The National Catholic Review
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Last month the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study packed with truly shocking findings. Americans between the ages of 8 and 18 now spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes a day using a computer, video game console, television, cellphone and all manner of handheld electronic devices and digital technology. Fifty-plus hours a week are an awful lot of screen time for anyone, especially impressionable and insecure youngsters.

Many aspects of the report disturb me. Just picturing in my mind’s eye millions of adolescents holed up indoors and tethered to flickering gadgets for hours on end makes me sad for the opportunities our youngsters are missing to enjoy the great outdoors, participate in physical exercise and engage in genuine human interaction of the face-to-face variety.

Equally disconcerting is the trend line of tech overuse. Young people’s current daily level of electronic consumption exceeds by 77 minutes the average amount in 2004, the last time this social indicator was measured by Kaiser’s Program for the Study of Media and Health. I would like to think we have hit the ceiling, but where this trend goes next is anyone’s guess. If the upward trajectory were to continue, it is hard to imagine what remaining parts of a well-balanced life will be crowded out by the increasing time our children spend “plugged in.”

Last summer in this very space I lamented the losses that over-reliance on cellphones and handheld electronic devices spell for our society. We are hearing even more about potential public health concerns, such as the dangers associated with distracted drivers and even pedestrians lost in their gadgets. There are deepening social concerns too: the need for protocols governing rude behavior, like interrupting dinner conversations and business meetings to take a call or retrieve one’s electronic messages. A municipal official in Danvers, Mass., recently had to propose a ban on texting during meetings of the town’s Board of Selectmen out of respect for the people these elected representatives serve. It takes guts to take on cellphone technology, but I am glad someone did.

If society finds creative ways to accommodate such technology so as to avoid the worst violations of safety and politeness, a third set of concerns remains: the spiritual aspect of life. A culture and lifestyle that allow constant interruption erode our ability to develop a habit of prayer and reflection.

As a theological educator, my hunch is that these are especially critical issues for our youth. Young children and adolescents struggle mightily to forge a stable identity, a sense of self that allows them to feel truly comfortable in their own skin and to be open to the transcendent. While a majority of the human race could probably use some remedial work in developing the intangible quality of interiority, youngsters face a particularly uphill battle to clear out time and mental space to be alone with God. Mindfulness and deliberateness are endangered species in the current age of digital distraction, where buzzing and flashing images envelop us around the clock.

A simple edict will not enforce progress on this front. The best we can hope to accomplish is the fostering of conditions that make it more likely that the youth of today will develop habits of mindfulness that can sprout into a mature spiritual life.

A good first step would involve debunking the myth of multitasking. The conventional wisdom nowadays is that the practice of splitting one’s brain among several simultaneous tasks is somehow desirable, even necessary in today’s digital world. Yet growing evidence from the field of neuroscience suggests that such activity is by no means efficient and in some regards physically impossible. While we persist in believing that we can handle ever greater doses of simultaneous electronic stimulation, the human nervous system exhibits serious limits in its ability to handle interruption and to switch back and forth among tasks without debilitating sensory overload.

Several themes that recur in spiritual literature come into play here: the quest for proper balance, the virtue of temperance, the necessity of addressing self-delusion and even the practice of Christian resistance against corrupt cultural forces. Difficult as it may be for adults to face up to these facts, it is even more imperative that the next generation learn to unplug.

Thomas Massaro, S.J., teaches social ethics at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, Chestnut Hill, Mass.

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