You may have seen Jean Twenge’s recent article in The Atlantic: “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” (Try not clicking on that title!) It’s an in-depth, troubling look at the habits and health of young people both before and after the ubiquity of the smartphone.
I taught high school seniors for the last eight years. The researched claims in this article confirmed my own admittedly subjective observations. In the last four or five years, I watched as some of the very brightest students became anxious shells of themselves. For a long time, I chalked it up to rising pressures from college admissions. And, indeed, this study claims that this is a major cause of chronic stress among students and something that must be on the radar of every church leader who works with adolescents. But Twenge notes (and my teacher friends will corroborate) that high-schoolers really aren’t spending any more time outside of class on schoolwork.
Besides, the shift I was witnessing was too sudden for that. I was watching flickering candles that should have been luminous floodlights. Less energy, less joy, less curiosity—the souls I encountered every day were more inward, utilitarian, survivalist. Twenge’s article gave voice to what was happening in my classroom.
More Than Hand-Wringing
When most people worry about what Twenge refers to as the “iGen”, they talk about Netflix bingeing and selfie-posting; in other words, screen-time and selfishness. The concern is that this new generation won’t read books, won’t engage in meaningful relationships, won’t know how to study. Of course, I share many of those concerns, but Twenge blows past that to the heart of the matter:
“Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.”
This isn’t just an issue for old cranks who want to shake their fists at ‘these kids these days.’ This is a phenomenon that’s on a scale we haven’t seen, with research that indicates the cause is rooted in the devices we’ve willingly placed in kids’ hands. The data is shot through with ironies. Technology promises constant contact, but kids are hanging out with friends less and feel more left out than ever. Social media promises the opportunity to develop meaningful relationships, but kids experience more bullying and date less often than before. The most troubling irony: the more that kids use these devices that have promised them ‘the good life’, the more unhappiness they report.
And it would be naïve to pretend that this pertains only to a single generation. The iGen may have to work through the most profound effects of the advent of the Information Age, but we are all figuring this world out together. Alexandra Samuel writes a thorough response to The Atlantic, arguing that it’s perhaps not adolescent use of these devices that is hurting the iGen, but rather it might be the parents’ increased use—and, by consequence, the decrease in, you know, parenting.
In other words, no one gets a free pass here. The New York Times wrote last year about the impact of smartphones on marriages. Even grandparents can be guilty of retreating behind an iPad or iPhone as the evening wears on.
A Formation Gap
On the one hand, this is nothing new. We want to be Chicken Little about smartphones because we like the idea that we live in unprecedented times with problems that the world has never known. It makes us sound important. But people have always struggled to control their impulses, and opportunities for us to indulge our impulses have always presented themselves as willing participants in our self-destruction.
Still though, there is something unique about the speed at which these opportunities have hit us. As has been noted plenty, the development of technology accelerates exponentially. The speed at which new ideas and devices are adopted is staggering—and it’s only getting faster. What this means for us is that there is less time than ever for any reflection, any evaluation, any education or formation that ought to accompany these new ways of living in the world.
This is where church leaders must step up. Without a fundamental understanding of the human person from a biblical perspective, individuals are left with no resources to help them manage their habits. Left to the prevailing presumptions of a secular humanist world, people will view these devices as mere objects—the question of their goodness will be irrelevant. And people will view their behavior with an unfounded optimism—they will assume they will always operate in their own self-interest in accordance with their stated beliefs.
Without understanding that we were created in the image of God and fully realizing our identity as sinners—as ones who have tragically missed the mark—those who are struggling will be left confused, frustrated, and caught in a cycle of guilt. They will have no ability to reconcile the apparent betrayal of their desires. They will be like Paul in Romans 7:15: “I do not understand what I do.”
The pastor who leads and teaches while ignoring the enormous impact of smartphones and similar technologies on the souls they’ve been charged to care for will find their work stunted. Leaders need a game plan for helping individuals recognize, evaluate, and begin to reign in their technology use in line with the life of a disciple.
Parents need guidance. The rapidity of technology growth and its disproportionately fervent adoption by adolescents means that all too often parents end up defaulting to their more-informed children, acquiescing to their arguments: “I need a smartphone”, “Of course, I should be allowed to have my laptop in my room”, “I have a right to keep my social media life private from you.”
Kids need guidance, too. A college freshman told me that in high school, her phone dug her into a hole of anxiety and depression. Another said the world of social media was toxic, that it led to envy and self-hatred. They are beginning to understand the need to reflect, to become intentional. Unfortunately, this usually comes in the wake of some deep wound they have received.
There are plenty of voices talking about this, and hopefully the conversation is already happening in your church. But a good starting point for any leader would be Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family. Crouch admits that the book was more of a side-project compared to his broader (and brilliant) cultural assessments such as Culture Making and Strong and Weak. Yet, from the response the work has received, he is realizing that this may be his most important work.
His central premise is that technology can short-circuit the work that happens in families; namely, the development of wisdom and courage. Crouch lays out ten disciplines—what he describes as ‘nudges’—that have helped his family establish habits with their technology that were aligned with the flourishing life of an image-bearer.
He is candid and practical, equally exhorting his audience and admitting his own failures. And he draws on new research from Barna to give a clear understanding of the current patterns of family technology use. For a taste of this, see their report on “6 Tech Habits Changing the American Home.”
Is this an approach that could work for you as you seek to come alongside the people you lead? Could you talk about the concrete ways you and your family have tried to live intentionally in the digital age? Could you challenge others to assess their habits and then be ready to help them prayerfully consider how they might build ‘nudges’ into their lives to get them back on the path of a disciple? I commend Crouch’s work to you as a way to think about how you might best shepherd those who feel aimless in this area.