The New Addiction

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“Anyone who today works with or near young people cannot fail to see this: for members of the present generation, the smartphone has become an amulet. It is a sacred object to be held and caressed and constantly attended to. Previous generations fell in love with their cars or became addicted to TV, but this one elevates devotion to material objects to an altogether different level. In the guise of exercising freedom, its members engage in a form of idolatry.”

So wrote one Andrew J. Bacevich on Commonweal this month, in a piece tellingly entitled “Selling our Souls.” Like me, you may feel inclined to defend our generation against such slander. According to an international study involving almost a thousand college students, though, Mr. Bacevich is right. Participants in the study spent just 24 hours without media (cell phones, computers, TV, etc.) and reported that the experience revealed their total “addiction” to it all and left them not just bored but upset, lonely, and depressed. They depended on the media for information, entertainment, even companionship.

Pretty pathetic. Of course, we can and should use the various forms of media for good purposes; this blog will, I hope, serve as an enriching resource for growth in the Catholic faith. But if you find time to read this post and haven’t found time to pray today, please stop reading.

…Still with me? Even if you DO pray daily and maintain real face-to-face relationships with your family and friends– thus avoiding the worst habits of the deprived participants in that study– excessive media use is no less dangerous. Whether we’re sending texts, reading blogs, or viewing photos, the constant immersion in it all may be eroding our capacity to concentrate. As we leap from one activity, one website, one facebook profile to the next, we’re training ourselves for distraction.

And what kind of spiritual life can we hope for if even the array of modern media can’t hold our attention? Distraction in prayer isn’t exactly a new problem for Christians, yet it could be among the worst spiritual afflictions of our age. Silence should lead us to God, as Pope Benedict frequently reminds us; it more often leads us to turn on the radio. Devoting more attention to your smartphone than to the Lord is indeed, in Mr. Bacevich’s blunt term, “a form of idolatry.” Perhaps we should add a new question to the standard examination of conscience: Is my media consumption undermining my relationship with God?

Anna Williams

Anna Williams

Anna Williams is a junior fellow at First Things magazine, a former Collegiate Network fellow at USA TODAY, and a recent graduate of Hillsdale College.

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9 thoughts on “The New Addiction”

  1. The iPhone makes an excellent devotional tool, with many Catholic apps available for it. In one device I can have the Bible, Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Divine Office with me at all times, with 1,000’s prayers and a host of spiritual reading.

    Whilst I do agree that ‘addiction’ to technology is an issue for many youngsters, as with all such matters there is a plus side to it as well.

    For Catholic youngsters who feel attached to their smartphones, perhaps they can be encouraged to add these apps to their phones. As well as iPhone, there are many Vatholic apps for Android and BlackBerry devices, too.

  2. Anna! “Perhaps we should add a new question to the standard examination of conscience: Is my media consumption undermining my relationship with God?”

    Great question, great piece, very pertinent. Many thanks!

  3. …and I read this one on my smartphone. 🙂 You make great points here. Media is a well-crafted industry, just like clothing or even food, designed to make us want more, bigger, better, faster, longer. When we replace the emptiness in life with “stuff” instead of God, this is what we get. It’s never enough, we’re always looking for the next new thing, and our stuff comes to define us because our beliefs just can’t anymore.

    Also, I think another indictment of modern, especially American, culture is the total loss of creativity. I mean, really? Without a phone or a TV, we can’t find anything with which to occupy ourselves for a mere 24 hours? This is something that drives me nuts about my younger brothers-in-law all the time. We have internet here at our house, but no TV, no cable…and they go crazy! After a couple hours, they’re ready to go sit at Applebee’s and watch whatever is on the screen there. Reading, walking, snoozing, talking, writing, stretching, cooking, cleaning, even just staring at the ceiling and thinking are completely lost arts today. Oh well.

    I’m going back to the couch to snooze and stare some more.

  4. Ooh, almost forgot. This article<a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/04/02/us-work-internet-tech-life-idUSTRE5313G220090402&quot; from 2009 talks about how internet surfing increases productivity by allowing the brain to ‘restart’ at intervals (not unlike a cache dump). Not to be facetious, I just though the juxtaposition was interesting. Somewhere here, I have an article my husband read to me about the concentration-destroying powers of the internet. Basically, the internet ‘feminizes’ the brain by teaching it to multi-task and sort small pieces of information into categories rapidly, like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. ‘Masculine’ brains tackle one problem at a time, and are more likely to finish a begun project, but are easily overwhelmed by large amounts of unrelated data. I should look for the actual article…

  5. Thanks for your comments, everyone!

    Jay- Yes, there are a million great new media tools out there for practicing and spreading the faith. The Church should take advantage of those, as we have with TV networks like EWTN and Salt+Light, numerous Catholic radio stations, dozens of mobile apps, and thousands of websites. I’d still argue, however, that we should deliberately control our use of media, even the Catholic versions, as media consumption seems to encourage spiritual A.D.D. and sloth. It’s too easy to replace our own prayer and spiritual reading with one more Catholic video on Youtube, or with one more Catholic blog.

    Jennifer- Exactly! We have an ever increasing amount of technological tools and an ever decreasing amount of creativity. We’re dependent on the tools without having much to use them for. Instead of playing the piano and posting a video of it online, most of us just watch videos on Youtube. Instead of playing sports with our friends, we watch sports on TV. Instead of reading books, we read lists of bestsellers on Amazon. Yes, some people still do these good things, but I think the omni-presence of technology pushes us all away from “culture creation” (to coin a phrase) and towards mere media consumption.

    On the Reuters piece- not what I would’ve expected! But note the phrase “short and unobtrusive breaks, such as a quick surf of the Internet.” At work our Internet-surfing may be quick and unobtrusive, but haven’t we all wasted hours of our leisure time just Internet-surfing? It’s hard to keep it quick when we’re outside the workplace.

    And on the brain research- I’d definitely be interested in that article. Seems to me that prayer and spiritual discipline require “masculine” brainpower (concentration on a single thing at a time, namely God or a specific prayer) more than “feminine” brainpower… meaning, again, that excessive Internet/media use could damage our ability to pray.

  6. This reminds me of a book my parents recently gave me called “Alone Together”. It looks to address this from a secular standpoint. I can’t wait to get to it, but I suspect you just gave the concise overview of what I’ll see in there. 🙂

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