True confession: I read about these alarming trends of online addiction while reading something online myself. Specifically, I learned about the dangers of excessive online usage through The Daily Beast, an online news source. They in turn were reviewing an article in Newsweek, which first appeared in print.
The gist of the article was that the Internet has created greater problems for users than have previous technological advances. To put some numbers to the problem, here are some findings:
• The average teen spends seven hours on some sort of electronic screen even on school days.
• The average adult sends or receives 400 texts per month; the average teen 3,700.
• Nearly two-thirds of regular smart phone users report feeling alert vibrations when nothing is actually happening — phantom alerts?
• More than a third of smart phone users get online before getting out of bed.
• More than 26 percent of drivers text while driving (this may be the reason why the light seems to change before the cars in front of me get going!).
Scientists have been researching how all this time online is affecting our brains. Susan Greenwald, an Oxford University professor, is writing a book on how our digital culture is affecting the wiring of our brains, and the news is not all good. A number of recent peer-reviewed studies have discovered that excessive Internet use affects the brain in much the same way other addictive behaviors do.
I am not a scientist and I’m not an alarmist, but I do think our culture’s obsession with online activity may have some sort of impact on what it means to be human. Two first-hand observations stick out for me. Several years ago, I was chaperoning a youth dance. I saw a young man dancing with a beautiful young lady, but all the while he was on his cell phone talking to someone else.
In another more tragic case, I watched a young woman flunk out of the freshman year at her dream college because of an addiction to a virtual reality game. Even her rather handsome boyfriend could not bring her back to the real world. Thankfully, she got some help and is now doing fine. But the pain she put herself through lends credibility to the story in The Beast article about a couple in Asia who neglected their real baby to death while taking care of a virtual infant online.
Of course, these are stories with extreme consequences, but I’m wondering if our virtual addictions aren’t redefining communication and what it means to be human? What if screen communication is replacing face-to-face? Why talk to someone in the same house when you can text?
This redefinition of communication has been producing less-than-happy consequences. The Beast article observes: “Web use often displaces sleep, exercise, and face-to-face exchanges, all of which can upset even the chirpiest soul.” Numerous peer-reviewed studies have begun to demonstrate the connection between excessive digital immersion and mood-swings, and even mental illness. The mild highs of digital connection cannot replace the long-term satisfaction of real touch. I love skyping with my grandson, but I would trade a dozen calls for one chance to hold him in my arms.
One of the greatest compliments ever paid to a man in the Bible was when the Book of Exodus observed that God would speak with Moses face-to-face, as one speaks to a friend (33:11). There is something about real physical presence that is important.
The digital world is here to stay, but we do have some control over whether it will be a part of our world or if we will be absorbed into its world. I find it ironic that in a virtual world, one of the more popular TV shows is called “The Real World,” though I’m not sure how real it really is. Maybe there is a longing for some reality.
Disclaimer: This article was written on a laptop, so any semblance to reality is purely coincidental!
Rev. Jim Govatos currently serves as Senior Pastor at Aloma United Methodist Church located in Winter Park. A former atheist, Jim is passionate about helping people understand and experience a living faith in Jesus Christ. Please share your thoughts by emailing him at email@example.com