Over the weekend I had the opportunity to supervise- if that’s the correct word- a group of seventh and eighth graders at a youth retreat at a rural (but increasingly suburban) church outside of Jackson, MS. I was recruited by a recently graduated friend with connections to said church; I am not particularly adept with teenagers, but tend to accede to requests for my service nonetheless, and did so this time. Fortunately the kids- five boys actually- were very well-behaved and listened attentively and followed instructions, didn’t fight or use abusive language, got along with each other wonderfully, and in general made for a good weekend (though with little sleep).

I fear, however, that some of their good and manageable behavior was attributable, not to their upbringing and resulting good manners, though these kids obviously possessed it, but to the fact that they had two Play Station IIs to entertain themselves while we were at the host family’s house. In retrospect I rather wish I had proscribed the things except for a very limited time, but, well, frankly, I enjoyed not having to supervise anyone after having engaged in various activities and such all day. So I played on my computer or read a book while the kids played video games.

But these kids- all of whom, I should make clear, are very much from rural backgrounds, though suburbia is fast encroaching on the area- not only engaged in video games, but also used their cell phones continually. This was true primarily of the older, high school kids, but both the eighth graders in my group had expensive looking cell phones which they used to send text messages continually- including while playing video games- or at least attempting to do both. When done with video games and ready for bed, the seventh graders more or less drifted off to bed, but the two eighth grade boys spent at least an hour or two on the internet, primarily engaged with their Myspace pages. The next day cell phones were again an ever-present reality, again, primarily among the older kids, but even with the junior high kids. This included text messaging friends who were in the same room. 

All of this is, I am sure, no surprise to any reader who hasn’t been living in a cabin in the woods for the past few years. However, the full extent to which technology has penetrated the lives of even junior high kids had not been so evident to me before- I’m simply not around teenagers that often (I might note that most of what I’ve said applies pretty well to many college students). Many of these teenagers were employing or anticipating employing some form of electronic media all day: media which involves basically indirect communication, communication by rudimentary language, without the full array of sensory expression and reception, communication divested of its, well, human contexts. And the electronic entertainment likewise only employs limited aspects of sensory involvement and participation. The full range of human imagination and physical apparatus is simply not involved, nor can it be. The dangers of such integration of pervasive technology into teenagers’s- and increasingly, younger children’s- lives should be obvious enough. I wonder whether in the future people will be able to communicate and express themselves without a massive array of electronic media and devices. These technologies fundamentally disbar whole ranges of the human experience, which are lost out in the constant background roar of technology begging for attention and use. They are also calculated towards profit for a limited number of entities, whether through ongoing use or through the continual development and trotting out of new and improved gadgets for purchase. With every increase in gadgetry, other forms of life are creepingly excluded. As I mentioned earlier, the kids in my group were all rural, and fortunately still engaged in distinctively rural forms of childhood like hunting, camping, and such. The electronic gadgetry has no connection with such things, but rather is exclusionary, offering brighter and flashier things in competition, things with no intrinsic connection to any place, but especially inimical to rural communities based on outdoor activity and local participation and family involvement. It is also dangerous in relation to Christianity- extensive electronic entertainment serves as a massive enticement, obviously, but perhaps more fundamentally the breakdown in communication means that conveying the Gospel- which involves the totality of one’s humanity- becomes yet more difficult. And all of this is true without even considering the content of the entertainment or what is being communicated- that would be a whole separate issue (happily, the boys in my group seemed to be fairly judicious in their choices, no doubt reflective of the strength of their families, all of which were- remarkably- as yet unfragmented by divorce).

And in discussing this, I cannot exclude myself: I use the internet extensively, and enjoy my generic mp3 player. I really don’t like cell phones, but that has more to do with my dislike of talking on the phone than any ethical or otherwise standards (I also don’t have text messaging, which still surprises some of my friends).  Still, I spend a great deal of time using technology that is in many ways fragmentary of human interaction and culture.

I wonder what the end result of a society that is every day plunged deeper and deeper into dependancy upon electronic media, and upon the latest gadgetry, no matter what its impact upon our humanity. And likewise I wonder what can be done to break this dependancy. At the least, things like reading books, talking to people- face to face no less!- discouraging endless use of electronic media, recognizing that, like so many things, technology must be employed in moderation, and must be subordinate to man, and not the other way around. The Gospel injunction against endless accumulation and unabrogated investment in possessions is a strong corrective; we must have the willingess to take it seriously and apply it in our own lives, and encourage teenagers and children to do the same. And there must be a willingness to say no to technology sometimes- whether in regards to ourselves, or parents with their children. Even from my limited experience with kids, this isn’t easy- I’ve pacified my little brother more than a few times with the internet or television- but surely the sacrifice of temporary comfort and ease is preferable to raising another generation addled by fragmenting technology and obscenely pervasive electronic media.