A Gathering Voices post by Lynne M. Baab
I have found my life works better when I devote about 3 hours a week to email when I’m on vacation. I have two major motivations: (1) to clear away a lot of the junk in my in-box so I won’t be overwhelmed when I get home and (2) to answer any urgent questions from my students or the editors of the various things I write. I have found others asking the same questions I ask: is this sensible or compulsive? Is this simply an irritating reality of the on-demand world we live in, or it is a sign of addiction?
I must say I do miss the holidays of the early 1990s and before, when I simply left everything behind for a week or two. However, at the same time, I (usually) don’t believe 3 hours of email in a week of vacation makes me an Internet addict.
I’m not one of those “technology is neutral” people. I limited my kids’ TV because I think TV changes brain function and encourages passivity. But I’ve been less alarmist about the Internet in general, because people use it in such different ways, and some of the ways seem to be innocuous. When I read a long article from the New York Times online, I don’t think the process of reading online is that much different than reading on paper. When I write or read an email from a friend, I don’t think it’s that much different than writing or reading a card or letter from a friend.
Last week’s cover story in Newsweek upset all my preconceived notions about these questions. (The whole article is posted on the Daily Beast website becauase the DB now owns Newsweek.) Here’s an excerpt:
“The brains of Internet addicts, it turns out, look like the brains of drug and alcohol addicts. In a study published in January, Chinese researchers found ‘abnormal white matter’ – essentially extra nerve cells built for speed – in the areas charged with attention, control and executive function. . . . Other Chinese results link Internet addiction to ‘structural abnormalities in gray matter,’ namely shrinkage of 10-20% in the area of the brain responsible for processing of speech, memory, motor control, emotion, sensory and other information. And worse, the shrinkage never stopped: the more time online, the more the brain showed signs of ‘atrophy.’ . . . And don’t kid yourself, the gap between an ‘Internet addict’ and John Q. Public is thin to non-existent. One of the early flags for addiction was spending more than 38 hours a week online. By that definition, we are all addicts now, many of us by Wednesday afternoon” (Newsweek, July 16, 2012).
Shrinkage of parts of the brain responsible for processing of speech, memory, motor control, emotion, sensory and other information. . . . This has profound implications for Christian faith development and congregational life. I read the Newsweek article at about 8 p.m. the other night, and I couldn’t get to sleep until about 1 a.m. because I was worrying about the implications of this research both in my own life and in the lives of people in congregations. For the record, a rebuttal to the arguments in Newsweek is posted here, but I don’t think the rebuttal addresses all the issues in the article, particularly not the observations of Shirley Turkle, MIT researcher who is the author of two tech-positive books.
The Newsweek article describes research done by Turkle, who has changed her up-beat approach to the Internet because of what she heard when she interviewed more than 450 people. She found all kinds of disturbing things: mothers and fathers emotionally unavailable to children because of being online all the time, sad and stressed out people who spend lots of time online, teenagers who are weary and depressed because of the constant need to create a self online, people who seem to have forgotten what’s important in life.
Perhaps fasting from the Internet with some regularity is more necessary than ever. Perhaps turning off computers as a part of a sabbath observance would be good. Perhaps making sure we engage in offline recreation every day would be a good discipline.
I was a part of an online chat group about this topic the other day, and one man talked about the fact that connections on Facebook with friends from high school has been part of a healing experience for him. We’ve got to affirm the positive relational connections made possible by the Internet while also affirming the significance of putting limits around the time we spend online. This is one of the big challenges for Christian leaders today.