“What do you mean she doesn’t have a phone?” That was the reaction of the cashier at the local Target. She was in utter disbelief that my wife and I did not see the urgent need to supply my ten-year-old daughter with unlimited access to the digital world. Oh and the ability to make a call if needed. Many of her friends do have some kind of smart device, and we have had the subsequent, “my friends have them, why can’t I” conversation during more than one family dinner.
As the cashier bagged our items and waited for the register to finalize the transaction, I explained that much of my childhood was based on surviving a much smaller world—a world that spanned only as far as my dad’s voice would carry. If he stood on the front porch and called you, you’d better be close enough to hear. The cashier rebutted that the world was safer and simpler then. But that’s not entirely true. Simpler? Maybe. Safer. Not at all. In fact, the world in many respects is safer now then it was when I was growing up. But some of the greatest dangers we have access to, we carry around in our pockets and have become addicted to. And it is worse for our students.
Before I get too far into this, let me be clear. I love my technology. I am often told that I am on my phone far too much. I love the reminders, dings, and notifications. If I see a little red dot with a number, I have to check it and clear it. But if I—a late GenX’er has become another victim of the sensual allure of the latest and greatest slick tech, then what fighting chance do my children or the students I lead have? Friends, the struggle is real, and it has an impact that goes far beyond just being addicted to the dings and red dots.
Let me explain.
There is no longer a difference between the physical and digital reality
If you’re in that GenX category, you recognize names like Atari, Commodore, and the earliest versions of Nintendo. When we were introduced to the digital world for the first time, we marveled at what a few buttons could do to an object on the screen. Whether my grandmother’s Pong or the local arcade’s PacMan we had the most unique experience in which we could enter a new world—briefly. At least until our quarters ran out or our moms kick us back outside.
For Millennials, that world changed dramatically—the internet was born. Suddenly the world became bigger and more accessible. The digital world began to draw closer. Just a few simple clicks and you could enter into a reality that seemed to have no boundaries. The space between the physical and the digital started to overlap. But unless you’re some of the latest born in the Millennial generation, chances are you still had one computer and maybe even suffered through dial-up internet.
But what about GenZ? I spoke with a pastor recently, and this is how he explained it to me. “When once kids played video games as another character, students today play them as themselves. It is no longer, ‘look what I can make this guy do,’ to ‘look what I did!’” To me, this was a simple commentary on the digital reality of today’s students. There is no more going “online,” there is no more disconnecting, and there is no longer any difference between the physical and the digital. The world that we once had to enter into is the world our students were born into.
Depression is the new norm
If you took a quick glance at the social media profiles of some of the students you know, your first impression might be that students are generally happy. When compared to other generations, you might also assume that today’s students are just as happy—or perhaps more happy than their parents and grandparents. Dig a little deeper, and a much more disturbing reality emerges. According to some researchers, GenZ is on the verge of a mental health crisis, and the influence of the digital reality cannot be understated or ignored. With every new app, Netflix series, or YouTube sensation comes greater amounts of screen time. That screen time robs students of genuine face-to-face social interactions, consequently leading to more loneliness. Students would rather spend time under the blue glow of their screen and yet complain they are lonely.
According to generational researcher, Dr. Jean Twenge, “More young people are experiencing not just symptoms of depression and not just feelings of anxiety, but clinically diagnosable major depression.”
It is no surprise to any of us that depression, anxiety, stress, self-harm, and even suicide have invaded the lives of our students. And screen time is not the only culprit. Lack of sleep, lawnmower parenting, and academic competition are also substantial contributors. But these (as well as others) are really more symptomatic driven by an unhealthy influence of a digital world students cannot escape from.
We are asking babies to run marathons
Before the age of social media, there was an escape route for students. You could—at least temporarily—hide from the pressures of teenage social life, hide from bullies, and hide from certain embarrassment. There is now no escape. Every post, like, share, story, notification, and comment reminds us that we are connected. But more importantly, it is driving student behavior for better or for worse.
The desire is to be liked. The goal is to gain followers, get as many likes as possible and comments that build you up—creating the perfect social image. Getting people to respond on social media often means upping the ante, doing something crazy, dangerous, or just plain stupid. Just look at how many YouTube challenges are trending right now. Some of them silly games to play and have some innocent fun. Others incredibly dangerous, and for some, have led to dire consequences—even death.
Oh, and did I mention, that teens have an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex? That is the part of your brain responsible for good decision making. And our students just don’t have that yet. So we give them a device that is connected to the entire world, filled with ideas and challenges that promise them social fame if they complete the challenge. We allow students to create an online social image that is often filtered and a misrepresentation of themselves while still navigating the awkward discovery of who they are and how they fit into the world. We are asking students (from elementary through high school) to make their way through a world without the cognitive capacity to do so. To put all of this more simply: We are asking a baby who just learn to walk, to run a marathon.
My ten-year-old still doesn’t have a phone. And despite my amazing lectures to her about what it was like when I was a kid, I barely remember what life was like before smartphones. In our house, it is mass hysteria when the internet fails. I can’t imagine being disconnected. But the world of our students is far different than ours. It is not just about technological advancement, but a seismic shift in reality. And students don’t know any different.
We can’t expect them to navigate this new world on their own, nor should we clear a path to make their lives as comfortable as possible. Far too often students are not ready for the entire scope of the digital world. Our job as pastors and parents is to expose them only to what they can handle. Every student is different, and every situation requires its own analysis. If we—as leaders—are falling victim to the lure of our own social media image, then imagine the struggle our students face every day without ever really knowing. What are we doing to help them?