Jonathan Ebsworth of Tech Human shares practical tips. “Real embodied human relationships are messy and difficult, but it is where we can find true love and acceptance; even if the digital world feels more accepting”.
Tech giants such as Google and Facebook are manipulating our behaviours online, and both governments and individuals should find ways to better control their influence.
But what can parents and churches do to help children and young people to navigate the digital world? Jonathan Ebsworth of Tech Human shares some insights and practical tips in the second part of this interview.
Read part one here.
Question. Experts have denounced in documentaries, books, interviews, how tech companies such as Facebook, Google, Amazon are manipulating the behaviour of its users in many ways. Going beyond the diagnosis of the problem - what can we do to help our young people relate well to the powerful technologies present in their daily life (social media, search engines, online shopping...)?
Answer. First, we need to understand that these technologies are designed to penetrate the rhythms of our lives, and draw us back. Our children (and perhaps even many adults) do not have the sophisticated decision-making ability to resist these pressures without help. So we must not throw our children and young people into the fast-flowing digital river unaided.
I would suggest we should consider carefully at what age we want to expose young people to these technologies. My observation would be that we can already see significant, demonstrable harm from early access to social media. “Analysis of Emergency Department Visits for nonfatal self-inflicted injuries amongst youth in the USA from 2001 – 2015” demonstrates a modest but clear increase in the rates of nonfatal self-harm admissions for females aged 20-24 from 2001 to the present (2% increase year on year). The rates of admission for girls aged 10-14 rose 18.8% year on year until the end of the study. The rates of admission for 15-19 year old girls increased 7.2% year on year from 2008. The rates of admission for young males was stable for this period.
[destacate]“Increasing anxiety, particularly within the younger female population, has a plausible relationship with the growth of social media”
This suggests to me an increasing level of anxiety, particularly within the younger female population and a plausible relationship with the growth of social media. This is only one report – of many.
I can point to both research and anecdote of vulnerable people being exposed to materials to which they are particularly sensitive; just because that is how the algorithms that present content are designed to work.
Q. How could we help our children in this context?
An advice would be to delay access to a point where you can have rational dialogue about tech-use habits and disturbing content.
Keep devices out of the area where children and young people are sleeping (actually that would be good for most of us adults).
Be engaged in your children’s use of technology and remain engaged. This includes implementing content and time restriction where appropriate – recognising that as our children grow up, they need greater freedom in order to live well.
Understand that ‘bad things’ do happen in the digital world and try to create an environment where there is no shame in raising these questions and issues – and that you construct a trustworthy support network around your children and young people that allow them to raise and resolve their concerns safely.
Let’s develop family rhythms and practices – times of the day and week when technology is put aside. There should be places in the home (bedrooms and mealtimes for example) where technology is not welcome.
We should consider how much of our free time is devoted to ‘consumption’ as opposed to ‘creation’ and value the physical process of making things – rather than just the ephemeral nature of digital creation.
[destacate]“How much of our free time is devoted to ‘consumption’ as opposed to ‘creation’?”
Emphasise the critical value of real embodied human relationships (I know this one is super-hard in Covid times). They are messy and difficult, but that is what we are created for, and where we can find true love and acceptance; even if the digital world feels more accepting.
Recognise that these digital tools are both wonderful and dangerous at the same time. Learn to handle them carefully. We don’t teach our children to swim by finding the fastest flowing water there is and throwing them in. We (usually) learn in relatively calm, shallow water – and are closely supervised while we learn. We only swim in challenging waters when we know we are capable – and we go into the most dangerous environments (e.g. cave diving) when accompanied, properly equipped and trained.
Oh, leaving the best one to the last place – as parents and carers remember that you are modelling the behaviours which will set the ‘floor’ of your children’s tech use – so model good ‘digital hygiene’ to your children.
If you want the really short form of that – it is ‘be informed and be engaged’ in your children’s technology use.
[photo_footer]Jonathan Ebsworth. / Photo: Graduate Impact
Q. As a Christian, you and others are working to help people think and act wisely in our tech-saturated world. Do you see the people you relate to open and ready to have this conversation?
A. Talking first to other parents, it is quite hard. We get a dual response. On the one hand, I find people very willing to talk (one-to-one). We nod our heads and suck our teeth at the ‘perceived’ harms.
But it is quite hard to move from that general ‘concern’ to action. How will we as a family, live differently to cope better with technology. Doing that requires us to be willing to say ‘no’ to unfettered device access; to make choices that are seen as unpopular by our children. We have to have the courage to say that just because all your friends are allowed to do this or that, doesn’t mean we want to have that happening within our family. Bridging the gap between concern and action is quite hard.
We have developed a short workshop for parents which we can run online (in English) – and we have friends in the US who can do something very similar. We would like to scale these up to a series of workshops –to explore how we do this, and help parents to develop their own plans.
[destacate]“We need a clear theological underpinning - show how these issues require serious thought and action”
Talking to church leaders, I think there is anxiety about the impact of technology, but particularly in the Covid-dominated world, it is seen as more of a blessing than a curse. The possible dangers are considered to be ‘second order’ issues – perhaps restricted to youth pastors or more junior leaders within the leadership team.
Again the challenge is moving from concern to action. To do that we have to do a better job of articulating simply what the true harms and dangers are of the unconstrained digital world we inhabit. We need to offer a clear theological underpinning to what these dangers represent and show how these issues (and they are legion, not just a single problem) require serious thought and action.
Just because Facebook, Google and others are critical lifelines during Covid (and beyond) doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t question, challenge and in fact take action against these businesses as they threaten to undermine our very humanity. I can’t help thinking of the Tower of Babel at this point – it seems like humanity is setting itself up to be gods – and technology is (as it was in Babel) the means to achieve that.
On a personal note, I am wondering if I shouldn’t reread the Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis), but through the lens of modern digital living, to see if there are lessons for us individually and collectively in holding firm to the faith that we have: following the Way of Jesus.
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