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Digital Native = Relational Foreigner?

When asked, Steve Jobs said he wouldn't let his children play with iPads.

Why would the tycoon of the consumer tech industry not let his own children play with technology like everyone else? Jobs knew the potentially destructive power that can lie in technology.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love modern technology, I’ll admit, sometimes a little too much. The speed at which I can accomplish tasks, communicate with the masses, organize to-do lists and pay my bills is amazing! And let’s not forget the ever-present cool factor, I mean who doesn’t want to eventually wear the Ironman suit!?

Most technology, from the wheel, to pen and paper, to light bulbs; tend to come with a fear of their integration separating us from life. But the question is not one of technology’s inherit worth being good or evil, but one of how we choose to utilize it. Do we allow digital connectivity to participate in our sanctification and relational connection with God and people, or do we passively allow the tendencies of sin and the world to utilize these technologies to prevent or hinder our sanctification? Of course many modern connecting technologies like web chatting can allow a soldier to see his loved ones an ocean away, and platforms like Facebook allow us to have glimpses into our friend's lives even though separated by many time zones, which are great resources, but are these things helping us to connect better, or are they just easier? In God's worldview nothing in life is more important than Himself and others (c.f. Mat 22:37-40), and yet oftentimes we prioritize ourselves above everything else. And this is exactly what technology can help us to do, to be more self-centered.

“Digital natives” (see Prensky, Palfrey & Gasser, and a counter by Sadowski) are people born in the year 1980 or later. They have had modern technology integrated with their lives since they were old enough to focus their pupils. [1]

But what is all of this doing for the millennial generation in terms of relational development and maturation? Does this new era of technology and it’s integration into our relationships short-circuit or even cheapen what we experience between each other such as love, respect, admiration, worry, concern, and compassion? My text emoticon to my wife can express my love and care for her, but to what degree? If this is done in isolation without consistent face-to-face communication and intimacy, can the depths of human relationship be plumbed? Can you actually develop a deep and meaningful friendship with that girl from class by a text conversation back and forth all day, but speak little to no words with her in person? I have learned as a pastor, the hard way many times, that there are many things I would be wise not to communicate via email. Text on a screen can lack many of the nuances of language: communication via body language, intonation, inflection, cadence, accentuation, facial expression, etc. [2] A simple line such as "What are you doing?" on a screen lacks the evidence for someone reading it to know if I'm simply inquisitive, or if I'm angry and condescending. Through experience I have decided conflict is best to be dealt with and resolved in person, rather than through text or email.

While unprecedented access and connection to information abounds through the Internet via the computer in our pockets called smart phones, I fear we are getting more and more disconnected from each other than ever before. But it has become quite normal, I even find myself disconnecting from people in order to connect with a screen. I sometimes find myself in those awkward and uncomfortable moments, using my technology as a safety blanket and scapegoat out of that conversation, or as a way to excuse myself from some situation I would rather not be in. How many times have I looked down at my phone hoping to find something important so that I can disconnect from the situation, and people, at hand? Sitting at a traffic light in downtown, seeing that vagabond approaching my vehicle, I quickly look down at my phone as though I am engaged in some life-altering important business so as to not make eye contact with him. A video game, email or text message is never more important than another human being, no matter how marginalized the person is, and unfortunately possessing technology as an extension of one’s arm from youth tends to do nothing to impart thoughtful consideration and engagement with the marginalized and poor among us locally and globally. I believe this happens because digital technologies can seduce our selfishness, laziness, and hubris.


Unprecedented access and information abounds ... but we are more disconnected than ever before


While there are many benefits to technology such as opportunities for increased productivity, creativity, and innovation, I imagine one of the great dangers in its overuse and dependence is how it can affect development in the early stages of a child’s life, social and otherwise - stages such as the learning of proprioceptive motor skills (not limited to thumb and index finger dexterity), social cues and relational skills, as well as self-esteem, worth and value. Technology poses a threat to rob these experiences, or at least seriously alter them to the point where these connections are happening in different ways. While it is true that the digital age has allowed for advancements in medicine, allowing surgeries without the loss of life, children are learning to connect to a digital representation on a screen of false reality. Digital pets, cities, and friends, have perhaps stunted and misaligned human relational development because it provides any easier, less vulnerable, and ultimately unsatisfactory substitute helping to create a generation that is more disconnected, isolated, lonely and hopeless than any before it. And though false intimacy is nothing new to the human race, the rapidity and volume of access to digital sex and fantasy is at a new precipice fraught with danger in how and why humans learn to connect to each other sexually.

Let’s face it, as Christian’s we believe that we will one day live forever with God in heaven. This will not be a partial relationship, but one in fullness. Nor will it be in isolation; heaven will be a community, filled with risen and glorified people along with the new creation, lacking all favoritism and prejudices, with Christ himself as Lord.

So how do we counter our culture to act, believe, and relate to God and each other, as he desires? First it begins with a conviction from God’s word, looking to understand how he developed humans to be in relation to Him and each other (Gen 1-3), then a willingness to discard anything that compromises or minimizes this (Luke 9:23-33). Often it will likely mean intentionally “unplugging” [3], in order to escape the bombardment of technology and listen to God, being ready to respond. “One of the costs of technological advancement,” says Don Whitney, “is a greater temptation to avoid quietness.” And so, many of us “need to realize the addiction we have to noise” (Spiritual Disciplines, 228). This “quietness” can allow us to develop and experience deeper intimacy with God. Developing intimacy with others can be achieved by putting our devices down as well. While you are in the presence of real people, try being aware of when you might be tuning out an opportunity to listen, understand, communicate, and relate with someone. I often have to remind myself to really listen to what someone is saying when I am sitting across from them and drifting, especially because my mind can wander to trivial things like what my next tweet will be.

God calls us into his family, Christ’s body. This means we must connect (1 Cor 12). Next to loving him he says there is nothing more important in this life than to love others who are real and tangible, relating through verbal and non-verbal language, touch, sense, shared experiences and community. I highly doubt these can be completely replicated digitally. We can’t only shoot at aliens and snipers on the screen together, or capture our thoughts in 140 characters or less; we must actually participate in life together. Relationship takes practice, and so does unplugging. Some people may be better at relationships than others, but all of us need practice. Many times it comes in the form of “on-the-job” training, where we fumble through tough scenarios together and say the wrong things at the wrong times in the wrong ways. In this way we practice forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation, learning to imitate our Lord, living life to the full through relationship.



[1] For example, I recently witnessed my friend’s daughter who is not yet 2 years old, perfectly swiping through and touching the interface of an iPad, trying to beat her own high score in an educational game. She can’t even speak yet.

[2] Somewhere in the order of 90% of communication comes from something other than the words that are used. (Psychology Today, Sept 20, 2011, Jeff Thompson)

[3] Here are some popular apps that can help in your efforts to unplug.


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