discovered that the participants reading solely on digital devices could remember far less of the content when asked about it. Our engagement with physical texts is qualitatively different to our engagement with digital texts.
According to a piece of research carried out by Barna in 2013, 70 per cent of millennials read scripture on a digital device. Should we be worried?
We would love to invite responses and reflection on the topic of technology and faith formation – do you agree with the above? In what ways can we create spaces for depth, concentration and contemplation in youth group?
Send your thoughts to Phoebe at firstname.lastname@example.org