In early 2011 a woman was walking through the Berkshire Mall in Reading, PA while texting on her phone. She failed to see a fountain in front of her and tumbled head first into the water; getting completely drenched. The mall’s surveillance cameras captured the scene which found its way onto YouTube where it received over 2 million views. Her fall provoked laughter and became a modern parable of the perils of being too absorbed in digital media.
Two years later, we are even more absorbed. Information is streaming at ever faster rates in ever greater volumes demanding ever more of our attention. Authors W. Russell Neuman, Yong Jin Park, and Elliot Panek attempted to find out just how much information comes at us and published their results in the International Journal of Communication. They found that in 1960 there were on average 82 minutes of media coming into the home for every minute someone in the household actually consumed media. By 2005, that number had grown to 884 incoming minutes for each minute spent consuming. Therefore, if we consume one hour of media we have over 53,000 minutes of information flooding us. No wonder we’re so absorbed in our smart phones, tablets, computer screens, televisions, and video games.
Most of us impose no limits on digital intake. Like a person who promises to eat just a few Oreo cookies but accidentally consumes half the package, we don’t realize how media consumes us. One minute updating our status on Facebook turns into ten. Ten minutes to scan the news on our tablet turns into thirty. Thirty minutes to watch television turns into an hour. An hour to play video games turns into two. Soon several hours each day are consumed adding up to uncounted days each year devoted to the close companionship of our media devices.
What happens when the plug is pulled? In October, Hurricane Sandy roared on shore in the Northeast. As part of its destructive wake, it left millions without power and without their devices. The New York Times reported on how families were coping with the loss of the constant stream of information. The Ingall family is one example:
“For the first three days, I was full of maternal pride,” said Marjorie Ingall, a writer in the East Village. “’Look at my children: reading by candlelight, cutting out paper dolls, engaged in such brilliant imaginative play. We are so ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ Then Day 3 hit and the charm of screenless togetherness wore off. I was genuinely concerned that we were all going to kill each other.”
By the time the family made their way to a relative’s fully powered home, one of the children “had cracked like an egg, spending three hours glued to the TV and ignoring all humanity,” Ms. Ingall said. “My prediction: It’ll be a week to 10 days before we’re back to all our zoned-out-and-beeping habits.”
One home that still had electricity became a haven for family and friends to charge their devices. Another family fought viciously over the car charger. Some parents likened what their children were going through to withdrawal from a drug addiction. Others left the state in search of power. One mother found conversation with her ten year old son so difficult she was “…silently pleading for someone to turn the power on.”
Addiction – or at the very least, dependency – may be the best word to describe our relationship with digital media. Yet, despite its controlling effects, most of us aren’t willing to impose any limit to its sovereign reign over our lives. Our attention spans get shorter. We are exposed and desensitized to sex, violence, and tragedy. Our days are one constant distraction. We lack the initiative to read a book much less attempt something significant with our lives. We build our beliefs on sound bites from bloggers and vent our rage in Facebook posts. We have become a generation with nearly limitless information but no real knowledge. We can instantly look up the speed of light, the winner of the 1996 Super Bowl, or the best recipe for fried chicken, but we lack the wisdom which comes from study and experience.
A Christian is called to something more than mindless and endless consumption of digital media. Paul writes in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God.” Are we being conformed by our media or are we being transformed by the God we supposedly worship? Many Christians have never read their Bibles; not because they won’t but because they can’t. Their steady diet of Twitter feeds has made the Old Testament wholly unintelligible. Many have no real prayer life because it doesn’t provide the instant gratification found in the click of a mouse or the tap on a touch screen. Many fail to serve Jesus in their church or community because of their service to Call of Duty on xBox.
Does this mean televisions, computers, smart phones, gaming consoles, and tablets are bad? No. Like most things humans create, how we choose to use or not use them makes them good or bad. We can redeem digital media and use it as a blessing and for the glory of God or we can let it slowly strangle us.
Do we control media or does it control us? 1 Corinthians 6:12 tells us, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything.” Digital media is enslaving millions who bow to its every beep and vibration. Does that include us?
Do we place any limits on our consumption or do we put the fire hose of media in our mouth and turn it on? Proverbs 4:23 tells us, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” Digital media and its often questionable content are shaping the culture but the Word of God should shape Christians. What is shaping our lives?
According to a Verizon Wireless survey, children receive their first cell phone at age 11. A Nielson company study said the age could be as low as 9. Digital media is here to stay and is already saturating the next generation. How we use it will shape our lives, families, churches, and communities. Maybe we should unplug and discover if the fountain of living water we’re drinking from is Jesus or Google.