From Feeding Moloch to 'Digital Minimalism'
Child sacrifice, kicking the chair, and forming digital detox community
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
Matthew 18, 6
The original image I had in mind for this post was stark and disturbing, something along the lines of monsters eating children. But that is not what moves people. Hope moves. The painting above by Johnathan Eastman Johnson was created out of the depth of despair that industrialization cratered into people’s hearts. Images of innocent and carefree children offered uplifting hope to a generation disturbed by the scourge of child labour and decaying urban conditions.
During the height of the industrial revolution, it was not uncommon for children to work gruelling 12-16 hour shifts. The limbs of many young children could not withstand the pressure of standing for over such extended times, and bent into deformity. The unsafe working conditions caused innumerable injuries to an estimated 50% of child labourers, some of them losing limbs, some even dashed to pieces as machinery caught their ill-fitting clothes. When they were injured no assistance or compensation was provided; they were left maimed and pennyless.
We may believe that we have moved beyond submitting children to such abhorrent circumstances, but I would suggest that we have merely turned the circumstances inward. Our children are suffering, not because of inhumane physical labour, but because of the increasingly inhumane conditions bred by their digital existence. We have created for them an environment that has removed them from reality both mentally and socially, starting with the ‘Great Rewiring’ ignited by the ‘Like button apocalypse of 2009’.
Johnathan Haidt discusses social media industry’s myopic rush for growth, disregard for the complexity of human psychology, and unconcern for uncalculable social costs imposed on society. We are now starting to reap what we have sown: a CDC report on CDC’s bi-annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey, showed that,“most teen girls (57%) now say that they experience persistent sadness or hopelessness (up from 36% in 2011), and 30% of teen girls now say that they have seriously considered suicide (up from 19% in 2011).” And no, these findings are not a result of the disastrous lockdowns or fears about the state of the world, as Haidt clearly demonstrates here.
There is no more time to be ‘hopefully optimistic’ that children and teens will make ‘good choices’. Several writers on substack have sounded the clarion call on technology’s destructive impact on our humanness:
The Abbey of Misrule and Pilgrims in the Machine write essays from a spiritual perspective,After Babel and Stay Grounded discuss the moral psychology and mental health side of the coin. It is time to pay attention, because as Paul Kingsnorth warns, “…unless we pay attention, we may be barely human at all.” He paints a chilling picture of the dark undercurrent that suffuses our digital reality in his latest essay The Universal:
‘Imagine that some pure materiality, some being opposed to the good, some ice-cold intelligence from an ice-cold realm were trying to manifest itself here. How would it appear? Not surely, as clumsy, messy flesh. Better to inhabit - to become - a network of wires and cobalt, of billions of tiny silicon brains, each of them connected to a human brain whose energy and power and information and impulses and thoughts and feelings could all be harvested to form the substrate of an entirely new being.’
We are all unwilling, or oblivious, participants in the tech industry’s single-minded goal to capture our full attention. In the ‘race to the bottom of the brain stem’ children are the most vulnerable contestants. Their minds are part of a relentless digital colonization, and unless we intervene, we risk the overall well-being of future generations.
‘The cost of a thing is the amount what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.’
Henry David Thoreau
In his book Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport explains that, when setting out on his two years of solitude and deliberate living at Walden Pond, Thoreau not only engaged in a spiritual experiment, he tested out his new theory of economics. How much time would he have to work each week in order to cover his living expenses? How much time would he have to sacrifice to support himself? (As it turns out his yearly living expenses added up to $61.99, which translated into one day of work per week).
We sense even at a gut level that something is off with the negative influence that digital devices are having on youth, that they are conduits for portable pathologies and mood manipulation. When we get specific and ask what sacrifice the Machine demands of our children in terms of their time, mental health, relationships, overall well-being, and basic connection to reality, the cost becomes striking and unacceptable.
Stated in stark terms, we are sacrificing our children to a digital Moloch whose cruelties include: slave labour, sexual exploitation, solitary confinement, addiction, depression, anxiety, and suicidality.
This may sound extreme, but as Jack Leahy quoted Flannery O’Connor in a recent comment:
'When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock- to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.’
Platforms use addictive design, and AI-powered feeds that are designed to engage users in order to maximize profit. Each extra minute online is not a character weakness, but the realization of a massively profitable business plan.
According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 96.6% of zero to four year-olds had used mobile devices, and 75% owned their own device.
According to the CDC Children 8-10 spend 6 hours on devices; those aged 11-14 spend nearly 9 hours. That was before the pandemic.
The number of US teenagers who are online continuously is increasing at a dramatic pace
90 % of teens have viewed porn online, and 10 % admit to daily use.
1 in 4 Children have had online sexual encounters with adults via social media. Nearly 1 in 3 teen girls have been approached by adults asking for nudes, while 1 in 6 girls aged 9 -12 years have interacted sexually with an adult on these platforms.
83% of children do not tell trusted adults about abuse they encounter online
73 % of Generation Z sometimes or always feel alone.
71 % of heavy social media users report feelings of loneliness
School loneliness increased between 2012–2018 in 36 out of 37 countries and was high when smartphone access and internet use were high
the loss of social connection triggers the same system as physical pain
apps are designed for behavioral addiction because of intermittent positive reinforcement. They are literally social slot machines.
users click, tap, and swipe their phone an average of 2,617 times daily
87.8% of users feel anxious when they leave their phones at home
The amount of time spent using social media is significantly correlated with later levels of alcohol use.
depression, anxiety, suicidality
Time spent on social media is a significant predictor of depression for adolescents
66% is the increase in the risk of suicide-related outcomes among teen girls who spend more than 5 hours a day (vs. 1 hour a day) on social media.
Data from college campuses show the mental health epidemic was in full gear by 2015. The increases are largest for mood disorders, a class of mental illness that is made up primarily of depression and anxiety disorders (which includes anorexia).
In 2019, just before covid, one in four American college students suffered from an anxiety disorder, compared to just one in ten back in 2010. The rate may be higher today.
Younger teens were very rarely hospitalized for self-harm before 2010, but by 2020 the rate for girls had nearly tripled.
For a more comprehensive list of social and mental harms caused by social media and digital device use, I suggest you consult the Ledger of Harms by Tristan Harris’ Centre of Humane Technology and Johnathan Haidt’s substack After Babel.
Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.
John 8, 32
Our family recently watched Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a sci-fi film where mind architects create subconscious levels of dream worlds. The only way to emerge from these dream states was through a ‘kick’ which produced the falling feeling you get when someone kicks a chair away from under you. Sometimes we need such a kick to wake up to take deliberate action in rejecting the ubiquitous influence of devices on our and our children’s minds. This kick may be seeing your child descend into utter depression and loneliness, discovering that they have harmed themselves or viewed pornography, or their complete withdrawal from interacting with reality. I pray that you feel encouraged to take action before such a ‘kick’ prompts you to make a change.
Paul Kingsnorth recently asked, “Is there a good book about how Christians should relate to tech? There should be!” The answer is: almost. There is The Tech-Wise-Family (2017) by Andy Crouch, which was a step in the right direction, but does not go quite far enough in my opinion. It strikes me a bit as, ‘how to have a healthy relationship with your addiction’. The best book that I have come across is Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. He presents a very well-laid out approach to rethinking our relationship with digital media, supported by lots of research, thoughtful analysis, and practical application suggestions. He writes from a social-psychological rather than a Christian perspective, and thus leaves the reader open to determine what they value deeply. While this allows for maximum adaptability of the ‘digital minimalism’ practices, it lacks something fundamental to change: conviction.
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