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The following is a piece I wrote for The Geneva School’s September Courier which was just released. Enjoy.

Stating the obvious: We live in a digital age and our students swim in a culture whose current is strong and whose native language, increasingly, is one of text, status posts, and digital images. At The Geneva School, of course, we seek to help young people swim against such current as much as possible. Are we merely Luddites, opponents of anything new and “more efficient”? No, we are realists; but we seek to reflect upon whether such new modes of communicating encourage or discourage human flourishing.

I read an intriguing review entitled “Touchscreen Toddlers and Instagram Teens” by Amy Finnerty in The Wall Street Journal (August 31). The author discusses a new book, The Big Disconnect (Catherine Steiner-Adair, Harper, 2013), and mentions another notable book I heard about last year entitled “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (Sherry Turkle, Basic Books, 2012).  Ironically, I am frustrated that WSJ online “locks” such superlative articles, otherwise I would include the link. We are left relying upon the old fashion method of photocopying if you wish to see it. The review is worth reading and speaks to our situation at Geneva.

The article begins with a reference to the notion that families spend less and less time IRL. Whether or not you are familiar with the shorthand, I am confident that you see quite often what they are saying. A family of five at dinner at a local eatery, sitting quietly, all consumed by their individual iPhones and hand-held game machines – enthralled by the digital, missing family time together “In Real Life.” Such times are graphic examples of “being alone together.” The concern from many experts is growing. Evidence is mounting that such overwhelming amounts of time in front of screens is serving to diminish fundamental human skills of communication, patience, empathy, and conflict resolution.

For example, we increasingly say things to people by text and email that we would never say face-to-face. The less-personal mode of digital expression erodes the normal filters of gentility, respect, and deference. Studies are showing that young people exhibit a growing inability to talk things through in a manner necessity for managing conflict as human beings. Such skill, born from experience is crucial for growth into adulthood and for ultimate human flourishing. Many employers lament that more and more young people are unable to carry on meaningful and cogent conversations with customers or to demonstrate the basics of genial “customer service.”

Scores of studies involving nearly 14,000 college students have shown that a consuming digital life among this age group of students is producing a “sharp decline in the empathy trait.” While for millennia people have slowly developed the ability to read emotions through patient, constant human interaction, such progressive learning is being lost. Thus we are seeing a growing ease of cruelty or equally dangerous ambivalence to other people’s feelings in digital media.

Another study showed that a growing number of 4 year olds are able to download apps before they can tie their shoes. In some civic arenas a concern has risen that too many young adults are not able to “sign” their name in script when mere printing is not legally binding.

Returning to clay tablets (or scrolls or manuscripts) and to horses and buggies is not the answer of course. We live in our age and must learn to navigate these new forces. But as parents it is incumbent on us to help our children flourish as human beings made in God’s image by engaging the world and other human beings in meaningful (real!) ways, not allowing them to retreat increasingly to the artificially safe environment of the avatar or the online profile. We are seeing that young people are having difficulty sometimes distinguishing the real from the mechanical or the computer generated image.

It has been interesting to help students understand, for instance, that when they talk on the phone, they are not “hearing” their friend’s voice. They are hearing an electronic reproduction of the voice. This is often a startling realization for them. And as clear as such reproductions are (3G, no . . . 4G in HD, . . . even “face time” video . . . eventually a 3D holographic image?), human interaction holds something mystically more real, deep, and ultimately necessary and satisfying.

Steiner-Adair calls us “to reclaim the immemorial rhythms of the hearth and [to] shield our children from the excesses of the digital age.” Amen to that; but how do parents do this in 2013?  Most simply, we must work intentionally to maintain (or recover) a more “real life.” Read out loud to your younger children – add accents and different voices to different characters. Allow their young supple mental imaginations (instead of CG artists in Hollywood) to create visual images in their mind. Get out doors with your children – share IRL experiences: hikes, bike rides, simple walks in the park. Get real face time! And nothing personal against the primary industry in Central Florida, but hardly anything is “real” at Disney and Universal.

Great wealth of learning occurs in the quiet interaction of sitting by the lake, sharing time in conversation, patiently learning how to handle boredom which (perhaps as a result of the Fall) is an integral part of our human experience. Constant hyper-stimulation does not allow such patience to develop in our young people.

Set an example for your children by making it a practice, as often as possible, to take communication to the next more human and personal level. Move from texts to email, and when possible from email to a phone call. And even better, replace the phone call with a person-to-person meeting. I know it cannot work all the time, and convenience often trumps the time consuming face-to-face meetings. But nothing is better than sitting down together to talk.

What this comes down to in many cases is how we understand our being made imago Dei, in the image of God. While many people these days talk about how digital life is changing the “hard wiring” of the way children communicate, such a phrase presupposes that we are machines or at best animals. But at The Geneva School, we hold fast the truth that we are created imago Dei, in God’s image. Human interaction can be messy, hard, inconvenient, and not at all as efficient as new modes of communication. But it is real. Tears and laughter, subtle facial expressions and body language are impossible to replicate in digital media. {{Hugs}} notwithstanding, I prefer the real thing, and grasping a hand, shedding a tear, or laughing with someone communicates in a way profoundly more meaningful than LOL.

I have taught a couple of classes at Belhaven University where I had students in Houston or Memphis participating in the class via “polycom” communication. They could see and hear everything, and we could see them and hear them. But trust me, these distance students were not getting their money’s worth. The connection was less than satisfyingly human. And like any technology, all it took was a thunder storm in Houston and the connection would be lost. Technology is still a god that limps.

So we are thinking about these important things at The Geneva School. We are learning together how to live with new innovations, and to remain human, indeed to flourish as humans. Stay tuned! Continue to learn with us.