from The New York Times
November 21, 2010
Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction
By MATT RICHTEL
REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — On the eve of a pivotal academic year in Vishal Singh’s life, he faces a stark choice on his bedroom desk: book or computer?
By all rights, Vishal, a bright 17-year-old, should already have finished the book, Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle,” his summer reading assignment. But he has managed 43 pages in two months.
He typically favors Facebook, YouTube and making digital videos. That is the case this August afternoon. Bypassing Vonnegut, he clicks over to YouTube, meaning that tomorrow he will enter his senior year of high school hoping to see an improvement in his grades, but without having completed his only summer homework.
On YouTube, “you can get a whole story in six minutes,” he explains. “A book takes so long. I prefer the immediate gratification.”
Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.
Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.
“Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”
This article goes on to detail the problems created by immersion in the world of digital devices. I am not stupid enough to think that we can somehow retreat from the digital world – especially as I sit here composing this at my computer keyboard, preparing to publish it on my blog, Facebook, and Twitter! But Christians need to give some serious thought to this, both as individuals who might be raising families we hope will influence Children toward the Christian faith, and as congregations of believers who gather together to teach and admonish one another in the Christian faith.
First, consider how much less likely one is to understand the Christian faith if one develops a ‘digital attention span.’ Christianity is not simple, as much as pop theology likes to say it is. It is very deep. It involves concepts, and disciplines, that require careful, sustained attention. If your attention span is only 3-5 minutes, while I won’t say you will never be a Christian, it is almost certain that you will never understand the Christian faith at a meaningful level. Those who never swim deeply in the faith are very likely to be left ‘high and dry’ at some point in their lives. If the digital world tends to wire brains in a way that inhibits the understanding of the Christian faith (and many other important things, for that matter) then we Christians had better be wary of its unbridled use.
Next, consider how the church has often approached technology – like the school principle mentioned later in the article referred to above, we pander to it. We think we can get people’s attention by immersing the church (no pun intended) in the digital world. The problem is that the digital world tends to destroy people’s attention.
I one time attended a small, new, thought-they-were-hip church with about 25 people in attendance. Before the sermon, the (very young) minister announced that if you had questions about the sermon, you should text those questions to his number (which he announced) and after the sermon he would spend some time in response. I kept wondering why he couldn’t just allow the people in that very small group to ask the questions aloud! We are all here, face-to-face, but we can’t just talk? (‘Hip’ sometimes seems to mean ‘just stupid.’)
We – meaning most church people – tend to assume that it is always better to project everything during our church meetings. Why is it better? Do we think it makes church things easier? Why do we think such things should be easy?
We project the words to the songs we sing, but never the musical score. Do we lose anything important when people at churches never see musical notation? Do we even think about things like that, or do we simply allow technology to dictate what we do at church?
Can you really ‘tweet’ the gospel? Should we want to, even if we could?
There is probably no end to these kinds of questions, but I think we should at least be asking some of them, some of the time. We should not just assume digital is better, just because it is hot and hip – or so our culture tells us.
This doesn’t mean we should never use technology. But it appears that technology is not ‘neutral’ in regard to what it does to messages we convey with it. So perhaps it is like this: automobiles are wonderful things, but that does not mean we should never walk anywhere, even places to which we could drive. Sometimes the walk can be good for us.