The Trend of Unplugging--Be an Early Adaptor

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Originally published September 15, 2010.

An opinion from Newsweek writer, Daniel Lyons:  “The Internet just keeps giving us more ways to do nothing.  We have more information than ever before. We're never away from it. The air around us fairly hums with it. Computers are all around us too—they're on our desks, in our pockets, on our coffee tables.

“And yet I can't shake the sense that we are all becoming stupider and stupider—and that we are, on average, less well informed today than we were a generation ago.

“I mean, look at us, lining up outside Apple stores like a bunch of kooks. Or walking around, staring down at our phones. We've been turned into zombie people.

 

“Oh, but we're very, very busy zombies. We're reading e-mail. We're tweeting and retweeting. We're downloading apps, and uploading photos. We're updating our Facebook status and reading our news feeds and telling the whole world what we like and don't like, because for some reason we imagine that the whole world actually cares. You know what we're not doing? We're not thinking. We're processing. There's a difference.

“We're putting our brains into neutral, and revving the engine. We're digitally dithering, clicking on links and swimming through a torrent of useless garbage being thrown at us by idiots and self-promoters, pundits and PR flacks and marketing people.”  (read more at source)

This may be true of the teens in our youth groups.  But is this also true of you?  This is a check-your-heart time for you.  Are you thinking or are you processing?  Are you justifying your processing as “ministry time” when it is truly not that?  As Peggy Kendall opined for the Youthworker Journal, “Some of us don't even notice the big sucking sound of our spiritual lives disappearing.”

As has been commented about Gen Y, “Gen Y had frequent, pre-planned play dates with carefully selected cohorts as Barney the dinosaur sang about caring and sharing and working together. This generation of team players would much rather be social than have solitude.”  (MediaPost.com, September 10, 2010)  Is not one reason why teens text so much is that it is a way to send a pulse to make sure that “they” know that you're there and you're still connected.  Do we as adults send out the same pulse to make sure our “audience” knows we are still here?

These days we are ministering to a new type of teenager. One that has a different generation gap (media vs. social and moral) but also a different way to process life. As child and adolescent psychologist, Dave Verhaagen, is discovering: “They know almost every piece of information they want is at their disposal whenever they need it.  They’re less interested in learning facts and learning data than in knowing how to gain access to it and synthesize it and integrate it into their life.  We’re talking about kids in elementary school and up and talking about much younger children who know how to get a hold of information.  Their brains are developing in ways where they’re taking in astronomical amounts of information, screening out unimportant details, and focusing on the parts they need.”  (Newsfactor.com, February 11, 2010)

The creator of Chatroulette is a 17-year old high school dropout from Russia and someone older than the elementary children discussed by Dr. Verhaagen has said this about his computer:  “(The computer is) one hundred percent my window into the world.  I always believed that the computer might be that thing that I only need, that I only need that thing to survive.  It might replace everything.”  (Andrey Ternovskiy, The New Yorker, May 17, 2010)  The article also shared a story of when he met his best friend face-to-face.  He is another teen who lives in West Virginia and the two talk every night by Skype.  Yet when they met in person, they had nothing to say to each other.

How do you minister to a teen whose window into the world is through the computer?  Is this a good thing for teens?  Maybe not.

Today’s young teens don’t remember a time without the constant connectivity to the world that technology brings.  And they are growing up with expectations of always being present in a social way—always being available to peers wherever they are.  Is this a good thing?

“In a recent study done by the University of Maryland, students were asked to give up their media connections for 24 hours, including text messages, TV shows, music, e-mail, and Facebook on all sources including cell phones.  Those in the study experienced withdrawal symptoms similar to those seen in drug and alcohol addicts, including cravings, anxieties, and preoccupation to the point of being unable to function well. Many experienced cravings and anxiety because of their temporarily cut ties. One student called their dependency ‘sickening’; another spoke of texting and IM-ing giving him ‘a constant feeling of comfort’ and said that the moratorium made him feel ‘alone and secluded from his own life.’”  Source

Nobody knows the extent that this problem could be to children and teens in their development.  Some are researching that brains are literally being rewired.  Experts are surmising but the tech-tools change so quickly that research can’t keep up with them.   By the time researchers design a study, secure funding, collect results and publish them, the technology has changed and the study is outdated.

This has, of course, started a trend of unplugging.

According to a Youth Markets Alert report, today’s tech-savvy brand creators will be tomorrow’s losers.  To quote:  “Kids will have officially surpassed their parents on all technology fronts, so much that they are more willing (and) likely to unplug than their elders.  Luddite activities such as woodworking and crocheting will surge in popularity as kids crave a time-out from the pressures of a digital environment.”

Trendcentral is also noticing this trend saying, “Unplugging can take many forms; it can be temporary or permanent, limited to specific technologies or all-encompassing. And the reasons for doing it are endless, from Big Brother-style fears to a growing awareness that our behavior is scarily similar to that of lab rats. We can envision a time when unplugging, in one form or another, could become as commonplace as plugging in is today.”  (March 31, 2010)

The editor of Seventeen, Ann Shoket, encouraged girls to unplug for the summer, or at least sometime over the summer in her editorial.  (Seventeen, June/July 2010)

Some college professors are assigning technology fasts for their students or rewarding extra credit for a semester without Facebook. Over at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, they are instituting a campus-wide “social-media blackout.”  During the week of September 13-17, the campus network is blocking Facebook, Twitter, AOL Instant Messenger, and MySpace on the campus network. Faculty, staff members as well as students will be affected so they can all have a shared experience.  Of course, anyone who really wants to can drive off campus and get themselves on.  (The Chronicle of Higher Education, www.chronicle.com, September 9, 2010)  Will the students of Harrisburg University experience withdrawal symptoms in this shared experience?

There is now an actual app to help you unplug.  Freedom is the name of an application that disables networking on an Apple computer for up to eight hours at a time.  Yes, the irony is rich here.  If you need technology to unplug, are you really unplugging?  Another irony.  A blogger has blogged about taking one night a week off of technology (52 Nights Unplugged).  Then got back on technology to blog about it.

President Obama said at a commencement address at Hampton University, “Information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.”  (HuffingtonPost.com, May 9, 2010)  Of course, bloggers riled against this quote.  Oh the irony.  But it is good to hear a statement like this from a leader.

So many of us youth leaders have been early adaptors to this technology—often looking for ways to use this technology to better reach teens with the Gospel.  I don’t believe we’ve damaged teens with these ways.  But there is something that the Bible calls all Christians to that we desperately need to be teaching our teens—how to be silent in God’s presence.  How to unplug and rest in God’s presence.  If this trend of unplugging is real, I implore us to be early adopters of this trend.  Intentionally incorporate luddite activities into your plans.  Again from Peggy Kendall, “What we—and our kids—desperately need now more than ever, is sacred time and space.”  We can do this.