Understand the struggles, and lead intentionally at your church.

“Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media.”

So says Dr. Jean Twenge, professor of Psychology at San Diego State University and author of more than 120 scientific publications and books. In an article for The Atlantic entitled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation,” Dr. Twenge looks at the dramatic changes happening in a generation she calls “iGen.”

Born between 1995 and 2012, members of the iGen generation don’t remember a time without the Internet. They’re digital natives who were using phones and tablets before they learned to walk.

Consider these statistics from a new report from Influence Central:

  • The average age that a child gets their first smartphone is 10.3 years old.
  • 64 percent of kids have access to the Internet via their own laptop or tablet, up from 42 percent in 2012.
  • 39 percent of kids get a social media account at 11.4 years. 11 percent had their first account when they were younger than 10.
  • 24 percent of kids have “private” access to the Internet from their bedrooms, up from 15 percent in 2012.

A lot of Christians are worried about what their children might be exposed to online. With an increasing number of stories about children being groomed by pedophiles, lured into sex trafficking rings, or exposed to some of the Internet’s darker elements, they have every right to be vigilant.

But even if these dangers didn’t exist, “screen time” isn’t entirely harmless.

The digital revolution’s impact on a generation  

Dr. Twenge has been researching the differences in generations for 25 years, and around 2012 she started to recognize some abrupt changes in the emotional states and behaviors of teens.

These weren’t just strange anomalies in data; over time they became clear, ongoing trends. These trends reflected a massive shift in how kids were spending their time—and the cumulative effect of digital intrusion on an entire generation.

What we’ve begun to see is a generation that’s less independent and less social:

  • In 2015, high school seniors are going out less often than eighth-graders did in 2009. Also in 2015, only about 56 percent of seniors went out on dates compared to 85 percent of Boomers and Gen Xers at that age.
  • Teen employment numbers are down considerably; despite the fact that job availability is up. By 2015, 55 percent of high-schoolers had jobs compared to 77 percent of their counterparts in the late seventies.
  • Between 2000 and 2015, the number of teens who get together with their friends regularly has dropped more than 40 percent.

If one was to look closely at the numbers it would be easy to focus on the positives. The fact that so many kids are choosing to stay in and interact with the world through their devices has resulted in what could be conceived as positive statistics. Teen crime has continued to drop and, and as Dr. Twenge communicates, so has teen pregnancy.

But when you look deeper, you see more disturbing trends:

  • Heavy use of social media among eighth-graders results in a 27 percent increase in depression.
  • While the homicide rate among teenagers has declined, the suicide rate hasn’t. For the first time in nearly a quarter of a century, 2011’s suicide rate among teens was higher than the murder rate.

The mobile digital revolution and use of social media is only increasing the alienation and loneliness of our teens. Between 2010 and 2015, 48 percent more girls and 27 percent more boys have described feeling excluded and lonely. The strain on kids to generate a certain amount of engagement on their Instagram pictures and Facebook posts is real and represents a change in what it means to be on the inside or outside of high-school social norms.

And even though increased social media use can be directly linked to depression and feelings of loneliness, and even when it’s obvious to teens that there is a real problem, it can be hard to extricate themselves from it. Kids are tied to their phones and can not seem to stop the Pavlovian reaction of reaching for them whenever they hear a notification.

Teens report that their tablets or phones are the last thing they look at before they go to sleep and the first thing they look at when they wake up. Many teens report sleeping with their phones as it if were a digital security blanket. The result is a dramatic increase in sleep deprivation. Between 2012 and 2015, there was a 22 percent increase in the number of kids who weren’t even getting seven hours of sleep a night.

The results of sleep deprivation include:

  • Inability to concentrate
  • Poor grades
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts

What can churches do?

As alarming as these statistics are, we can’t forget that teens experience positive effects from social-media use. Smartphones and social media have given kids:

  • Greater awareness and investment in what’s happening in the world
  • Opportunities to build international relationships
  • Access to their heroes
  • Cheap entertainment and relief from boredom

And though we might debate whether the positives outweigh the negatives, we’ll probably never be able to close that Pandora’s Box. Instead we’re going to need to develop little ways we can influence kids (and parents) to put down their devices more often.

Put together a multi-week Sunday school, service, or evening class dedicated to this issue. With a little research, you can compile enough information for a curriculum. You can also reach out to someone more knowledgeable to run the class.

The purpose of this class isn’t to scare parents, but to inform them. Ideally, the class could brainstorm ways that our children’s lives can be liberated from the constant tyranny of their phones.

Here are some ideas to pass onto parents:

1. Parents: Be mindful of your example

It’s not rare to see parents scrolling through their phones and responding dismissively to their kids. No matter what rules you try to establish about “screen time,” kids will pick up what you’re communicating about the way you use your phone.

Your kids are learning from your example, and if you exhibit compulsive behavior in regards to your social-media use and screen time, they’re going to respond in kind.

2. Establish digital-free times

Set up some times during the day when everyone is off their devices. Not only should mealtimes be screen free, but why not set up a couple hours in the evening where everyone puts their electronics aside?

Pinterest has a lot of fun ideas for putting phones away in “jail cells.”

3. Cells charge overnight in the living room

Set up a reasonable bedtime when phones can be put in the living room (or some other central location) to charge. This will help your kids get a good night’s sleep and stop their phone from being the very first thing they have to look at when they wake up.

4. Make the car a no-phone zone

Looking back on my childhood, I remember the car rides more than anything. Sure, my sister and I fought a lot, but we also had a lot of fun discussions, singalongs, and games. Don’t let the time when you’re together devolve into a bunch of separate people doing their own thing in an enclosed space.

Take advantage of car rides.

5. Decide on your family values about technology

Have a discussion about the role technology should play in your family. It’s best if the entire family can be part of the discussion. That way your kids can feel like they have ownership over any of the decisions made.

Talk about things like:

  • Your family’s philosophy about technology. What’s good about it? What’s bad about it? What decisions can be made to enjoy its benefits while diminishing the cons?
  • How much privacy can everyone expect to have in their texts and social media accounts?
  • How do we treat others online?

When families have discussions like this and follow it up consistently, they have a huge advantage in avoiding many of the traps that come with digital devices and social media.  

Breaking out of our cells

It’s hard to imagine what life was like before smartphones. How did we take pictures? How did we get directions? How did we answer the questions that popped up every day? Our phones have dramatically changed the way we do almost everything.

But that glowing little screen can be quite consuming and demanding. It’s hard enough for adults to learn how to use them to negotiate social media responsibly. It’s probably too much to expect our children to understand how to properly value technology when they’re still trying to figure out how life and relationships work.

They need the guidance of families, communities, and churches in order to make their way through this minefield. We can’t let them down.

Jayson D. Bradley

Author Jayson D. Bradley

Jayson D. Bradley is a writer and pastor in Bellingham, WA. He’s a regular contributor to Relevant Magazine, and his blog has been voted one of the 25 Christian blogs you should be reading.

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