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What Are Students Thinking? Part VIII: Discipled By Screens

Alone together....(photo courtesy of pxhere stock photos)

Part VIII in a series. Read past installments here: Part I Part II Part III Part IV Part V Part VI Part VII

Yes: you knew this was coming. Time to talk about screens. Takes on digital technology are a dime a dozen, so I write this at the risk of writing just another screed on screens. So students are attached to their screens. Always on them. Ya ya ya….this borders on a truism. Everyone says it. Shrug. Still, I must. It’s a central part of the narrative on youth, and I see this on a visceral level in my job every single day, so to not bring it up would be to miss a large chunk of the picture. It is a necessary part of why the world is doing a better job than the church when it comes to forming and discipling youth.

Sure, it’s a cliche’ and a common complaint, but I don’t think most realize just how deep this goes, and how screens/digital technology thoroughly *disciple* not only our young kids, but us as well. Kids--and adults--are thoroughly shaped, discipled, and educated via screens. The black mirror, not the Bible, not church or any traditional institution, is the primary spiritual, moral, and mental catechizer. I choose my words carefully, here: discipled. Not just "influenced." Discipled. Mentored. Chatechized. It runs deep and powerful. It is both a function of math--the amount of time our attention is captured by it, and a function of their immersive nature. Quite a few takes I hear frame digital technology as a mere neutral tool: it all depends on “how you use it.” Those kinds of analyses are superficial at best; what they fail to acknowledge is that the so-called “tools” in our hands are not neutral “tools.” Their use advances a whole worldview, and they have more of a hold on us than we realize. “I am the center of my own universe.” “I am my own authority.” “Choice is sacred.” “Information is all I need, not mentors.” These lies are at the heart of the very nature of this technology. This is why they aren’t “neutral tools.”

If I could give one piece of advice regarding what students face, regarding how you can successfully parent them through this tumultuous and chaotic culture that melts everything good, true, and beautiful, it would be this: keep your kids off the screens. Don’t give them a smartphone until late in the teen years, and even then severely restrict it. Keep them off social media. It’s toxic. Get off social media yourself. Yes: get off Facebook. At least stop posting on it and scrolling on it. About 15 minutes a week is all you “need” to keep up with people. I get it if you have a business you are trying to promote, but aside from that, it is 100% a performance, and your kids don’t need you performing and preening online. Don’t try to “white knuckle” it by just telling yourself that you won’t go on the apps etc. For most people, these apps exhibit way too strong a pull on us for us to resist them consistently with any sort of success. It’s like putting a heroin needle in a heroin addict’s pocket, and then telling him “now, don’t shoot up. Resist!” To that end, tweak your environment. Put the restrictions on your own phone. There is a way to lock your smartphone down and turn it into a “dumb phone,” which will severely limit its pull on you. I should know: I’ve done it to my own phone. I’ll lay out the steps in a future post, but for now you can contact me at and I will guide you through how to do it. This is an incredibly important step, because change starts with you. You must set the example in your home. If you wag your finger at your kids and preach about why they should avoid screens, but then they see you in the nooks and crannies of the day, sneaking Facebook snacks, the hypocrisy will preach a very loud sermon to them that will undermine everything else you say. This was true pre-pandemic. Covid life has only made this more pressing. This might seem drastic. It’s not. It’s reasonable. Lest I come off as making yet another cursory hand-wringing complaint about phones, a “kids these days” rant, let me detail what I see daily.

Screens have totally overrun schools. This is something a lot of parents might give lip service complaints to, but I think many, many parents highly underestimate this phenomenon and what its doing to their kids.

I’ve mentioned before that my first year teaching in Tx I had the opportunity to assist in classrooms as an ESL aide. This gave me the chance to observe the environment at a deeper level and if I was up front teaching the class. One thing that struck me hard was just how much the phones had colonized the environment and how little most teachers did to combat it. How many times did I see all but 2 or 3 students in a class 100% tuned out during the lesson, watching Bob Ross youtube videos, Lakers highlights, or with their earbuds blasting their favorite music? Answer: every day. Multiple classrooms. Ask and most teachers will tell you that this is not a one off. It is incredibly common. So teachers, like parents, give lip service about being tough on phones and being concerned about it, but those who actually do something substantive about it consistently are in the minority. And now, with covid policies dominating school culture now, that has become much, much more difficult to achieve. This doesn’t change much once they leave school. It is their dominant mode of existence. Much the same could be said about adults. Many a time I’ve been in a faculty meeting, where an administrator is up front trying to talk, but a sizable portion of the teachers are tuned out, with their noses stuck in a phone. Some might insist they aren’t on their phones much, but we tend to severely underestimate how much time we are on them. I don’t need to parade the screen time data before you for you to get this. We all sense this intuitively, deep in our bones. Are churches any different? A little, but even there, Sunday after Sunday, I see adults scrolling, and this is not merely using a Bible app to follow the Scripture in the is attention elsewhere: scrolling. I’ve even done a few role plays where I see people--teens and adults alike--scrolling on the phone during worship before the role play.

There is a level of addiction here that is not healthy. It’s no surprise, really: the tech companies at the center of all this hire many people and pay them millions of dollars to ensure that your attention is captured maximally...and they are really, really good at what they do: keeping you hooked. They know how human psychology works and are deeply attuned to human weakness and how to exploit it. It is your one feeble willpower versus a mob of expert knowledge on how to hack your will. The game is over before it starts. For a deep dive into this, check out the work of Adam Alter, Tristan Harris, Cal Newport, Jon Haidt, Jean Twenge, Sherry Turkle, Tim Wu, Chamath Palihapitiya, and Jaron Lanier, among a host of others. If you want a pop culture cursory summary of their work, the documentary The Social Dilemma will do--though it does not go far enough, IMO. These are all secular tech insiders, communications/sociology profs, and computer scientists, not rural Wyoming preppers shunning society. Heed the alarm they are sounding. Let me put it this way: why is it that many tech execs themselves, who’ve created these “tools,” won’t let their kids near them, and are sending their kids to low-tech schools? That should be a red flag. We either tend to A) get on our kids for their habits but not notice how much we ourselves are enslaved to the screen too, or B) we don’t notice how much screens disciple our kids because, again, we are the same way….to notice it would be like the proverbial fish critiquing the water. The tendency is to complain about the problem but not do much consistently to tackle it with conviction and effectiveness, whether in our home or in school, and we don’t fully grasp the extent of the grip screens have on kids and how that affects them.

If you wonder how could students be so thoroughly given over to Expressive Individualism, and so dogmatic about it and its corollaries regarding sexuality and gender, so confident and not even able to countenance the possibility that others might see things differently...well, that’s a good question with a long answer. It has been hundreds of years in the making, and I don’t want to simplify the issue. But: screen technology plays an integral part. It is not the only cause. Not by a long shot. But it is a key one. The triumph of the “modern self” as Carl Trueman calls it, could not have happened as thoroughly as it did without the aid of technology. It is the kerosene on the propaganda fire. It takes the individualistic culture that the ideas and events of the last few hundred years have birthed and hopped it up on steroids, making it 1000 times more intense and immersive. We all now bathe in it constantly.

And I know the pushback: you don’t want them to be so out of step with their peers. To put it bluntly, you don’t want them to be weird. Yes, not giving them a smartphone or severely restricting it will make them look weird, but so what? Worse things could happen, definitely. As Christ followers, we are supposed to be out of step with larger society. By giving in, you might avoid the “weirdness” tragedy (sarcasm intended, eye roll), but you will be opening them up to a whole host of other pathologies, pathologies that the above mentioned insiders document all too well.

To me, the trade-off is clear.

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