If I asked you what your teenage children are doing right now, you might not know. But the New York Times and the Kaiser Family Foundation have a pretty good idea.
According to a recent Kaiser study, if your teenager is awake and isn’t in school, he or she is staring at a screen a smart-phone, a computer, or watching television.
The authors claimed to have been “shocked” by the results.
Kaiser’s researchers interviewed more than 2,000 kids between the ages of eight and eighteen. They found that, on average, the participants in the study spent seven and one-half hours a day using these devices! What’s more, that figure understates the amount of time American kids devote to consuming media and other related activities.
For instance, it does not include time spent actually talking on these smart-phones or sending and receiving messages. That adds another one-and-a-half hours to the total. When you add time spent doing several media-related things at once, that is multi-tasking, American kids spend the equivalent of eleven hours a day tethered to an electronic device.
The authors were “stunned” because they believed that media consumption among kids had already maxed out when they last measured it in 2005. What didn’t take into account, either then or now, is what drives the heavy usage: dread of being bored.
As one 14-year-old told the Times, “I feel like my days would be boring without” my smart phone. It’s not only him. As New Testament scholar Ben Witherington recently wrote, smart-phones “are seen as the cure for boredom.”
This “boredom” is “in most cases…the state of mind of those who lack imagination and therefore require all kinds of stimuli to prevent them from losing interest in things, and even in life.” That’s why people, adults as well as kids, are “constantly fiddling with their cellphone.” The alternative to all this fiddling is being alone with your own thoughts, which terrifies people used to the constant stimulation provided by our media-saturated culture.
Happily, parents can help their kids to avoid this trap. The Kaiser study found that parents can make rules limiting this kind of mindless media consumption and that their children will follow them. It won’t be easy but, then again, swimming against the cultural tide never is.
Speaking of swimming against the tide, even more important than rules and limits is teaching our children that we don’t need constant stimulation. On the contrary, being quiet and still is an essential part of the Christian life. We are told “be still” so that we may learn who God is. God spoke to Elijah in a still small voice.
Neuroscientists tell us that many, if not most, of our most creative and productive moments come when we step back from all the stimulation and let our minds be free. In other words, what many people call “boredom” is good for us in ways that the constantly-stimulated can’t begin to imagine.
We’re not talking about letting our minds wander just anywhere. What we’re told to do is invest our life in a relationship with Christ. In His word, in prayer, and in meditation.
Unplugging and stepping back for some time alone with God is yet another reason for us to unplug our kids and ourselves and risk being bored. For all the right reasons.