Digital Media and the Decline of Thinking

“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn…” C.S. Lewis–Mere Christianity

We operate under an assumption that all progress is only good, especially technological progress. Progress brought us nuclear power, but along with nuclear power, we gave ourselves the ability to annihilate the human race in minutes. We are capable of inventing destructive technology.

We appear to have done this with the television and the cell phone. Just as nuclear physics gives us light for our homes and nuclear warheads, so the digital revolution has given us both helpful and destructive powers.

I just finished reading The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman, erstwhile Chair of the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at New York University. The late author, writing thirty years ago, documents the affect of the digital revolution on childhood. He notes that, “…pictures and other graphic images may be said to be ‘cognitively regressive’, at least in contrast to the printed word.” What he means here is that a picture oriented or saturated world prevents the development of the mind necessary for a child to become an adult who can work with concepts and abstractions.

Julie Taylor, our (my school’s) speech language pathologist with USD 305, remarks that with increased technology use in the home she has seen an increase in negative behaviors and a decrease in proper speech development as children spend less and less time in conversation with their families and friends.

Indeed, we have been witnessing the results in our election cycles. Postman writes, “the mass-produced image has introduced a constant and pervasive element of irrationalism into both politics and commerce. …a candidate’s image has become more important than his plans, a product’s ‘image’ more important than its usefulness. Those old enough to remember will call to mind the importance of make-up in the Nixon-Kennedy debates.

What does this mean for us as Christian parents? God has given us children to steward for His glory. We must control our children’s access to media. What we do with our children and what we allow them to do in their free time teaches them what to love. We need to raise children who know words, can argue (well), can describe pictures with words, and can see behind the “image” of a candidate or a product to reason to truth. The importance of facility with words cannot be underestimated since our world began with the words of God. “In the beginning was the Word…” John tells us. God inspired a book with words, not a picture-book or painting.

This is why we turn Netflix off and tell our children to read or go outside. This is why we teach logic in the middle school and keep cell phones, gaming systems, and other electronics in a central part of the home and out of the bedrooms. The ability to abstract, use words, and argue gave us men and women who produced the constitution, modern science, and the freedom we enjoy in this country. Responsibility (even patriotic duty) means saying, “No” sometimes. This can be costly. There is a trade-off that requires delayed gratification. Your children may not be as far along as their friends in the newest video game or up on the latest episode of the popular television show or vlog. Postman in the epilogue says, “…there are parents who are committed to doing all of these things [controlling technology use], who are in effect defying the directives of their culture. Such parents are … creating a sort of intellectual elite. Certainly in the short run the children who grow up in such homes will, as adults, be much favored by business, the professions, and the media themselves. … Those parents who resist the spirit of the age will … keep alive a humane tradition.” A humane tradition this is certainly what we need to understand, proclaim, and live out God’s word for the sake of our country and our world.

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