The Patheos Catholic Channel is hosting a Symposium on the Family in light of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family in October and the recent release of the working document for the Synod.
The working document for the upcoming Synod on the Family lists “Dependence, the Media, and the Social Network” as one of the critical situations within the Family. The passage identifies various areas of concern with the way media and technology impacts the life of the family. I’m breaking these down into four distinct categories:
- Addiction: Compulsive and damaging use of new technology.
- Alienation: The ability of technology and media to push us further apart, eroding relationships within the family.
- Values: Transmission of false values.
- Information Noise: Information overloaded coupled with the dubious quality of much of what we see and read.
I’m going to try to write a post on each of these, starting with addiction.
Electronic gadgets have a powerful gravitational pull. The quick look at Facebook becomes an endless spiral of links, memes, cute videos, and listicles. A session of World of Warcraft doesn’t end until five hours later. There’s a growing unease when five minutes pass without checking a smartphone.
What do all these behaviors have in common other than the general medium of “new technology?” What do they provide that makes them so appealing and hard to resist?
Technology use stimulates pleasure in the brain. The stimulation of pleasure is nothing new for humans: a sight, sound, smell, sensation, or taste can give us pleasure or trigger some psychological or physiological response. The smell of a sizzling steak can make us hungry. The touch of a lover’s hand can make us aroused.
This pleasure-seeking behavior is not in itself always a problem, but it can easily be taken to excess and lead to sinful and illegal acts. People have over-eaten, used pornography, used drugs, and found other ways of stimulating pleasure. Those who did so compulsively and to excess became addicted: that is, they lost the will to break away from a certain behavior even after that behavior became destructive.
Today, we see new forms addiction with excessive use of social media, inability to disconnect from technology, long hours spent in virtual environments such as games, and pornography.
These addictions pose a different challenge to us because they are free and easy to indulge, they are in the home, and often they appear harmless.
Checking your Facebook status is a perfectly reasonable behavior. Checking it a hundred times a day is not.
Playing a video or computer game for a couple hours is a nice way to spend the time and even interact with friends. Playing the game for 5 or 8 hours at a stretch is unhealthy.
The barrier to finding pornography has vanished. In the past, a man (it’s almost always men) had to buy certain magazines, rent certain movies, or go to certain parts of town to experience pornography. That involved being seen in public and interacting with people, with all the attendant embarrassment and potential social stigma that entails (or, at least, used to entail before the mainstreaming of porn).
Now porn is, literally, anywhere you want it, any time, for free. You can carry an endless supply around in your pocket. Your kids can find it by typing harmless phrases into a search engine. This drastically reduces the challenge of getting it. The effect is akin to running a line of sewage into every house in America.
Thanks to the internet and our gadgets, we are now living full-time in a Skinner Box. Technically called an “operant conditioning chamber,” a Skinner Box is a basic research device in which a cue signals a test subject to perform an action for a reward. The light goes on, the rat hits a lever, a food treat is dispensed.
The structure of much new media and technology creates a compulsion loop. We see something (for example, a link to a video), we click it and experience it, and we react emotionally, either with pleasure or outrage. In either case, there is a psychological and, potentially, neurochemical, reaction. And it was all effortless.
With social media, we shape an image of ourselves through status, comments and link-sharing; projecting that image into the virtual space and then revising it for reactions which provide affirmation. Even people engaged in hostile and trolling behavior online are responding to a pleasure drive: it’s just that their pleasure comes from making others feel bad. Their pleasure is found in unleashing the id in a consequence-free environment.
Games provide instant gratification and constant feedback. They are cannily designed to balance risk and reward in order to keep the gamer playing. There’s always another level, another batch of gold or points, another foe. The compulsion loop is actually part of the design.
(And we haven’t even seen the worst of it. Members of the Synod are probably unaware that we’re preparing to sail into uncharted waters of virtual reality with Oculus Rift. If Call of Duty on a screen is addictive for some people now, imagine it as a fully immersive virtual world with a headset that shuts out the world. Pornographers are already trying to figure out how to harness its power to deliver visual and tactile sexual stimulation.)
Is there an answer to addiction?
Not an easy one, no. To some degree, many of us already probably have it in our households and experience it ourselves. How many of us feel twitchy without our smartphones or check to see who liked or shared a recent post or comment? How many have kids who need to dragged away from videogames or YouTube? How many men dial up some quick and easy porn?
We need to learn to draw back, as families, because as families we can do things together that might be more difficult to do alone.
Families need digital detox days in which they unplug in part or completely for a day in order to reconnect with the world around us. We need to set limits on how long we spend, and if we can’t set those limits ourselves, we need to use tools which turn off certain sites or block certain technology after a specified amount of time.
Our technology needs to find its proper place in the scheme of family life so there’s no room for addictions and compulsive behavior to take root.
Simple actions like this may help us face some challenges, but long-term solutions are going to be hard to come by. All of this technology is still new and we haven’t yet learned to fear it as much as we love it.
Fire is easy. Fire burns. We learn to respect its power and harness is for positive ends.
The internet, mobile devices, and other new media do not burn; not right away at least. We’re the proverbial frog in the pot, enjoying the rising temperature of the water so much that by the time we notice it’s boiling we’re already dead.