Over the past decade and a half, I have written a lot about the issues of media/technology and our youth of today. Most of it is available on my website (by searching under the tag term “technology”), and I encourage you to check out the articles/series that I have published about various topics, some of which include much more specific recommendations regarding how to address media/technology concerns. Through all of this, though, I realize that some people often look at recommendations such as mine from a restrictive standpoint, in much of the same way we might view health advice or religious beliefs. For this (and many other reasons), it is understandable that we would feel worn down by advice that does not naturally coalesce with how we and others might be living today. But beyond the perception of rules and restraint, there is another vision for media/technology and our youth that is aspirational. It is one which is founded not on limitation, but on hopes and dreams that I believe almost all of us share for our kids. It is a desire to put their well-being first in importance, and trends and technological advances second.
My vision begins with three major principles. From here it develops into a broader landscape of how these principles apply to day-to-day habits and routines. These principles are as follows:
- Media/technology encourages (not discourages) natural, healthy development throughout the lifespan, in the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual domains.
- Media/technology promotes human autonomy and critical-thinking, not unnecessary dependence on devices
- Media/technology is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
From these core principles, I will briefly illustrate how each applies more closely to our youth’s daily existence. But first, it is important to address a few things that we are learning about development from neuroimaging. The first is that by 15, most of the basic intellectual skills have been developed, thereby emphasizing how important it is to promote reasoning and critical-thinking skills prior to this age. However, between ages 15 to 22 (in most individuals), brain centers dedicated to self-control, emotional regulation, organization, and planning skills continue to mature. Adolescents show more neurological activation when presented with pleasurable stimuli than at any other age. In addition, neuroimaging has found a strong “peer effect” which seems to be hard-wired. That is, if adolescents are exposed to immediately gratifying options, and peers are engaging in similar behaviors, adolescents really struggle to make different choices; therefore, neuroimaging research suggests that making entities “harder to obtain” is likely a more effective public policy than “education” alone (e.g., Just Say No). As the editor of the Journal of Adolescent Health notes (prefacing an edition dedicated to this topic):
Adolescent self-esteem, family, and school connectedness, and belief systems have been identified as protective factors for positive adolescent emotional health. If one conceptualizes these elements of societal guidance as the “brake” for reckless adolescent behavior before the inhibitory prefrontal cortex is fully developed, then one can understand that our forefathers were correct in providing structure and guidance for developing adolescents through close family, school, and community relationships [p. 322]
Principle #1: Media/technology encourages (not discourages) natural, healthy development throughout the lifespan, in the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual domains: We open this vision with a simple understanding. Early social skills and physical development set the stage for the rest of a person’s life. A child must repeatedly engage others face-to-face, and experience the world around them in constant movement. Therefore, at a young age, the vision of technology is that it lies dormant, and allows nature and nurture to follow its course. This is why the American Academy of Pediatricians recommends no screens before the age of 2. As children grow older, though, we see the vision of media/technology used strategically, such as following up on curiosities (e.g., “Where and how does a honey badger live?”) or as rewards (e.g., an extra cartoon for chores completed). Yet, the aspiration is that children come to understand how to learn, create, communicate, and entertain through what the people and environment around them provides. Their bodies grow strong and lean from constant movement; their minds ask curious questions and seek out the answers in places all around them.
Meanwhile, through both natural development (e.g., when children start smiling and pointing) and repeated instruction by parents and caregivers, they start navigating the social-emotional world. They learn that relationships can be challenging and frustrating, but through repeated communication of happiness, fear, admissions, apologies, and forgiveness, they develop a sense of excitement about engaging with people they know, and those they will come to meet. Unfortunately, repeated texting during childhood and adolescence inhibits this very intricate, intimate process; therefore, if parents desire to have access to their kids while away, they do so through phones that do not have texting capacity. By the time they reach adulthood, parents who have seen this vision realized in their offspring find themselves excited by the next step that their son and/or daughter will take. They recognize the holistic development that has occurred, and that they have learned the core skills needed to take on the next challenges that will come.
Principle #2: Media/technology promotes human autonomy and critical-thinking, not unnecessary dependence on devices: From the earliest of age, we all have a desire to seek out support when the least uncertainty or uneasiness arises. Little kids run to their mom when they fall down. Toddlers cling to their parents in unfamiliar situations. But as we grow older, it is important that we learn to distinguish between moments when we should reach out for help or seek diversion/avoidance, and when we should rely on ourselves (and our Maker) about what we have learned to work through challenges. It is a necessary thing because life only gets busier and more complicated, and those that struggle with even small decisions and tasks will always struggle more with life’s bigger issues.
This vision of autonomy merges with technology in a few ways with our youth. We seek to teach our kids how to use technology as rewards and aids, not necessities and crutches. It is here that mobile devices can become a deterrent to this aspiration, as their “constant companionship” leads our youth to repeatedly text for reassurance, surf for pleasure, or game for engagement. When pressed to divorce from this “companion”, fear and anger often rise up, which contradicts much of what we envision for the growth of our youth. So devices must be withheld, except for periodic, direct use. When this vision comes to fruition, what we see is something truly beautiful. It is the site of a young man or women seeking out their personal call, unsubscribing to the need for repeated assurance and adulation; one where fear of failure gives way to a love of self, of others, and of where they may be called. In their autonomous being, others come to experience this person as authentic, and vibrant, and empathetic, engaged in every way possible to what surrounds them.
Principle #3: Media/technology is a means to an end, not an end in itself: If technology is truly a gift to us like fire and water, then it must live by the same rules. We seek fire for warmth, not to die in its intensity. We seek water for restoration, not to drown in its submersion. And we seek technology for its access, not to languish in its immersion. As our youth grow up in a technological way, what we seek for them is to discover how media/technology can link them to an experience already spawned in their own being. Whether it is the moment that worm curls up from a crack in the driveway, and they wonder just how it lives. Whether is when the sun rises in the morning, and they desire to know how and why it ascends. Whether it is the moment they see a plane for the first time, and imagine that someday they might guide its fins.
The vision for our youth is that technology does not become the prize or the call, but that the call or prize is made more possible at times through its lens. So, at young age, we begin to use the internet as a launch back outdoors. Movies and television aren’t used for the primary purpose of babysitting (although at times it may occur), but rather to give them a laugh, and keep them curious. Days may go by and screens remain silent. That is okay because we do not seek to divert our children from the real act of living, but appreciate when the screen lights up for the promise it holds, not needing it for their being. And as they grow older, and they are given the choice between “veging” in front of a screen, or seeking out new wisdom, or the renewed touch, and sound, and sight of the woman next to them, the screens will lose out to a world unknown until then.
If you want to know my vision for our youth and technology, it begins here. It begins in a free, fruitful, faithful, forgiving place, where people of all ages do not serve the devices that surround them, but seek to serve God first, others second, and themselves third. It is where technology is just one more means to greater health, happiness, and harmony, and where “cool” and “innovative” and “popular” no longer supersede the commitments and callings we all hold dear. It is a place where we remain inspired by the quiet sunrise each morning and the moonlit glow of the night, and wake up curious about what the day will hold, with visions of our little ones (and our big ones) smiling broadly and running strongly with nothing on their side. It is here that I pray my children will aspire to be.