Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Digitally Dangerous

Rewiring Our Minds
By: Chuck Colson

Before you run out and buy yet another electronic device for your kids this Christmas.

Vishal is a bright high school senior who hopes to study filmmaking in college. There’s just one problem: Vishal is rewiring his brain in such a way that he may never enjoy the career he dreams of.

As Matt Richtel reports in the New York Times, like many teens today, Vishal spends a big chunk of his day on his computer--on Facebook, playing video games, creating digital films, or sending text messages to friends.

Richtel writes that the digital world—cell phones and computers—may actually be changing how developing brains work. He notes that many kids do homework at the same time they’re texting friends. Others talk on the phone while texting other friends at the same time. And they all spend many hours every week surfing the Internet.

This kind of activity, according to Richtel, means that the brains of kids like Vishal “can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks—and less able to sustain attention.”

In effect, they develop a need for stimulation. That may be why Vishal’s grades are not that great, and why he never got around to finishing the one novel he was supposed to read over the summer for school. As he told the Times, on YouTube, “you can get a whole story in six minutes. A book takes so long. I prefer the immediate gratification.”

Well, Vishal’s right about that. That’s precisely, of course, the problem. Too much time online also affects the ability of teens to recall their homework—assuming they managed to get it done in the first place. Researchers in Germany found that kids who play video games not only damage their ability to sleep well, they also affect their capacity to recall vocabulary words. One of the researchers, Markus Dworak, told the Times that he wasn’t sure if the problem was the disrupted sleep or “because the intensity of the game experience overrode the brain’s recording of the vocabulary” words. Whatever the cause, the result is distracted kids, low grades and unimpressed college admissions staffs.

This is clearly something to be alarmed at. But Christian parents have additional reasons to be concerned. Digital distractions may make it harder to focus on faith.

Not long ago I talked about a terrific new book titled The Anatomy of the Soul, by Christian psychiatrist Curt Thompson. Dr. Thompson describes how the classic spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation, fasting, confession, and study all foster the development of our minds; they help us to encounter God, relate to others, and increase our attentiveness.

Clearly, spending too much time in the digital world, which hurts our ability to focus, is going to make it hard to engage in spiritual disciplines, which require concentration. And our minds will not develop as God intended them to.

We need to share this information with the people in our lives who are seemingly addicted to text messaging, video games, social networking, and the like. Young people need to know that excessive time online may harm, not only their ability to perform academically, but also their capacity to worship the Lord and interact with His people.

And we all need to remember that we were born wired to connect—not with machines, but with a holy God.

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