Technology and the Formation of Virtue – part 1

Stereotypical images of teenagers today would have to include kids texting on their mobile phones aloof to the people around them, or perhaps sitting in the living room with a video game controller, their gaze transfixed on the glowing screen before them.  We all know that electronic media consumption is a central part of the life of American youth, but you may be shocked by the amount of it.  A new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation reports that children 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day with electronic devices (includes smart phones, computers, televisions, video games, etc.), and an additional hour and a half texting and half-hour talking on their cell phones).  This is virtually every moment of their lives outside of school and sleep. The same study in 2005 found an average of 6.5 hours, and the authors believe then it had reached a saturation point.  Thus, they were shocked that it rose by an hour.  The study also found an association between heavy media use and negative outcomes such as lower grades and behavior problem.

As a high school teacher, I see evidence of electronic media obsession and observe its negative effects daily.  I see it manifested primarily in kids lack of concentration, expectations that learning happen instantaneously, and difficulty in thinking coherently about complex topics.  I attribute the latter two to minds being bombarded daily by a continuous, rapid stream of largely disconnected information.  Instead of reflecting on the information to interpret and make meaning of it, which takes time, it enters the mind briefly and is immediately displaced by something new.

How should Christian parents and educators respond to this cultural reality?  An extreme response is to imitate the Amish and forbid new technology in our homes.  This is nearly impossible to do unless you live in an isolated community that does likewise (and the Amish are not really anti-technology, they just favor the technology of a particular time period from the 18th to 19th century).  A more realistic response is to do what I’m sure many parents do which is to impose limits on media time, taking it away as punishment, and granting it as a reward.  This is sensible and has been shown to be effective.  I believe, though, that setting such rules in the home should be coupled with instruction on the implications of a biblical worldview on the development and use of technology.  This is where I want to devote some space on my blog.

Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias draws a parallel between the function of technologically in society today and the function of magic and sorcery in the ancient world.  Both seek to give humans control over reality in order to satisfy desires.  He contrasts this to the pursuit of virtue in which humans seek to conform their desires to reality (virtue is defined as “conformity of one’s life and conduct to moral and ethical principles”).  Questions about what virtue is and how to acquire it were once a central concern in Western culture.  Today questions about how to control more of nature through technology are more prominent.

While developing and using technology to “rule and subdue” creation is a morally legitimate human activity, Scripture places a much greater emphasis on conforming our lives to moral principles.  In addition to the numerous specific moral laws we are obliged to obey, Scripture calls us to conform our lives to the moral ideals embodied in the person of Christ who perfectly conformed to the will of God:

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” – Romans 12:2

“17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
– 2 Corinthians 3:17-18

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” – Colossians 3:12

Scripture also cautions us against living to gratify our desires:

“Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”” – Luke 12:15

“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” – Colossians 3:5

This contrast between pursuing virtue and gratifying our selfish desires should guide our use of technology. Much of electronic technology is used for pleasure, distraction, voyeurism, gossip and spreading lies.  But electronic technology also is used for spreading the gospel, writing blogs, studying Scripture, enhancing communication, and so on.  As we evaluate our and our children’s use of technology we must examine our motives for using them and effects on our heart.  To the degree that technology allows us to care for human needs, communicate biblical truth, and increase our knowledge of what is true and good, it should be embraced.  Technology use that serves and feeds selfish desires, distances us from relationships with others, and distracts us from our moral obligations should be rejected, all for the sake of knowing and serving Christ.

How do you seek to use technology in a redemptive, God-honoring way?  How do you help your children do likewise?

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4 comments on “Technology and the Formation of Virtue – part 1

  1. Jason says:

    This is an amazing statistic. It helps explain why kids get poor grades so often and how tired they usually seem to be. Their poor little lives are being overtaken by media and there is no time for anything else. Certainly it is a poor reflection on modern parenting that such high media consumption is allowed.

    While I follow the same guidelines as you do for my family, I have recently found myself in a bit of a pickle with something you mention in this post. You say:

    “This contrast between pursuing virtue and gratifying our selfish desires should guide our use of technology.”

    For Christmas we received a Nintendo Wii and I have picked up a habit in the last few weeks that I had not participated in for years. I am playing Zelda for 1-2 hours every other night. Its after the kids are in bed, while my wife is either doing her own thing or sleeping, so as not to have a visible affect on our family time. However, I have felt a slight tinge of guilt about spending my time on the Wii.

    I know that we can’t be all work and no play. I understand that no one can sit and study/ pray for every free moment – but I have wondered if video games, even in moderation, can help me to pursue virtue in any fashion or are they simply for my escapist self-gratification.

    Perhaps it isn’t such a blanket issue and each person has to deal with their time sitting mindless in front of video games or TV for themselves. On the other hand, maybe there is a clear baseline at least, a place where all could agree – its too much TV/ games.

    Do you think that there are any universal standards which could apply for the responsible use of TV/ video games or would such a matter be entirely an individual issue?

    • Great question. I think we need a robust view of the purpose of entertainment in the Christian life in general and then discern which forms and means of entertainment fulfill that purpose. Any ideas on this? I once heard some contrast amusement (literally ‘not think’) and entertainment, which can direct our hearts to eternal realities. Of course we should avoid lifestyle choices that dull the mind.

      Video games certainly are enticing and there certainly is Christian liberty in how we use them. I know for myself though that if my time spent on video games, which really is only when I have breaks from work and occasionally on the weekends with my son, detracts from time spent fulfilling other callings (Church, family, ministry, etc) then I should judge it to be excessive and enabling me to commit sins of omission in other areas of my life, and should thus repent towards more moderation in my use of it.

  2. jackie bellard says:

    I beleive we are one of few families who are not up to date on tech.. We have no video game stuff at all… Tori my teenager has neither cell phone nor ipod or anything else, we feel she does not need it and does fine without it. Praise God!

    • I commend you for resisting cultural pressures to put the latest technological gadgets in Tori’s hands; daily life has enough distractions of its own! At the same time I would encourage you to have conversations with her about the role of technology in the Christian life so that when she is adult and surround by a world of electronic gadgets she can discern their proper role and use them properly.

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