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Many of the thoughts for this piece came from the book, The Cyber-Effect: An Expert in Cyberpsychology Explains How Technology Is Shaping Our Children, Our Behavior, and Our Values—and What We Can Do About It.” I highly recommend you read or listen to this book.
In this talk, I will not be sharing with you a list of tips about how to curb your tech habits, e.g., cut the wifi off at night, or place password protection on your child’s devices. That information is accessible on the Internet. You may Google some version of ten helpful tips to (fill in the blank), and you will find something that works for you. Each person and family is different, and I would not be able to speak to every individual or family dynamic. Like a customized health and fitness program, you can easily research practical tips that you can implement.
My goal for this talk is to challenge you about why you need to make changes in technology and social media use. If I cannot convince you why the cyber effect is potentially damaging to your soul, you probably will not carry through with whatever your “ten tips for tech use” happen to be.
It would be like giving a person a workout routine for the gym because it’s the new year and they’re experiencing “annual conviction,” to make a change. If the unhealthy person does not believe in their “heart of hearts” that their health is on the line, their long-term motivation to change will run out of steam by the end of January.
Thus, my prayer is that you will go deeper than behavioral modification, as needful as that is (Matthew 5:30), as the Lord captures your heart regarding this pandemic cultural problem (Romans 8:13). If He does this for you, it will be the perfect spot to think about how to apply good tech habits to your life.
Circa 1450, Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press to the world. Many people consider this event to be one of the most transformative inventions of the second millennium. His “moveable type machine” changed lives, cultures, and countries. Though books were already in print, the printing press made information accessible and brought people together, for good and evil.
In 2007, Steve Jobs gave us the mobile phone, which will go down in history as one of the high points of this millennium. Though the Internet was already here with its technologies, it was not until the iPhone that the culture sped-up and changed exponentially. The pre-existing “handheld wannabes” were nice, but it was the iPhone that made us cool and craving for more.
Some statisticians estimate that more than 5 billion people have mobile devices, and over half of these own smartphones. Nearly every family you know has at least one smartphone, if not more. Upward to 80% of homes in developed countries have personal computers.
In 2018, almost half of private households worldwide were estimated to have a computer at home. In developing countries, the PC penetration rate is lower with around a third of households having a computer. In contrast the share of households with a personal computer in developed countries exceeds 80 percent. – Statista
All of us benefit from technology, and we use it all the time. I’m not here to suggest it’s an utterly bad idea, a big fail, and you should run from it. We have our testimonies about the good things the Lord has done through technology. I’m not tossing the baby out with his iPhone. We are a tech-dependent culture, which has been a positive advancement on all fronts, e.g., health services, financial institutions, academic environments, and businesses.
When we began developing our business model in 2008, the over-arching question was, “How can we use technology redemptively?” There is an “echo of omnipresence” in technology, and we wanted to capitalize on this means of grace for God’s glory (Matthew 5:45).
More than a decade later, the Lord has positioned us to wrap the globe daily. Our site is a “big box store in cyberspace.” For example, we have a fully-loaded Learning Management System (LMS) where we can train anyone in biblical counseling if they have Internet access, and they never have to leave their homes.
You have your list of tech benefits, too, for which you are grateful. You can shop online and wait for Amazon to show up on your doorstep. You don’t have to purchase stamps because you can pay bills online. Some people do not carry money because of credit and debit cards. You can make transactions with your watch.
The benefits are plenty, and more are coming. But with all good things that the Lord has given His creation (Matthew 5:45), there are tendencies and temptations to use them selfishly and cruelly (James 1:14-15). I will share some of the adverse cyber effects with you.
One of the biggest problems with the Internet and technology is that you can’t study it well because it’s an open-ended, ever-changing experience. The best studies happen after the event is over, and you’ve had time to digest it, measure the results, look at patterns, and give a thorough review of what happened, so you can protect yourself from repeating history, especially bad history.
For example, 9/11 was an open and shut tragedy in our country. You can slice into a segment of history, a twenty-year window: ten years before and ten after. There are thousands of studies, books, forums, and boards that were able to figure out how we got to 9/11, how we responded to it, and its lingering effect.
Pearl Habor is another illustration. So is your childhood, as you reflect upon that open and closed period of your life to understand yourself more clearly. Once the event is over, you can begin collecting all the relevant data to see what you can learn about that unique historical phenomenon. The Internet and technology are not like that.
It’s hard to study a moving, changing target. We barely had time to fall in love with the iPod and its walloping impact on the music industry before there was the iPhone. Then came Facebook, which used to be a thing with the teens, but they jumped to Snapchat and beyond. Like frogs on lilypads, we’re jumping from one technological pond to the other at the speed of the Internet. Technology changes, new habits form, and we’re still trying to understand the effects of the last cool thing that we had to have.
It will take at least another thirty years, if not longer, for us to figure out what we did to ourselves. But that does not mean we don’t know things today. Though the technology changes, the habits, and their effects are measurable to some degree. The problem will be if we do not allow what we already know to persuade us to change how we think about and use technology.
I have interacted with thousands of people of every age, and all of them have been adversely affected by technology. Some of them know it. Others do not. Some care. Others do not. The big idea for all of us is to understand how the adverse effects of technology are symptoms, not the cause of our problems. James was clear when he taught us that sin is not “out there somewhere” but in our hearts.
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death (James 1:14-15).
His half-brother was more succinct when He said, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). James and Jesus taught us that if you locate your treasure—the thing you crave, you will find your heart—who you actually are (Matthew 6:21). The things we like amplify our true selves.
James and Jesus want you to know that the primary problem is not technology but how these devices and platforms reveal the pre-existing conditions in your soul. If your heart did not desire it, the technology would not be able to lure you. I’m that way about alcohol; I don’t care for it. I’ve never enjoyed the taste of alcohol. It’s not a spiritual thing but a taste thing. If I were to swim in a pool of alcohol, there would be zero temptation to take a sip.
The upside to this “inside truth” about our hearts craving the things of the world, even to our detriment, is that you can take the measure of an adult, child, or friend by the things they love. When you see to what degree and extent technology affects an individual, you’re getting a snapshot of who they are.
In these illustrations, there is always a “yes, but exception,” some of which are valid. But if that is your first impulse, you’re defending yourself first while missing the point, which could speak to where you are with all of this (Matthew 7:3-5).
There is a discussion about whether cyberspace is real or not. We know what a real, tactile place is, but what is cyberspace? You can’t touch or feel it. Is it real? The arguments are compelling on both sides of the fence, but there is a more straightforward way to cut through the debate. The next time someone is on their phone, carry on a conversation with them. Are they “with you” or somewhere else, regardless of how you define that other place?
As texting and driving have proven in dramatic and horrific ways, you are somewhere else when you’re on your phone. You have been behind that person at the traffic light as you “patiently” waited for them to get off their phones so everyone can continue along with their day. Most folks understand that you can’t do two things at the same time well. When it comes to technology, if it’s in front of you, then whoever else is with you is the second fiddle.
One of the most powerful effects of the second fiddle phenomenon happens in a child’s life when he grows into an adult. The young teen is transitioning from child to adult. He’s different in every way. It’s a frightful time for many of these kids. Their bodies are changing. They’re starting to sound differently. Their desires and habits are changing. They look different, and they are insecure as they begin to wonder who they are.
The transitioning child is significantly dependent on others at this crucial age when it comes to identity formation. He is measuring those around him to see if they approve and disapprove of him. The opinions of other people have a transforming impact on how he thinks of himself. The family is his most potent shaping influence when it comes to helping him think biblically about himself.
For example, if the father is angry or distant, it will adversely impact the child’s view of himself. The angry father makes a value statement about his child: “I don’t like you.” The passive dad is saying a similar thing: “You’re not worthy of my attention.” An unstable marriage also fosters insecurity in the children as they try to cope with their parent’s dysfunction.
God created these children in His image, which comes with a “baked in the cake” desire for communal connection and acceptance. The Trinity is the divine, eternal community, and we are like them (Genesis 1:27). Teens want to benefit from how God made them, which makes a community and acceptance vital. They are only asking one question: “Will you accept me?” If the answer is “no,” the child’s identity will form around a worldview of rejection.
If he is not benefiting from an accepting, loving community, social media platforms become the instant reflex for his desires. Ironically, central to all these platforms is the “like” button. The obvious point of it for the craving soul is that you can calculate other people’s opinions of you by the number of “likes” you receive. Some will argue that they are only checking to see if the post or pic is popular. Don’t dismiss the subtleties of our evil hearts. This problem is what makes the selfie so tempting and dangerous.
The primary point of the selfie is what it says about the person in the picture, the selfie-taker. Once uploaded, the selfie-taker checks, rechecks, and checks again to see who liked the picture. Or, to state the issue more accurately, who liked them. The question is not primarily about liking the image but, “Will you like me?” The selfie is the vanity mirror in the bathroom moved to the public square, covertly asking you for your opinion of them, which you provide by your likes and comments.
It’s a warning to every parent, teacher, mentor, and other authority figures who have influence in a teen’s life. Don’t assume the Internet is innocuous or that your child is naive. Neither is true. The Internet is a “net” that captures souls. And the Adamic tendencies of shame, guilt, and fear are active in every soul, including the struggling teen who is looking for someone to accept them.
If the teenager is part of a loving, encouraging, admonishing, and repenting family that trains them up biblically (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), this temptation will be minimal because he does not need other places to shape his identity. But it will be different for the child in a dysfunctional home, whose primary shaping influences are electronic devices and social media.
The teen is not the only struggling soul looking for a community. Sometimes I will hear a person talk about how they met a stranger, and within minutes they had an in-depth personal conversation with them. They glow about how easy and natural it was to talk. Then they say, “And he was a perfect stranger!” This interaction is called the “stranger on the train phenomenon.” It’s similar to freedom in dating versus the rigors of marriage.
When a boy and girl meet and hit it off, they cannot stop talking to each other. They’re tired at their jobs because they have been chatting each other up most of the night. There are no limits to how much they talk, share, and repeat. It’s easy to do this if you have no history (grudges, unforgiveness, bitterness) with someone. It’s like the conference speaker or blogger who is so transparent about his life.
Marriage is different from strangers on the train because you brought him home with you, to live in a 24/7, lifetime relationship where sin abounds. You know him (her) through and through. You know his tendencies and weaknesses. His triggers. You have a historical record of all the times he has hurt you. You are keenly aware of when or if you can be vulnerable with him. You’re less willing to take a “communication risk” with him.
And, of course, there are unresolved issues that date back years. Neither of you has been good about confessing your sins to each other and asking for forgiveness. My point is that there are built-in risks with this kind of broken relationship. But the stranger on the train? Refreshing! There are minimal risks, and at your next stop, you will never see him again. The relationship reward is high, and the relationship risk is low. So like you did when dating, you share with freedom and without fear.
This concept of sharing with freedom and without fear is called the disinhibition effect. There is little inhibition about being vulnerable with a stranger because you can’t be hurt by him, so you believe. Of course, the possibility of being vulnerable and a lack of perceived risk is part of the bait that cyberspace uses to lure you into its net.
In real-world relationships like the local church, it’s harder to “unlike” somebody. When bad things happen, and hurts accumulate, you have to deal with them biblically or not. How many times have you read on Facebook where a person said something unkind and never confessed it as sin or asked for forgiveness? It would be exceptional for Christians to clean up their cyber dust-ups on social media. The norm is a “hit and run,” because they don’t have to interact with those annoying people in real life and space. “You are a stranger on the train to me, so bug off.” Unlike! Done!
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Ephesians 4:29-32).
The disinhibition effect releases you to say whatever is on your mind, and many times, you would never say those things to that person face-to-face. Real-world relationships take work, are tedious, and you will offend someone. That person who does not connect well in real space is a “Chatty Cathy” online. Why is she like this?
She has had too much hurt in her real-world relationships, so before you judge her too quickly for a lack of transparency or criticize the church for being cliquish and distant, give this perspective a chance while thinking about how you can be a difference-maker. Hurting souls are everywhere, especially in a local church. Real-life is strewn with broken people, while Facebook is full of folks who prefer false intimacy, as they put their best foot forward while keeping everyone at “cyber-arms-length.”
Social media is like a drug to the hurting desperate soul. I use the drug analogy because that is what drugs do for the addict; they are looking for an escape. They get high to get away from it all. The social media addict spends their time on the net. It’s safer than the real world. It’s an escape. “It provides me with communal intimacy,” albeit it’s a false intimacy.
False Intimacy – After you meet the stranger on the train, and both of you throw inhibition to the wind, you may convince yourself that you’re building a full relationship with another person. You’re not. At best, what you have is false intimacy; it’s not the real thing. You cannot replicate and enjoy God’s solution to companionship in cyberspace.
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18).
If you cut yourself off from all potential hurt, it’s not possible to know God the way He wants you to know Him. What you will carve out is a world where you’re relying on yourself, building high walls and safe places. You won’t be relying on the Lord (2 Corinthians 1:8-9), and the adverse effect of not engaging real people in the real fallen world is that the place you create will become your prison.
Ultimately, I’m talking about the cyber effect on your sanctification. The most debilitating adverse effect of technology and social media is what it does to our Christian maturity, and our progressive sanctification. There are two obvious effects, and if we don’t change them, the damage to the body of Christ will be immediate and generational.
Keeping It Real – Sanctification is not safe. We’re fallen people. Though cyberspace can incarcerate you and keep the bad people away, it falls woefully short in the change process. There are a lot of things you can do by yourself, but sanctification is not one of them. It takes a community.
One of the implications of the word “sanctification” is “sinfulness.” If there were no sin, there would be no need for progressive sanctification. But there is sin; we should not ignore or run from it. We need to engage the sinfulness among ourselves so we can change. We need to be in fallen, flesh and blood contexts where sin is apparent and unavoidable. And you have to engage it, not “unlike” it.
If you wanted to be a great baseball player, you need all of the components of baseball so you could learn the game. If you had no glove, for example, you would never learn the skills necessary to make it to the “bigs.” In the world of fallen humanity, sin is vital to our transformation. But if you sequestered yourself from fallen humanity, building a cyber refuge, you would not grow as you should. You need human beings if your hope is Christlikeness.
Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth (John 17:17).
Long-Term Memory – The other concern that centers on the sanctification effect and technology is that the things you think about need hibernation time to sink into your brain. This crucial aspect of sanctification means that the truth of God that you want to absorb has to land and stick in your long-term memory bank. I’m not sure of a worse place to hinder this aspect of sanctification than the Internet and social media.
You can test yourself. Think of the last ten quotes that you liked on your favorite social media platform. You can’t. Nobody can. And even if you could recall parts of them, they are on their way out your mental door because there are other “nuggets of the day” waiting to get in.
If a fleeting thought, like, click, or picture were on one end of a spectrum and memorizing a verse or passage from the Bible was on the other, “liking” things on social media is closer to your fleeting thoughts than the rigors of memory work that sticks with you for years and brings sanctification transformation to your soul while enabling you to redemptively impact those around you. There are effects of this awful habit of consuming too much content online.
Our lives operate on a 24-hour cycle. You have observed how you become tired or drowsy at certain times of the day. Hopefully, that is in the evening, when your body is telling you it’s time to sleep. I used to become drowsy in the afternoons, but not so much now since making a few healthy adjustments.
This cycle is God’s mercy to us so that we will rest, refresh, and reboot with vigor to serve the Lord with all our hearts, minds, and strengths. The Internet age is changing our rhythms. We’re going from a well-ordered life to a chaotic one. One of the culprits is the blue light that comes from your devices.
For example, in the evening, the melatonin levels in your body begin to rise, which is your body’s signal to go to sleep. But if you spend the evening on a device, the blue light will “trick” you into thinking it’s not bedtime; your melatonin levels drop like they would the next morning when God’s rays enter your room. The result of disrupted sleep cycles is that the cyberspace cadet has a hard time sleeping, focusing, and paying attention. Of course, he will be tired at the wrong times, which will throw him out of sync with others.
Sadly, one of the typical “remedies” to the kid who needs a jolt to stay alert in school is medication. At that juncture, to the non-discerning eye, he falls into the black hole of disorders. He’s labeled! It’s hard to recover from here because there is a “remedy,” plus he does not have to change his tech habits. One of the most effective solutions to this problem is a curfew of screen time in the evening, if not amputation altogether (Matthew 5:30). Read, Three Ways to Overcome Sin and Temptation.
There are other issues with blue light, like macular degeneration, which is a common eye impairment for the older generation. As much as I thank God for tablets where I can access and read fantastic Christ-centered content, I’m also aware that I’m putting my eyes in harm’s way. I don’t want to be like the 25-year-old smoker who does not believe he can get cancer.
These adverse cyber effects always beg the question of the best time to give your child a phone. Part of the discussion centers on the kind of phone. The other part centers on the kind of child. If you want your child to have a flip phone at an early age, it could prove to be a practical choice. If it’s a smartphone, you need to make a few sober assessments about the maturity level of your child and the accessibility options that you want to give him.
The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe (Proverbs 29:25).
If your child has to have a smartphone because all his peers have one, you will feed his pre-existing addiction if you give him one. The “addiction” is peer pressure, codependency, or what the Bible calls the fear of man. Is it wise to give your child a phone so he won’t “feel out-of-step” with his peer group? It’s illogical. If his peers were using drugs, would you enable him so he can fit in? Do you want to provide him a “false god” where his ability to feel good about himself is connected to his phone, not Sovereign Lord?
Wouldn’t it be better to identify and isolate the heart idolatry and teach him how he can have a “bigger God” while bringing his friends down a notch or two? Wouldn’t it be better that he does not succumb to the control of what he or his friends have? Don’t feed his addiction but help him overcome the desire so he can be Christlike. He may “hate” you now, but he will love you later, especially if the Lord gets hold of his heart.
The best time to give a son (or daughter) a smartphone is when he is mature enough to resist the temptation of porn. When you know that pornography is not an issue in his mind or life, you can think about giving him a device that is one click away from more sexually explicit content than any generation before him could imagine or access.
The best time to give your daughter (or son) a smartphone is when she does not have to be on social media. She’s not interested in those platforms, what they offer, and how they suck you into the false intimacy of relationships. If she had rather wanted to build real-world relationships, she’s in a great place, and it would be unwise to put anything in her path that would deter this good desire. If she had rather relate in cyberspace than in the real world, you have a problem that may need outside intervention.
The global effect of all these issues for the body of Christ is what it’s doing to the church. In former generations, the social center of every community was the local church. All roads led to the church building. It’s where people worshiped, got married, were buried, and gathered socially. The Internet age has bombed the historical social center and created endless social communities in cyberspace. The church building has been moved to the perimeter of our lives, and preferred social media platforms are in the center.
Our youth have full access to these social platforms where they can “hang out” with their “friends,” and they love it. When they turn eighteen and go to college or get jobs, it’s not a big deal for many of them to leave their churches behind because the church was not at the center of their lives anyhow; it was one of many social offerings that sat on the perimeter.
A high view of the church, which was a given, is “old-school.” There are several reasons why our teens are leaving our churches in droves, but you will always find a smartphone and its effects associated with this problem. One of the assessment questions you want to ask about your child is his view of the local church. Is he committed to it, as evidenced by his desire to fellowship with flesh and blood people in that church? Or would his first impulse be to grab his phone and connect there?
Are you committed to your local church? Or do you prefer strangers on the train, cyberspace, or some other spot where connecting is easier but transformative, sanctifying, and discipleship is lacking?
The cyber effect is real. Though we won’t be able to corral it to understand it entirely, we do have enough data before us to respond differently than our culture. We are redemptive agents, doing the Lord’s work. The devil has thrown a massive curveball, but we can take it, reverse it, and use it redemptively.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).