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.
Change that is not anchored to an unchanging value outside of oneself is built on sandy ground. We need rock to stand on, if we are to have any chance at making a lasting change.
Pilgrims in the Machine describes an ancient Orthodox baptismal tradition of spitting behind one’s back to reject Satan.
Behind that weird ancient tradition is a recognition that some things are just so destructive that it is not enough to acknowledge them with a verbal statement. Some things must be rejected viscerally, with our whole being.
Imagine responding to the internet this way? Do you renounce internet, and all its tools, and all its works, and all its services, and all its pride?
Yes, yes, and yes!
Getting rid of your smartphone is the most freeing step toward becoming more human again and also one of the most basic steps in resisting the Machine.
From Digital Detox to Digital Minimalism:
A game plan based on Cal Newport’s ‘Digital Minimalism’ strategy
1. COMMIT TO A 30-DAY DETOX
Select a time period when you will commit to a 30-day detox.
The beginning of a calendar month is a good starting point. The Lenten or Advent period are particularly suitable, but do not delay your detox unnecessarily. Commit and take the leap.
Be sure to plan your detox, specify your usage rules, and make a list of activities that will replace your time otherwise used on digital devices.
Committing to a detox together with a spouse, your family, a friend, a small group, or church community, will allow you to support each other, and make it more likely that you will succeed in sustaining your new habits.
Specify your usage rules
Before you start the detox, write out when and how you will allow yourself to use your phone, computer, or other device. Being too vague or too strict can set you up for failure. Think about which uses are not optional for the duration of the detox. Be specific, for example:
I will check my e-mail at_______and at _________.
I will use my phone to arrange a meeting via text.
I will use my laptop when writing an article.
Inform family and friends about your digital detox and when you will be checking your messages.
Compose an auto-reply for your e-mail indicating the expected time frame for your responses.
Abstain and reframe
Use this detox time to abstain from digital-drip practices. This will initially lead to discomfort, restlessness, and may cause anxiety.
Leave your device at home whenever possible, especially if you are out for a walk
When taking your device along, do not keep it on your body. Place it in a bag out of easy reach.
At home, put your laptop away on a shelf, or in a closet; keep it out of sight.
Use a watch and agenda to keep track of time and appointments
Create new visual and practical cues around your home that you can turn to when restless (if you were born anywhere before 1990, just use whatever strategies were part of your life before the Great Rewiring). These might include:
A journal or notebook
Knitting, crochet work, sewing
List of handy tasks to be completed around the home or garden
2. ENGAGE in analog social connections, solitude, walking, physical work, other high-quality, technology-free activities
Solitude Cal Newport emphasizes that time alone with your thoughts and experiences helps to ‘clarify hard problems, to regulate emotions, build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships.’
Walking Go for a walk daily. Even ten minutes is helpful, but the longer the better. Leave your phone at home.
Nurture analog relationships As Sherry Turkle notes, ‘…face-to-face communication is the most human - and humanizing- thing we do.’
Work with your hands, create
3. DECIDE which technology you allow back into your life
Determine which digital device use will actually serve your greater vision of life. Thus, merely being convenient or having a perk is not enough to make the cut.
Delete social media (or if you must use it, delete junk food and keep whole grains - see Stay Grounded). Others will likely say that this is too extreme and that there is a ‘middle ground’ or healthy way of integrating SM. Because of its highly addictive algorithms, any use will likely captivate, distort, and distract and compromise any ‘cognitive liberty’ gains you have made during your detox.
Move to a flip phone/home phone if possible.
4. FORM COMMUNITY with like-minded people
Maintaining digital discipline or abstinence is challenging when
surrounded by an ocean of people who think your efforts are crazy or futile. Conversely, it is helpful and strengthening when you connect with like-minded people, who are also working towards ‘cognitive liberty’.
Parents need to have active involvement in establishing phone-free friend communities for their children:
Host board game or table-top role-playing game (RPG) nights
Organize sports for fun: basketball, soccer, volleyball, badminton, bouldering, running, etc.
Have teens cook and host a meal for friends
Organize a hike or orienteering activity
Play music together
Gather for dog-walking afternoons
Host creative writing, calligraphy, craft evenings
Teens can meet at local cafes for book club meetings
This list could go on; you get the idea. These are not outlandish suggestions. We have hosted or organized all of the examples mentioned over the years, and they were phone-free, high-quality, engaging real-life activities. And never having owned a cell-phone, I can affirm that life without it (albeit inconvenient at times) is very possible.
‘The sugar high of convenience is fleeting and the sting of missing out dulls rapidly, but the meaningful glow that comes from taking charge of what claims your time and attention is something that persists.’
An Invitation to Join the ‘Digital Detox’ Community
Committing to a digital detox is a challenging step to take, especially if you do so alone. When we commit together with others, it helps to strengthen resolve and makes success more likely.
I would thus like to invite readers to join in a ‘community digital detox’ from May 1st to May 31st. If you want to join others in taking this leap, reply in the comment section. For the month of May write down (preferably on paper) what worked for you and what made you slip.
During your ‘digital detox’ month make it your goal (in no particular order) to:
1. Create one beautiful thing
2. Read one book
3. Go for one two-hour walk
4. Visit one family member you have not seen in a while
5. Meet with one friend for a face-to-face conversation
6. Reach out to one neighbor
7. Cook one new meal
8. Engage in one new physical activity
9. Do one thing to make your home more beautiful
10. Leave your phone at home for one outing
At the end of May I will invite readers to share their experiences and will compile an essay of ‘cognitive liberty’ practices that worked, the books that were read, the meals that were cooked, and the beautiful things that were created.
In his latest essay, Jack Leahy reminds us that, ‘the realities we will necessarily have to face are unlikely to be ones of our choosing. But the good news is that we can face them with great joy, confidence, and freedom. We aren’t helpless.’ We still have the ability to act and choose differently, and we can do so for our children.
Something may be crawling toward the throne, aiming to usurp humanity’s crown. However, the Machine and whatever dark forces suffuse it only has power if we serve as its ready vessels.
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Thank you for how practical you made the post. It is one thing to talk about the evils of screens, it is quite another to lay out a plan for behavior change.
Ruth- This is exactly what we all need to start doing. Thank you. -Jack