If you’re a Catholic parent in this era of iPhones, Androids, video games, and computers, you’ve probably struggled with the question of how and when to allow your children to have access to all this technology. This was the central discussion that took place after the screening of a documentary called Screen-Agers, which occurred in Atlanta this week.
Technology is a useful and, it seems, necessary tool which is here to stay, for better or for worse. In and of itself it is inanimate, incapable of making moral choices other than the ones that we ascribe to it. It can be a useful tool for the seeking of knowledge and growth, or it can become the bronzed Moloch of our age, to which we meekly sacrifice our children.
After the screening of the film, a panel discussed how technology creates an upswing in dopamine and how this physiological response affects the teen brain in particular. Dopamine stimulates both the teen and the adult brain, and an over-stimulation can actually reduce long-term performance. In addition, the panel discussed the fact that high usage of violent video games may decrease empathy, and also that games are designed to promote escapism by creating entire “universes” for kids to explore.
Teens who were present were interested in exploring healthy ways that they might exist in an increasingly technologized world. They expressed some initial adolescent disdain for the film, but eventually expressed genuine interest in how the brain’s process of the release of dopamine is manipulated by companies invested in our dependency on products that are not ultimately fulfilling.
Although Screen-Agers and the panel discussion did not address pornography, it’s a critical element for Catholic parents to appreciate and understand. When one Catholic pediatrician was asked the question of when a child should be given a smart phone, she replied, “When you want your child to be introduced to porn.”
According to a report cited by Covenant Eyes, a 2018 study showed that 51 percent of boys and 32 percent of girls viewed porn before they reached the age of 13. The same study showed that 57 percent of teenagers search for porn at least monthly and that 71 percent of teens hide their online behavior from their parents.
It is very difficult even for conscientious parents to protect their children from porn exposure, even with the best efforts.
Those of us in the mental health field can see the writing on the wall. The over-use or misuse of technology is just a flower of a deeper-rooted societal illness. If we continue on this path, there will be a coming mental health crisis, if it is not indeed already here. It is of great concern as children are being raised in a world devoid of meaning, as religious faith, the strength of the family, the deep inherent meaning and value of gender, and social institutions are being replaced or lost in a sea of subjectivism, materialism, narcissism, superficial remote relationships, and widespread identity crises.
What is needed is a deep understanding of self, of brain processes, of addiction and how these processes are manipulated by companies that do not desire our deepest good. We need to instill in ourselves that which Alcoholics Anonymous calls a fearless moral inventory, to be able to admit when things have gone too far, and to teach our children to have a social immune system so they aren’t made ill by every passing trend. If the root is addressed, the symptoms resolve themselves automatically.
During the panel discussion, strategies for parents were introduced to help them in this current screen-addicted society. The panel highlighted the importance of monitoring rather than implementing a complete ban. The emphasis was setting warm and loving but consistent boundaries. One suggestion was to create an “iPhone contract” that outlined rules and consequences for breaking rules. Some families, for example, require everyone in the home to put their phones in a bin in the kitchen every night at a certain time.
Remember what teens are often looking for when they turn to screens: a sense of belonging, an identity, and ultimately, love. If children are lonely and disconnected in their families, schools, and communities, and if they don’t have a good sense of belonging and identity (and not many teens do), then they will seek that online.
Ideally, positive strategies are embraced by entire communities, parishes, schools, cities, even perhaps at state-wide and even nation-wide levels, to work together for the best interest of our children and society. We need to work together to raise awareness and create change. We cannot depend on the businesses who profit on our addictions to protect us.