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Smartphones Are Our Soma

How technology is crippling iGen

The prominent psychology researcher Jean Twenge has a must-read piece on The Atlantic site today. Here’s the gist of it:

I’ve been researching generational differences for 25 years, starting when I was a 22-year-old doctoral student in psychology. Typically, the characteristics that come to define a generation appear gradually, and along a continuum. Beliefs and behaviors that were already rising simply continue to do so. Millennials, for instance, are a highly individualistic generation, but individualism had been increasing since the Baby Boomers turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. I had grown accustomed to line graphs of trends that looked like modest hills and valleys. Then I began studying Athena’s generation.

Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it.

At first I presumed these might be blips, but the trends persisted, across several years and a series of national surveys. The changes weren’t just in degree, but in kind. The biggest difference between the Millennials and their predecessors was in how they viewed the world; teens today differ from the Millennials not just in their views but in how they spend their time. The experiences they have every day are radically different from those of the generation that came of age just a few years before them.

What happened in 2012 to cause such dramatic shifts in behavior? It was after the Great Recession, which officially lasted from 2007 to 2009 and had a starker effect on Millennials trying to find a place in a sputtering economy. But it was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.

Twenge follows up with a barrage of statistics and analyses. The charts are jaw-dropping. Smartphones and social media are creating a society where people are radically atomized, and do not know how to interact with other people — not even their families. Twenge cites psychological research showing that kids in what she terms “iGen” (those born between 1995 and 2012, who grew up with smartphones) are far, far more likely to experience depression and malaise. One hopeful statistic from that generation — that they are having less sex, and starting it later — may well be due to the fact that they aren’t talking as much face to face to others.

Read the whole thing. I dare you to get through that piece and still be sanguine about giving your kids smartphones and unlimited access to social media. Twenge writes:

What’s at stake isn’t just how kids experience adolescence. The constant presence of smartphones is likely to affect them well into adulthood. Among people who suffer an episode of depression, at least half become depressed again later in life. Adolescence is a key time for developing social skills; as teens spend less time with their friends face-to-face, they have fewer opportunities to practice them. In the next decade, we may see more adults who know just the right emoji for a situation, but not the right facial expression.

Twenge focuses on smartphones, but makes it clear that she’s talking about screens, period. I’m not a big social media user, but I spend all my working day in front of a screen, and have for years. Over the last five years, I’ve worked from home, and on most days have had no interaction with people outside my immediate family. I must confess that I have let myself atrophy in terms of actual social engagement — with face-to-face friendships, I mean. I get to the end of the day feeling that it was a busy day, but the truth is, almost all my conversations have been via text or e-mail.

Not only that, but I have slowly become more withdrawn and introverted. I have noticed this for the past couple of years, and figured it was just part of getting older. I used to be fairly extroverted, but now when I take tests like the Myers-Briggs, I am marked as an introvert. I find public events more stressful than ever. I am most comfortable mediating my interactions with people through a screen.

Twenge’s piece made me think that what’s happening to me is not simply a part of getting older, as I had figured, but is mostly, or even entirely, driven by my heavy use of the screen. This is something I have to deal with.

Here’s a relevant passage from a recent book:

At the neurological level, the Internet’s constant distractions alter the physiological structure of our brain. The brain refashions itself to conform to the nonstop randomness of the Internet experience, which conditions us to crave the repetitive jolts that come with novelty. Writes Nicholas Carr [author of “The Shallows”]:

One thing is very clear: if, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet.

The result of this is a gradual inability to pay attention, to focus, and to think deeply. Study after study has confirmed the common experience many have reported in the Internet age: that using the Web makes it infinitely easier to find information but much harder to devote the kind of sustained focus it takes to know things.

Compounding the problem, the technological mentality denies that there is anything important to be known, aside from how to make things that help us realize our desires: in ancient Greek, techne, or “craftsmanship,” versus episteme, or “knowledge gained through contemplation.” Techne refers to knowledge that helps you do things, while episteme refers to knowledge of how things are, so that you will know what to do.

Both contemplation and action are necessary to human flourishing. The Middle Ages prized contemplation, which is why medieval societies, including product of their technological knowledge, were ordered to God. The icon, thought to be a symbolic window into divine reality, is an apt symbol of the age. Contemplation is alien to the modern mode of life. The iPhone, a luminous portal promising to show us the world, but really a mirror of the world inside our heads, is the icon of our age.

Under the rule of technology, conditions that make authentic Christian life possible disappear. And most of us have no idea what’s happening.

You should read that book. So should I, though I shouldn’t have to, because I wrote it. Physician, heal thyself.

A reader in his twenties who sent me a link to the Twenge essay writes, of the effects of smartphones:

The evidence is as overwhelming as it is unsurprising. The social effects are likely to be dramatic. How do these kids get a proper education, get married, and have kids with such high levels of mental illness and low levels of romantic interest (implied in the article)? And what does this do to their religiosity?

On the other hand as Heidegger was fond of quoting from Holderlin, “where the danger is, grows the saving power”. Constant thrum of smartphones and their gnostic disentangling of body and mind might drive these kids to the repose and spiritual unity that traditional Christianity offers. That tendency has already been visible in my generation and, if we can reach them, may be increased in the next.

I hope so. A parent I know told me her 13-year-old son is having a lot of trouble making friends. He’s the only one in his class without a smartphone. All the boys ever talk about, according to this kid, is what they’re watching on YouTube on their phones, and the games they’re playing on their phones. The kid wants to talk about music, sports, et cetera. But nobody else in his class does.

I am reading right now Michel Houellebecq’s 1998 novel The Elementary ParticlesIt’s rough going, because its descriptions of sex are pornographic, though never attractive. There’s a point to this ugliness, though. Houellebecq has written a portrait of two half-brothers, the offspring of a wastrel, flower-child mother who neglected them, and fathers who were absent from their lives. They both grew up in a loveless world. One became a sex-obsessed hedonist, desperate to find love and meaning; the other became a ghostly ascetic, incapable of making an emotional connection with anybody. What they share is their isolation from normal human love, growing up as they did in a generation that had cast off traditional family and religion, in favor of individualism and hedonism.

Houellebecq writes:

Metaphysical mutations – that is to say radical, global transformations in the values to which the majority subscribe – are rare in the history of humanity. The rise of Christianity might be cited as an example.

Once a metaphysical mutation has arisen, it tends to move inexorably toward its logical conclusion. Heedlessly, it sweeps away economic and political systems, aesthetic judgments and social hierarchies. No human agency can halt its progress – nothing except another metaphysical mutation.

It is a fallacy that such metaphysical mutations gain ground only in weakened or declining societies, When Christianity appeared. The Roman Empire was at the height of its powers: supremely organized, it dominated the known world; its technological and military prowess had no rival. Nevertheless, it had no chance. When modern science appeared, medieval Christianity was a complete, comprehensive system which explained both man and the universe; it was the basis for government, the inspiration for knowledge and art, the arbiter of war as of peace and the power behind the production and distribution or wealth – none of which was sufficient to prevent its downfall.

The Internet is the technological driver of the metaphysical mutation that began with (choose one):

a) the Renaissance, which led to the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason and the primacy of the individual; or

b) the Sexual Revolution, which placed the desiring individual at the center of the universe, and anchored identity in sexual desire

In a way, it really doesn’t matter. The point is, the metaphysical shift is undeniable. We are post-Christian now. The Internet and related technologies are leading the revolution in individualism and hedonism to their ultimate conclusion: everybody sitting in their rooms alone,  having virtual reality sex with a porn star of their own imagination (which is to say, masturbating).

Smartphones are our soma.

This is a civilizational tsunami. If Christians are going to ride it out without drowning (so to speak), they are going to have to get very clear in their minds how the metaphysics of Christianity — that is, the model of how reality works — is very different from the metaphysics of modernity. And they are going to have to live this difference out, no matter the cost, making friends and allies from people in other religious traditions who, whatever their differences, ardently wish to hold on to what it means to be truly human, and not a slave to technology and desire.

This is the point I try to make in The Benedict Option: that these are not normal times, and the only way Christians are going to survive them with their faith intact is by taking radical action nowPolitics cannot save us, because our core problem is not political, but rather metaphysical — and that is a matter of religion.

One of the more frustrating parts of the Benedict Option debate is that 90 percent of the people who interview me focus on the politics chapter, and maybe also the sex chapter — but almost nobody asks about the technology chapter, which might be the most important one. Jean Twenge indicates why.



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