One of the ironies of iGen life is that despite spending far more time under the same roof as their parents, today’s teens can hardly be said to be closer to their mothers and fathers than their predecessors were. “I’ve seen my friends with their families—they don’t talk to them,” Athena told me. “They just say ‘Okay, okay, whatever’ while they’re on their phones. They don’t pay attention to their family.” Like her peers, Athena is an expert at tuning out her parents so she can focus on her phone. She spent much of her summer keeping up with friends, but nearly all of it was over text or Snapchat. “I’ve been on my phone more than I’ve been with actual people,” she said. “My bed has, like, an imprint of my body.”It is a consequence of our digital connections that our actual connections have suffered mightily. It is so very true that physically our youth and teens are closer to us than ever. They are geographically close but distant to us in mind and heart. Physically they are homebodies. Our dangerous world has precluded their youthful independence, those who do work at jobs are an ever decreasing percentage of that age group, fewer of them have driver's licenses, and their preferred communication is not face to face but screen to screen. But they are more distant from us than ever. Parents and children speak to each other less and less. Parents and children live increasingly in their own separate worlds, connected by a virtual reality that has displaced both the need and desire for real closeness (at least in their own minds). Yet the result is that we are more lonely than ever -- youth feel more isolated and vulnerable than ever.
I see it in my own children. The phones are ever present and they are at the beck and call of their digital instruments more than anything else. At home and out it is increasingly easy to find families preoccupied by their own digital lives even while sitting in close physical proximity to each other. I see it in the Church. During Bible study there are many (not just the young) who cannot resist living in their digital world even while we are discussing the kingdom that endures forever and the Christ by whom we gain entrance to that kingdom. During worship there are those who cannot resist sneaking a look at the screen and how many worship services are interrupted by the sound of the hand held computers we cannot get ourselves to silence even for an hour or so?
The end result of our obsession is not happiness or friendship but increasing loneliness and isolation. Even as we speak of the community created by our Lord through our common baptism and the faith created by the Spirit, it seems we live out this community through an electronic medium rather than face to face, hand to hand, and heart to heart. The Gospel has become reduced to a personal relationship with Jesus and Christianity must constantly make the Church useful, beneficial, and necessary to a people increasingly unsure of the need for the Church.
Prior to the phone becoming a personal computer and a portal to the internet, the phone was simply a phone. We made phone calls with the now ancient flip phones subject to so much ridicule. And now we do everything on our phones. Since 2007 when the iPhone was introduced, the world has changed. Toddlers are able to navigate the screen as early as they begin speaking. Parents, always in search of something that will keep the kids occupied, are severely tempted to use screens as babysitters. Schools believe that the best way to educate our children is to bow to the technology gods in the classroom. Digital assistants are advertised as robots to do everything for us from ordering things online to turning on the lawn sprinklers to writing grocery lists (to be ordered online, of course). Of course, many of these things are good and valuable but where will it all end?
Have our phones become our gods? In a great line from the great movie The Devil Wears Prada, we are reminded that the one whose call you always take is the one with whom you are in a relationship. We might be allowed to alter such a great line to say that the thing you cannot part with has become your god. Have our phones become such deities -- the places we turn for information, the creators of our community, the prayer closets in which we own our secret thoughts, fears, and sins, and the guardians of the truth we call our own? Perhaps it is time for the Church to confront us. Perhaps it is time for us to consider the cost of our wired generations and the price we pay to be connected but distant. Perhaps it is time for the Church to become a safe zone in which electronic devices take a back seat rather than the guardians and guides of our spiritual journeys. Perhaps we should be called to repentance for investing into devices what belong to real human relationships and to our relationship with our Creator through His one and only Son who has made such connection possible.
Just thinking but you know how dangerous that is. So my advice for you? Close up your laptop, turn off the big screen of your desktop, shut down your tablet, and set aside your smartphone. Life will go on. God is present in the vacuum of digital silence through His means of grace. You are not alone.