Children and teens today are growing up in a technology-saturated world. From iPads and smartphones to computers and TV screens, there's no denying technology has become a huge -- and unavoidable -- part of culture.
In 1970, children began watching TV regularly at about 4 years of age, whereas today, children begin interacting with digital media as young as 4 months of age, research shows. Additional statistics show that children between the ages of two and 18 spend an average of almost five-and-a-half hours a day at home watching television, playing video games, surfing the Web or using some other form of media.
And it's not going away anytime soon. The percentage of teens who had smartphones jumped from 37 percent in 2012 to 73 percent in 2015 to 89 percent at the end of 2016, according to data from the Pew Research Center and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Overall, 50 percent of all teens said they felt addicted to their phones , according to a report by CommonSense Media.
With 24/7 access to the internet and unlimited connectivity to peers, teen culture looks vastly different than it did a decade ago. Extensive research shows that media affects children's cognitive, emotional and social development -- and by extension, their faith and spiritual growth.
Technology Glorifies Self Above All
Most children and teens today can't imagine a world without social media; Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and youth seem to be deeply interconnected today. The Barna Group found that nearly half of American teens (48%) spend their free time on social media or texting with friends.
The number of social media users rises by a significant margin every year, according to statistics from the Pew Research Center. In 2005, just 5% of American adults used Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. By 2011, that share had risen to half of all Americans, and today, 69% of the public uses some type of social media.
Facebook is the biggest player in the world of social media, with 87% of all online 18-29 year olds using the platform. However, Twitter and Instagram are social media platforms most commonly used by young people. 37% of online 18-29 year olds use Twitter, and 53% of online 18-29 year olds are on Instagram. Instagram is reported to have a higher engagement rate on its posts than any other platform.
Because social media allows users to present the best versions of themselves, users are susceptible to falling into the temptations of self-glorification, comparison, discontentment, and idolatry.
A recent report titled "Decreases in Psychological Well-Being Among American Adolescents After 2012 and Links to Screen Time During the Rise of Smartphone Technology," found that after rising since the early 1990s, adolescent self-esteem, life satisfaction and happiness significantly decreased after 2012, the year smartphone ownership reached the 50 percent mark in the United States.
It also found that adolescents' psychological well-being plunged the more hours a week they spent on screens, including with the Internet, social media, texting, gaming and video chats.
The findings corroborate with earlier studies linking frequent screen use to teenage depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
Dr. Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary, warns that continued smartphone use and the constant seeking of applause causes us to "ignore our finiteness," instilling in users a "subconscious desire to become infinite like God."
"A smartphone absorbs our interest because it is so alluring. It can do so many things. And in a sense it is asking us to do so many things with it," Groothuis said. "But humans are limited. We can only think through so many things at once. We can only feel properly a limited number of things. And these technologies want to stretch us out over the entire globe with Twitter feeds, Facebook messages, and photos shared on Instagram. Instead, we need to embrace our finitude. And if we really own up to our finitude and the fact that a life well lived is a life lived carefully, as Paul says (Ephesians 5:15, Colossians 4:5), we simply have to say 'no' to some of these things."
Technology Can Create Distracted Young Minds
Children and teens today are distracted more than ever before. The unending stream of information offered by computers, TV, and smartphones pose a significant challenge to focusing and learning, according to research. Many elementary and high schools today require students to be online and to use various devices, including iPads and Chromebooks, to do their work.
Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston, said that the developing brains of children and teens can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks, thus rendering them less able to sustain attention.
"Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing," he said. "The worry is we're raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently."
Studies show that oftentimes, children and teens "multitask" when it comes to technology, meaning they'll simultaneously talk on the phone, read e-mails, send texts, and watch TV and YouTube videos.
Research shows that this form of "multitasking" is neither efficient or productive -- and undeniably impacts spiritual practices. Instead of reading the Bible or praying, it's easier and less mentally taxing to browse Facebook, watch Netflix, or scroll through Instagram.
According to Barna, more than eight in 10 parents of teens (82%) say their child takes their phone to bed and more than seven in ten parents of preteens (72%) say the same. Additionally, 62 percent of parents say checking their phone is the first thing they do in the morning. Most check their email (74%). Social media (48%), news (36%) and calendar organization (24%) also vie for their attention. However, less than one in five (17%) are using a Bible or devotional app.
Tony Reinke, senior writer for Desiring God and author of 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, argues that spirituality is something that should not be multitasked - it should be unitasked.
He writes: "The study of philosophy cannot be distracted by tweets. And if not philosophy, how much more should we aim to unitask our study of God and our prayer life? In reality, Scripture calls us to a life of single-minded self-reflection that often gets thwarted by the hum of multitasking. If it's important, it's worth being unitasked. Which means there must be priorities that trump our iPhone push notifications."
Technology Persistently Instills the Values of Secular Culture
Thanks to social media, everyone has a platform -- and with this comes exposure to the immoral, ungodly, and misleading. Barna discovered that Millennials are taking their questions of faith "to the search bar," with nearly six out of 10 practicing Christians (59%) saying they search for spiritual content online. While this isn't always a bad thing, a separate study from Barna found that due to increased connectivity, secular worldviews have "crept into Christians' perspectives" and truth is redefined.
Barna found that just 17 percent of Christians who consider their faith important and attend church regularly actually have a biblical worldview. Nearly four in 10 (38%) practicing Christians are sympathetic to some Muslim teachings; 61% agree with ideas rooted in New Spirituality; 54% resonate with postmodernist views; 36% accept ideas associated with Marxism, and 29% believe ideas based on secularism.
Nearly 1 in 3 practicing Christians strongly agree that "if you do good, you will receive good, and if you do bad, you will receive bad." Barna suggested that these beliefs appealed "to many Christians' sense of ultimate justice."
A separate study from Barna found that although nearly six in 10 Generation Z teens identified as Christians, only four percent of Generation Z held a "biblical worldview."
Additionally, the continued portrayal of violence, sex, and drugs/alcohol in the media has been known to adversely affect the behavior of children and teens. A 2012 study from Psychological Science found that the more teens were exposed to sexual content in movies, the earlier they started having sex and the likelier they were to have casual, unprotected sex. Another study found that children who view media violence are more likely to have increased feelings of hostility, decreased emotional response to the portrayal of violence and injury that lead to violent behavior through imitation.
"Violence in the media has been increasing and reaching proportions that are dangerous," said Emanuel Tanay, MD, a retired Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Wayne State University and a forensic psychiatrist for more than 50 years.
"You turn on the television, and violence is there. You go to a movie, and violence is there," Tanay told Psychiatric Times. "Reality is distorted. If you live in a fictional world, then the fictional world becomes your reality."
The world of tech poses undeniable risks to the spiritual life of children and teens -- and that's why it's important for Christian parents, teachers, and youth leaders to prayerfully consider how to monitor and utilize technology children's lives.
John Perritt, youth pastor at Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church in Ridgeland, Mississippi, encourages parents to become educated on what their children are absorbing via media. He recommends using grovo.com for online tutorials of various sites/apps and visiting Walt Mueller's site Center for Parent/Youth Understanding at least once a week to stay on top of youth cultural trends and concerns.
Perritt advises parents to set up boundaries for their children, converse with them, and pray for wisdom in a rapidly-changing, technology consumed culture.
He writes, "While there are foolish parents who have turned their kids loose on the Internet, other parents have been responsible with their teen's smartphone usage and still fear the technology. To those parents, I want to remind you of your loving heavenly Father. Many of you are great mothers and fathers who are, by God's grace, trying to steward the lives of the precious children God has given you. Remember that you have a Father who lovingly cares for you and your children. He is the best Dad who ever existed, and he wants to hear any concerns you have about your children. Plus, he is the creative genius behind any new creation; therefore, turn to him in prayer and trust."