Concerns about Excessive Information Technology Use by Xenos Students

by Gary DeLashmutt

I am increasingly concerned about the excessive use of Information Technology (IT) by our culture in general and by Xenos students in particular. I am also concerned by the apparent naivete of most Xenos parents concerning the dangers of excessive IT usage. As an elder and leader of a college home church, I am writing this brief paper to sound an alarm over this problem.

As most of you know, I am by no means a “techno-phobe.”   And like you, I enjoy many personal and spiritual benefits of IT. I own and frequently use my two computers, cell phone, TV, CD/MP3 player, and DVD/VCR player. I also frequently access my email account and the internet. In fact, it is because of the ever-increasing layers of IT that I have had to personally grapple with IT excess.

I am concerned that many Xenos leaders with whom I discuss this problem are clueless. Like most Americans, we tend to be uncritically pro-technology. Most Xenos leaders seem to be concerned about only the most obvious moral dangers of IT: internet pornography and illicit romantic chat-room relationships. When I bring up the deeper and far more pervasive problem of excessive usage, I am almost always met with surprise or incredulity. Most Xenos leaders defend IT excess as “a good thing,” or morally neutral for the most part, or “just the way the culture is now.” I think this we are paying a high price for this naivete—and we’re going to pay a far higher price in the future if we don’t respond to this issue more carefully and biblically.

What problems result from excessive IT use?

One of the easiest ways to understand the danger of IT excess is to consider this quote:

“(Far more important is the) . . . forfeited right of people not to know, not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life has no need for this excessive and burdening flow of information . . .  Hastiness and superficiality (are the) psychic diseases of the twentieth century.”

Do you resonate with this author’s complaint? I know I do. The author is the Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who lodged this complaint in his famous “Harvard Commencement Address.” As an outsider to western culture, he was able to put his finger on a problem that most Americans barely sensed because they were so immersed in it. The most amazing thing about Solzhenitsyn’s observation is that it was made in 1978—before cable television and video games were widespread, before the personal computer, before the internet, before home VCR/DVD movies, and before cell phones! IT has expanded exponentially since 1978—and with it the “excessive and burdening flow of information.” IT excess tends to focus people on entertainment, trivial information and superficial conversation—and take time and energy away from development in much more important areas that are central to biblical spirituality, including the following:

  • IT excess erodes or retards our ability to be alone for prayer and reflection. This is not only because IT constantly interrupts reflective activity; its constant noise and stimulation actually make us addicted to stimulation and aversive to reflection. Our sin-natures are already allergic enough to prayer, personal reflection and biblical meditation. IT excess strengthens the power of this allergy, so that one of the most important resources for spiritual development becomes “boring” or a luxury we “don’t have time for.” We tend to spend an increasing amount of time on tasks such as answering email (lest our angst about too many emails in our “inbox” increases)—but a decreasing amount of time in prayer and reflection. This is nothing but the tyranny of the urgent that is being exacerbated by IT. We adults often at least feel this tension and struggle against it. Our children, who are immersed in IT excess, often do not even feel the tension.
  • IT excess erodes or retards our ability to enjoy reading substantive books and/or follow a sustained reasoned argument (like Paul’s letter to the Romans!). For the most part, American culture has not used the power of IT to encourage this kind of thinking. Instead, it has used IT mainly to entertain and distract. Certainly TV (especially) and the internet encourage “surfing” rather than serious thinking. We tend to view Americans   from 150 years ago as “primitive” and ourselves as “advanced.” Yet mid-19 th century American citizens read far more quality literature, and they could follow content-filled debates for two or three hours without losing interest. Most students today view these activities as unbearably boring. How will they become deeply “accustomed to the Word” if they can’t bear to read and think carefully for more than a few minutes?
  • IT excess erodes or retards our relational development. Twenty years ago, we warned Xenos parents that excessive TV watching is harmful to their young children because it is time taken away from developing socialization skills and healthy play with friends. This danger is multiplied many times over today because we have cable TV, computer games, internet, etc.—all of which tend to be highly addictive and (as a consequence) relationally counter-productive. Twenty years ago, we warned parents not to let TV become the constant babysitter. Isn’t this warning even more urgent today? The great lie of much IT advertising is that IT devices promote personal communication and relating. In reality, IT tends to promote superficial self-expression rather than quality communication. Email, instant messaging, text messaging, and cell phone conversations can augment quality relationships, but they cannot create them or substitute for them. Yet they take up an increasing amount of our “relating time,” usually at the expense of intentional face-to-face relating that requires crucial skills like patience, good listening, empathy and conflict management. Yet this relational expertise is at the heart of effective ministry. How can our children become effective Christian evangelists and disciplers if they are relationally superficial?

I am also concerned about IT excess’s negative effect on two other areas: appreciation of nature and physical activity. I find that students immersed in IT stimulation are usually unable to appreciate the beauty and power of nature—the weather, the seasons, wildlife, etc. These things are simply boring them, and yet they are God’s precious gifts and teach us much about his power and beauty and goodness. Similarly, IT excess tends to breed physical inactivity. The “couch potato” syndrome first observed in the 1TV generation of the 1960’s and 1970’s is much worse today—especially among young people immersed in the many layers of “info-tainment.” Both of these deficiencies are problematic because they deny our embodied existence, and they promote physical as well as mental sloth.

Anecdotal accounts

Overall, many of the students who are children of Xenos workers are doing better in the above areas than the children of non-Xenoids.   But my own experience in college ministry is that we are losing ground on this front at an alarming rate. Increasingly, I am encountering what I call “IT addicts” among Xenos students. They exhibit many of the symptoms of other addictions like drugs, pornography, eating disorders, and gambling. In some extreme cases, we are contemplating an “intervention” to impress upon them the seriousness of their addiction. Yet very few of their parents express concern about their children’s addictive IT habits—as long as it isn’t internet pornography or illicit chat-room romances. Here are a few examples from different college home churches (purposefully generalized for obvious reasons):

  • A ministry house member (recent high school graduate and child of long-time Xenos workers) commonly spends several hours per weekend and 2 hours per weekday morning playing video games. He is underachieving in school, and lacks even basic relational skills like engaging new people in casual conversation at home church. When an older worker suggested to his parents a connection between these problems and their son’s excessive video gaming, he was met with complete surprise.
  • A ministry house member (recent high school graduate and child of long-time Xenos workers) is having trouble developing relationships with his house members. He says he prefers to relate to other friends via instant messaging, so he spends hours upstairs doing that instead of relating to his roommates face to face. His parents feel this is “just the way kids communicate with each other today” and see no problem with this.
  • Home group member (recent high school graduate and child of long-time Xenos workers) who is deeply immersed in a variety of video games, internet surfing, and other related entertainment.   He is relationally and functionally deficient for his age. He admits that real life (including the Christian life) is boring and frightening compared to the games and internet surfing—where he can be a hero, defeat enemies, control the conversation, etc. His parents have not expressed any awareness of the connection between these problems and his excessive gaming.

Recently, Calumet Middle School surveyed its students on the amount of time they spend watching TV, on internet, playing video games, etc. Here are some of the results:

  • They spend two hours per day watching TV (1.2 hours) and on the internet (.8 hours).
  • Only 36% of their parents regulate how much they play video games.
  • 27% have a TV in their bedrooms; 9% have cable TV in their bedrooms.
  • 45% of their parents do not regulate how much they watch TV.
  • 32% have a computer in their bedrooms, and 14% have internet access on this computer.

I’m sure many other anecdotes could be shared. The point is that excessive IT usage is very common among our children, that this excess is retarding their intellectual and spiritual and relational development, and that many of us are either unaware of this problem or ineffective in combating it.

Recommendations

My purpose at this point is more to raise this issue for our consideration and discussion. This is just one more example of our challenge to be in the world but not of it. We want to make full use of IT’s potential for advancing God’s kingdom, while avoiding its power to ensnare us in the values of the world-system. Here are a few modest ideas of how we can help our students to do this:

  • Check your own lifestyle! Are you modeling IT excess to your children? If so, your instruction and discipline on this issue will probably be futile. On the other hand, if you practice IT moderation so you can live a rich life of prayerful reflection, excitement about developing the mind of Christ, and enjoyment of close friendships and ministry—your instruction will carry moral authority. Personally, I think that many of us need to start right here.
  • Do some further study on this subject. The better your understanding of the benefits and liabilities of IT, the better equipped you will be to make wise choices concerning its use. I especially recommend Quentin Schultze’s book, Habits of the Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age ( Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2002). If you are interested, I can email you a bibliography of similar books with key quotes. Email me at delashmuttg@xenos.org. Mark Bair (bairm@xenos.org) will also email you the notes of his excellent class on Information Technology.
  • For younger children, limit the amount of time they spend with TV, computers, and video games. This is the best age to encourage habits of reading, healthy interactive play, quality family times, etc.
  • For teens, it is especially important to monitor the amount of their IT usage. I would strongly discourage putting TV’s or computers in their bedrooms. Instead, they should be in common rooms where it easier to monitor usage. I resisted the call for cable TV with my children. I always told them, “If we get it and don’t watch it much, we’re wasting our money.   If we get it and do watch it a lot, we’re wasting our time. When you can refute my argument, I’ll get cable.” Don’t acquiesce to cell phone, all kinds of games, etc. just because they can afford it. Instead, consider negotiating IT usage as a reward for demonstrating responsibility in other more important activities (involvement in fellowship, school work, job, etc.).
  • Ministry houses should negotiate moderation on TV, video games, and internet surfing. If these things become a serious problem, the house may want to agree to get rid of cable and video games. Leaders should deplore excess in this area as unworthy of men and women who want to become effective Christian workers.
  • Of course, resistance without replacement is a strategy doomed to defeat. Emphasize replacing IT excess with God’s alternative: reflecting and praying, reading and studying, and relating and serving. It helps tremendously when others who already have these skills (e.g., parents, disciplers, spiritually more mature peers) lead them into personal experience and enjoyment of these things. You will probably need to consistently stress that these activities, while less immediately stimulating, are far more enriching and rewarding in the long run—and that they must be cultivated.

Ongoing discussion

I am interested in hearing your response to my concerns, and on how we can make the best use of IT while avoiding excess. If you want to respond privately, email me at delashmuttg@xenos.org. If you want to respond to your fellow Servant Team members, let’s do this over XCF-HGISSUES rather than XCF-SERVTEAM, so we can keep XCF-SERVTEAM uncluttered.