WARNING: The following may require 10 minutes of sustained reading. Proceed with caution.
A few weeks ago, the upper school students took great joy watching me take a drill and a few big screws to my iPhone. I mounted its smoking carcass on a piece of wood and it now remains on display in the 8th-grade classroom. This was not a physics lesson or a random act of violence. During the weeks leading up to said destruction, the students and I had been engaged in a lively discussion about my plans. I told them of my growing discomfort with the place the phone was playing in my life and, most importantly, with my own inability to master the phone. I am sure most of you are familiar with the symptoms: the constant distraction, the temptation to check emails, the beeping interruptions, the feeling of never being able to switch off or disconnect, data overload, news overload, and screen overload. But what really tipped me over the edge was seeing the way my students reacted whenever they caught sight of my phone and the inordinate power it had over their attention. I did not want to feed into that dynamic anymore. They need to see that these objects are only bits of silicon and glass that are meant to serve us and are not to be worshiped and obeyed. Only God deserves that.
I am writing to you about this now because a related issue has cropped up during our parent teacher conferences that I want to make you aware of and to offer you something to think about as we strive to raise children in a highly digitized age.
The issue that has come to our attention is that a substantial number of our older students have created a Google chat group for Imago students. This has apparently existed for a while and teachers have noticed some secretiveness in the students regarding its existence. I bring it to your attention because, in the hours after report cards went home, students were posting their grades to the whole group online. Now, this is no great moral issue. We do ask students to not open their report cards at school and consider them to be a communication between us as teachers and you as families about our ongoing project of educating your children. But the issue it highlighted for us at the school is broader and concerns the medium through which the event happened.
The Google chat group is a perfect example of how social technologies have changed the social landscape in which our children are growing up and in which we are parenting. As a thought experiment let me ask you a few questions. Would you allow your children to have a party every afternoon for 25 schoolmates in your house without you there? Would you drop your kids off at school for even one morning if the teachers all went on strike? I hope the answer to these questions is an easy “no, of course not, they need to be supervised in groups like that.”
Why do we supervise children? Is it just about control and bad behavior? I think it is actually deeper and more profound. Parents and teachers are not just cops busting the bad kids. Instead, we are actually mediators of reality to our children. Think of it like this: Jesus is the mediator between us and God because if we were to stand directly in his presence with no mediator we would be destroyed. We play this role for our children. If they were to have unmediated access to each other and to the world, as they are in their fallen state, it would do great damage to them. As they grow up we introduce them to more and more of the world and give them more and more direct access to it and each other. When they are toddlers, they “play” with others with the very close supervision of multiple adults. When they are 5 or 6, they are given the backyard with a few friends for a few hours with a parent checking out the window occasionally. As they grow they get more space and less mediation to the point when we send them out with no supervision at all into the world.
Now bring the internet into the picture. If you give a child unsupervised access to the internet, who or what becomes the mediator of reality? The media becomes the mediator. What is created by this is a space where children have direct access to everything and everyone in the world. It seems difficult to wrap our heads around the fact that a smartphone or computer is not just an object among other objects. It is the entire world in your pocket. It is everything and everyone. So when a child is in his or her bedroom with a smartphone, they are no longer in your home, they are everywhere else. In the case of the Google chat room, our kids are in a room together having a party every night, mediating reality to each other.
Many of our parents are aware of the chat thing and check in on it. So what is so bad about kids chatting in the evening? It is concerning because what has been created is a space where children have near constant direct access to one another. Child spaces have always existed in some form: think of forts built in the back yards and alleyways behind houses, or even a child's playroom or bedroom. These are normal, good and needed but they are embedded in, informed and limited by the adult world and are ultimately directed towards membership in adult society. What is created by digital media is actually a distinct and separate culture, a youth culture, that exists in parallel to our culture. The youth culture of our age is increasingly foreign to and disconnected from the adult world. Without the shaping of adults, it becomes detached from the richness of history, is informed only by itself, develops its own set of ethics, language, and interests and usually settles to the basest, most banal and vapid level. It becomes a cultural Ouroborus, eternally eating itself.
Now put on top of this the sheer amount of time kids are in these digital spaces and the amount of access they have to one another. For many, this becomes their primary habitat where the adult world only occasionally breaks in. It is no wonder that these days, young adults are finding it harder and harder to “grow up” and adolescence is stretching into the 30's. The stronger and more pervasive that youth culture becomes the more this will be a problem. How can children enter the adult world if their primary cultural environment is so detached and isolated from that world? It is possible that youth culture will swallow up adult culture and we will become cut off from all that has come before us.
When it comes to these issues we are all responsible to our own consciences and will exercise wisdom in different ways. I will offer you no prescription or tell you what to do (cough, cough, kill your phone, cough). I can tell you though that I am enjoying the freedom I have found after smashing the idol, after a bit of unpleasant withdrawal I must admit. I also do believe that what I have said above is true. Unmediated access to the internet is dangerous for children. Children should not have their own subculture but be burgeoning members and inheritors of ours. We have to wrestle with this issue very carefully. The pace of change in our society is always speeding up and the consequences for our children are huge. But I am committed to Imago being a place where parents and teachers are thinking through the tough questions of our age. I hope you will join me in that.
In the same boat with you all,
Postscript: A few readers of this letter have communicated that they found it condescending and felt I was insulting them. After reflecting on these comments, I do see how it could have been read in that way. I am very sorry for this and hope the readers will forgive me. The “warnings” were truly intended to be a humorous nod to our busy age where writing tends to be short and pithy and to the fact that many people, myself included, are finding that the internet is eating away at their patience for longer pieces of writing. I in no way intended any insult or condescension. I am also grieved that my attempt at humor distracted from the content of the letter and may have worked against my deep desire that Imago be a place where we can have conversations about the important issues of our age; this one being of particular interest to me and many others.
I sincerely hope you will forgive my failure as a comedian and that we can talk about the ideas. What do you think? Should we mediate reality for our children? What might that look like in the digital arena?