During lockdown, we have developed bad habits, haven’t we?
This was a question put frankly by Auckland auxiliary Bishop Michael Gielen to viewers of a September 16 facebook event titled “Who’s using Who?” on September 16.
The bad habit to which he referred concerned the misuse and overuse of devices such as smart phones, tablets and computers, as well as TV.
While these have many good aspects, “we are becoming more and more consumed by devices and technology”, and “we can forget who we are called to be as humans”, Bishop Gielen said.
Speaking about times he had seen people use their phones rather than engage with those around them, Bishop Gielen said “We have all done that”.
Being consumed by media is not living life to the full, and it is not living one’s baptismal mission for Christians, he added, citing passages from Pope Francis’ encyclical “Fratelli Tutti”.
Christians are called to be participants in life, not mere observers of it, the bishop added. And it is not just teens and young people who are impacted in this area – it applies to parents and other older adults as well, he noted.
So Bishop Gielen suggested a device-use check-up. He posed the following questions.
- Is checking your phone the very first thing you do in the morning?
- Do you use your phone while driving or walking?
- When you go out for dinner with friends – where is your phone?
- How do you feel after a prolonged period of scrolling on your phone or blobbing in front of a TV?
- Where do you plug your phone in at night?
- Where is your phone right now?
- What is the last thing you do before you go to bed at night? If you wake up in the middle of the night, do you check your phone?
- Do you regularly find yourself mindlessly scrolling on platforms or on TV longer than you would like? (But you have no time to pray).
- Do you check your phone at Mass?
- How many times in a month of evenings at home would you not use a device?
Answering these questions would give a useful indication of where and how people are spending their time and energy.
Bishop Gielen next introduced Sam Brebner, who works for Auckland diocese as manager – ministries for young people. Mr Brebner used to work for Real Talk Australia, a non-profit organisation which uses personal sharing from presenters to engage young people to “get real” on sex, relationships and personal identity. Bishop Gielen noted that Mr Brebner is “a millennial and a digital native”, and is well placed to talk about digital media and device use.
Mr Brebner pointed to research showing that, on average, Kiwis are spending eight hours a day on their devices, with only some of this being work-related. For Kiwi teens, the stats are even more eye-opening, with a quarter of teenagers in this country spending more than six hours a day – out-of-school time – on devices.
While technology, being a tool, has good aspects, when things get out of balance, there are unhealthy flow-on effects, Mr Brebner said.
He said research has shown that unhealthy device use has a strong correlation with depression and anxiety.
“Also, at the level of values, it creates this really unhealthy culture of comparison, of self-criticism, of materialism”, and can lead to isolation, he added.
“We are more connected than ever before, but too many times, I think, it can lead to quite shallow connection that is missing the depth of a real encounter between different human beings.”
Mr Brebner acknowledged the attraction that social media has for many, and there is a real science behind this, and the big media companies know it.
Engaging with social media feels good and releases chemicals, such as dopamine, in people’s brains. Over time, people’s brains become trained to respond to certain stimuli.
Mr Brebner said that, in many cases, people’s brains are being trained to gravitate to distraction. But what is being rewarded is a particular way of putting oneself across, showing the best of oneself on social media. The highlights of life are shown, but the rest is left out.
“The truth is that this is not a realistic portrayal of life and relationships. This is not setting up our young people, even at a cognitive level, for relationships, where they are going to have resilience for those times that aren’t quite as exciting, those times that are challenging,” Mr Brebner said.
It is also easy to go into auto-pilot, or go into auto-play around technology use, he added. It is not uncommon for people to come off social media feeling a bit “blah” or low. Mr Brebner said such feelings should not be ignored.
“That feeling wants to teach you something, and there is an action that needs to take place if you are feeling like that,” he said.
Mr Brebner suggested five steps or questions that people can take towards being more “intentional” in the way technology is used.
1/. Start with prayer – invite Jesus into this space. God wants to speak into every area of our lives, including this one.
2/. We have to make a choice – how do we want to use our time? We need to think more intentionally about time use and the way we use technology.
3/. Make a plan before using a device. Sort out places and times where and when device use is allowed. For instance, agree that no-one takes smart phones or tablets into their bedrooms at night. Parents can make agreements with their children. “It is never too late to start making steps in this direction,” Mr Brebner said. He recommended taking things step-by-step, treating this like a journey, and not trying to enforce all-or-nothing measures straight away.
4/. Intentionally choose alternative entertainment. Mr Brebner mentioned board games, family prayers, reading a book, calling someone. He also stressed the importance of families talking with each other at meals. “Think about these alternatives [entertainment] and choose them.”
5/. Have honest conversations on technology use. Mr Brebner said that this is foundational. “We need to be willing to bring this into the light, and even the habits – whether that is about too much device use or looking at things that are inappropriate – bringing it to the light takes courage, but it is often the biggest step for creating that change, for creating that shift towards some healthier patterns.” Bishop Gielen encouraged parents to have conversations with their young men and women, including about the viewing of inappropriate material. “It means that you love them, when you say ‘I know this is a struggle’, and not just hope that they are not using it.”
Bishop Gielen concluded the facebook event by saying, “In the end we are children of God called to live life to the full. I pray that, as an outcome of this conversation, that you choose again to live life more fully, to be more available to those you love, and to inspire others to live their lives in a similar way.”