Growing Up in Digital World

“Our kids now live in an accelerated complex culture marked by phenomenal access, profound alienation, and a crisis of authority and boundaries.” - George Barna

I’m the youth culture specialist with Toronto Youth for Christ. I’ve been at this for about 40 years and it’s been my pleasure to help out here today. Let’s talk first of all, about what it’s like to grow up in a digital world. Our world changed forever in 2007 and 2010 when smartphones and iPads were first on the market.

And within two years, the majority of people, especially in North America had one of those two devices, which meant most of our kids were in front of screens for the first time ever. As American researcher George Barna put it, “our kids now live in an accelerated complex culture marked by phenomenal access, profound alienation, and a crisis of authority and boundaries.”

And this has changed everything for our kids. It changes how they play, how they spend their downtime, how they do their homework, how they communicate, how they learn. And screens for many of our kids have become their counselors, their entertainers, their sex educators and mediators for moral decisions and lifestyle choices, which by the way, should be directed by the family.

And then what happens is it changes their values, their beliefs, their attitudes, and ultimately their worldview, which explains why so many of our kids today are struggling and confused trying to find their way in life. And so life in the digital world is one that none of us have experienced before. So welcome to cyberspace the last few years. When I’ve been out speaking to parents and youth workers, I often ask the question, “is cyberspace a real place?”

Yes or no? And what’s your evidence? And a few years ago, the majority of people would say that, you know, there is no such thing as cyberspace. Some weren’t sure. And then others would say, sure, there is a place called cyberspace. And so most people, they would say, yes, there is a place called cyberspace, but how you define it and what it’s really like, nobody seems to be able to understand. I believe that cyberspace is a real place, but it’s a place where we were never designed to live.

Most of us live in homes with rules and boundaries. And when we go online, Sitting at our computer, we’re in a familiar room with familiar settings. We don’t feel like we’ve gone any place, but once you’re transported into cyberspace, everything changes and nothing is the same: your awareness, your emotion, your responses, and the things that you would say, your behavior, your sense of time.

All of that is changed when you’re in cyberspace. And most of us have felt lost at some point in cyberspace. We burned dinner. We’ve been late picking the kids up or late for an appointment. We can’t believe that we’re online that long. And that’s part of the time distortion effect that cyberspace and the internet has on us.

We don’t believe that going online means we’re entering a new environment. We’re fooled by the sense that nothing has changed because after all, we’re still in the same room, same setting. And our mind tells us you haven’t gone anywhere. You’re still in the here and now you’re still in this reality, but that’s not true.

We see the evidence every day of this kind of phenomenon, especially in kids, in terms of what they show and what they do and what they say online. Take sexting as an example. I know of a school with 850 high school students. 200 of them were caught having sexting images on their phone. And it made national headlines.

I think it made international headlines. How could these kids be this foolish? How could they be this daring to do such a thing? Well, when you go out into cyberspace and there’s no rules, there are no boundaries. That’s just typical behavior. And the other fact that comes into play is the fact that, you know, the adolescent brain isn’t fully developed and they like risk-taking and they don’t understand the implications of the things that they are doing.

But think of it this way. Would those same 200 students go home tonight, take pictures of their bare private parts, print off 500 glossy pictures, go to school the next day, walk up and down the hallway and hand them out? Randomly? If I give them to people, you don’t know who in turn can give it to people that you don’t know.

And would you have 200 kids handing out thousands of pictures up and down the hallways at school? You’re going to know no one would ever do that. No, that’s crazy. Nobody in their right mind would do that. Yeah, that’s true in this reality because we have boundaries that we’ve grown up with, but it doesn’t apply when they go out into cyberspace and this kind of stuff happens all the time.

And there’s some real dangers out there for our kids as well that we need to be aware of in some very dangerous neighborhoods. There are online predators who can contact children and adolescents through false profiles. And once they gain their trust, they look for intimate photographs from these kids and they’re uploading being exchanged and encounters are arranged for the purpose of sexual abuse or commercial sexual exploitation.

This is commonly known as grooming the kids. The images obtained can also be used to blackmail kids by threatening to send these rude and lewd photos to their friends and their relatives. If they don’t give them money or they don’t give them more pictures. They can also be used as merchandise in the immense borderless market for child pornography.

And so, you know, there’s some dangerous places out there. And the sad part is that oftentimes parents don’t know what their kids are up to. And just a reminder to all of us at Youth for Christ that one of our jobs is to help our kids to grow up, to be safe and healthy and learn how to function in this new digital world that they’re growing up in.

Let’s talk a little bit about the power of persuasive technology. Now this is how screen addictions and screen obsessions happen. Most of us are not aware that every screen we look at as a result of a virtually unrecognized merger between the tech industry and psychology behind every screen our kids view is an army of psychologists, Euro scientists, neurologists.

Experts use their knowledge of the psychological vulnerabilities of our young people to addict our kids, mainly for financial gain. Persuasive technology. Persuasive technology is a design in which digital machines and apps such as smartphones, social media, gaming are configured to alter human thoughts and behaviors.

And so that’s what they’re up to. In other words, they’re designed to change how our kids think and act without them even knowing that they’re being manipulated. So now let’s look at screen obsessions and how they work and they work differently for boys than they do for girls. And we need to understand that the goal of this technology is to deliberately create digital environments that users -meaning our young boys and our young girls – feel fulfilled their basic human drives better than real world alternatives. And so let’s start with the girls. When the tech industry went to a psychologist and you know, what are the most basic drives or needs in the life of a girl? Well, the answer was obvious.

The drive is to be social. It’s to have friend. It’s to avoid being rejected. Documenting relationships for our girls matters to them because their self concept is created and defined within the context of their relationships. And this is why friendship matters so much to them. They need each other to help define who in fact they really are.

And so social media companies have to figure out, well, how can we reach girls? What can we do for them? How can we use persuasive design? To take advantage of these vulnerabilities that they have when it comes to their personal development. So we have come up with a number of things like Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat, and a lot of other ones, which condition girls in particular.

Now boys use the social media platforms as well, but they use them totally differently than girls do. But for girls, you know, it’s all about likes and followers and retweets and reposts and great selfies. And long threads on Snapchat and how many friends you can accumulate. Girls are obsessed with crafting just that right picture and saying the right things that will get them noticed because that’s what they want.

But there’s a significant problem with this. And here’s the problem: Social media is the only place in the world where girls will be rewarded for not being themselves. In other words, they will be rewarded for the doctored and false pictures that they put up about themselves. And that will do absolutely nothing in terms of helping them build a self identity.

In fact, you know, doing it this way creates two significant problems for our girls. Number one is that they are constantly presenting these curated or doctored versions of their life. This has an adverse effect on their life and mental health as they become more and more aware that this isn’t really me, that’s not who I am.

And at the same time, they’re being bombarded with hundreds of photographs of other girls trying to look beautiful, which only makes them feel worse about who they are that they’re not as pretty. And every girl is expected to be branding me, but they’re fluid identities, which are always changing and don’t stand the test of time.

And they struggle with the reality that this isn’t who I am. The second significant issue for our girls is the way aggression plays out online. Girls aren’t normally physical, but they will use social media to be relationally hostile to one another. They try to hurt their rivals’ relationships and reputations and social status in order to elevate their own position.

They’ll use their aggression for name calling, telling lies, posting false items, trying to make others feel left out. This is how they practice their aggression and they do it online. Now, boys are different. The basic need or drive of any boy is to achieve something to have competency and video gamers have found just the perfect thing for our young boys.

And they keep boys addicted to their screens and addicted online. This is why they can play for six to eight hours. It’s because they use a thing called operant conditioning, which means that I will give the boys a small reward on a more frequent timing in order to keep them online and keep them addicted to their screen.

And boys are all about achieving and accomplishing something. And a lot of them want to become game masters and they want to build a reputation online. Because boys are wired to seek skills and actions while being rewarded. Second-by-second many boys who seem unmotivated in real life are actually very motivated while they’re doing their online gaming.

And they have a thing called the will to power, meaning as a world view, it’s a way of valuing traits and characteristics that give them a deep sense of achievement. This is what every boy wants. And secretly these boys who get addicted to online gaming believe that they’re special and that they have a hidden destiny that will be revealed in time as they continue to play more and more, and that they will become famous or they’ll become a master in some area.

And as a result, they don’t believe that the rules apply to everybody. Their destiny and gaming future is more important than the advice of a nagging parent, friendships, school grades, or even their own health. This is why they will sacrifice all of that because they are driven to accomplish and to achieve. The bottom line for both sexes is that girls would rather be well-liked and well thought of while boys would rather be in charge more than being liked and therefore it’s easy for them to ignore their input from their parents when it comes to the value of online gaming.

That’s why it’s so hard for parents to do things, to get kids, to get out of that gaming life online. And so basically what you have is cyberspace. Which is a fun place. It’s stimulating, it’s happy and successful. I mean, every time I see a survey about would kids rather be in this world or, or in cyberspace, would they rather be online?

The number of kids who would just want to live online is just, you know, going up and up and up. Why? Because it’s a fun world. There’s no accountability. There’s all kinds of things. It’s much more fun than being in the classroom. Because in this reality can be scary, especially if you have to talk to somebody face to face. It can be challenging.

You have to, you know, apply yourself, work hard and it can be risky. And you don’t want to take any chances where you might fail or get hurt. And so that’s why so many of our kids can become obsessed or addicted with online, whether it’s through social media or through online gaming. So, what do we do? How do we respond to the screen epidemic?

There’s three areas I think of that we need to focus on, and then I’m going to leave you a practical takeaway at the end. Number one, I think we need to help our young people find ways to do more life in real time and space, whether that’s church, youth groups, small groups, serving together, whatever it is, whatever it takes to get them away from a screen.

So they’re doing more of life. In real time and real space is important. So that’s one focus. Second focus is that we need to focus on quality character development based on biblical principles, because cyberspace doesn’t care about character. All they care about is making money. And so, you know, I think we’ve drifted away from talking in a lot of our ministries about the importance of good character.

And so I think we need to bring that into play. Thirdly, we need to help our kids discover and develop their God, given talents and gifts and passions. See, because when you link a young person to their gift and their talent, they’ll be happy. They’ll be able to make a career out of it. Either, you know, in the secular world, serving God or in, in the Christian world, serving God.

But when they discover who God has really made them to be, that’s where the happiness comes from. And I can almost guarantee you that they’re not going to find that by being in front of a screen. And lastly, I put together a PDF, which you’ll be able to access here, called “50 Ways to Have a Healthier Relationship With Your Screen.”

What I’ve done the last four or five years is every time I come across a practical tip, a practical help, I’ve kept adding to the list. I started with one and I’m now up to 50. You can go through the 50 things, pick out what applies to you. Maybe they apply to your children. Maybe they apply to the kids in your youth group or the kids in your ministry.

And so those are some of the things that we can do to respond. Thanks for being here today. Hope this was helpful. You can contact me if I can be of help to you in any way. God bless. Keep up the good work. Thank you.