“Certain things followed as we continued to use. We became accustomed to a state of mind that is common to addicts. We forgot what it was like before we started using; we forgot about social graces. We acquired strange habits and mannerisms. We forgot how to work; we forgot how to play; we forgot how to express ourselves and how to show concern for others. We forgot how to feel. While using, we lived in another world. We experienced only periodic jolts of reality or self-awareness.” — Narcotics Anonymous’ Basic Text, Chapter 1: “Who is an Addict?”
To read the accounts of family members with addiction to digital devices is to mirror that of the drug addict’s family. To broach the subject with local kids is to hear a similar story. I had the privilege of meeting some of them during the recent Alaskan Catholic Youth Conference. Many report a minimum of five hours each day spent on entertainment devices, with the pleasure long gone, yet they remain “wired.”
Some of these teens express a mental and spiritual atrophy, coupled with loneliness and helplessness at the prospect of changing their behavior. As pleasure-seeking becomes habituated, the brain is re-wired, met by a heightened tolerance and increasing despair. It would be difficult to overstate the urgency or depth of this concern as it was revealed by many ACYC attendees. To witness the helplessness teens feel in resisting the temptation to play video games or text message is to wonder how they’ll fair in adult life.
Too many of our children are living an overexposed virtual life which leads to an underdeveloped actual life. Their compulsion might take the form of texting, ‘second life’ games, massive multiplayer online games (MMOG), social media, ‘selfie’ photos or mobile apps which effectively funnel the vulnerable to predators. This is to say nothing of the relentless bullying, mockery of Christian virtue and even repetitive stress injuries which persist until physical therapy, surgery and pain medication is required for the afflicted wrists, necks and eyes.
However casually adults might treat the Internet, for children to be exposed to the superficialities of online life is desensitizing, whether or not they become addicted. Picture a typical Facebook newsfeed: if only the moral vexation and hand-wringing given to GMOs in the food supply were directed towards influences XXX. This is a silent crime, which only seems to be growing, is against an emerging generation. We should pray for these kids who are burdened with navigating the technological tools of this age — but we must also chaperone them.
The sloth factor should not be ignored: the time spent at a keyboard or video console can never be regained, and as Catholics we have the gift of vigilance about disordered attachments which lead to vice. Our hearts and hands are to be vessels of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and our kids have the rich treasure of our faith to learn. We can’t transmit something we don’t possess. Detachment from digital media is best approached as a family. We can’t simply hope or instruct against our own example. A child glued to a screen is likely being raised by a parent glued to a screen. When we hand a young child an electronic device to occupy them, it cripples kids’ formation in a more sanitized form than administering illegal drugs. However, the neurotransmitters (dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin) become impaired in the same way. Teenagers without the vocabulary of a drug addict or the training of a neuroscientist are readily verifying the data. They’re drowning in the digital wasteland with seemingly few sources of authority willing to challenge it.
For those addicted, there are proven solutions: Online Gamers Anonymous (OLGA) is one resource. Locally, there are weekly Celebrate Recovery groups in Anchorage, Eagle River and Wasilla which address various forms of addiction in a Christ-centered environment.
The writer is a parishioner of St. Michael Church in Palmer, Alaska, wife to one, mother to five, and blogs at loxpopuli.blogspot.com.