As students enter into my ninth grade Latin I class, they are introduced to someone much like themselves. He’s a man who struggled to find identity and meaning, covering topics such as ambition, temptation, friendship, freedom, parenthood, and even death. He’s a man who made a lot of mistakes, who loved the wrong things, and who wasted a lot of time. His name is St. Augustine.
As children develop into their teenage years, these questions of life come to the forefront of their minds. That’s why, in the ninth grade Latin I class, we read through St. Augustine’s Confessions. What better year to talk about restless hearts (cor inquietum)? As I ask students what kids like them want, the answers are always the same: love, acceptance, influence, relationship, success.
These were certainly the same desires of a young Augustine (354-430 A.D.), and for adolescents throughout the course of humanity, but when asked where kids their age are looking for these things, there’s been a colossal shift: they’re turning to the devices in their pockets.
In recent weeks, Dr. Hefner and I spoke with an array of Upper School students about social media and technology, discovering that our students are looking at a screen anywhere from two to seven hours every day. Dr. Hefner did the math for them:
If you average 3 hours of screen time per day, that’s 1,095 hours per year (roughly 45 full days of the year). Over a lifetime, if you live 70 years, that’s 76,650 hours, or, roughly, 9 years.
Of course, you could certainly do this math with anything that takes our time and the results will be startling, but I think it’s worth noting that where we spend our time matters. Our hours accumulate, forming days, weeks, months, years—forming a life. Most importantly, however, are the effects these hours spent on technologies are having on our kids.
Augustine writes in Book II of his Confessions, “as I became a youth, I longed to be satisfied with worldly things, and I dared to grow wild in a succession of various and shadowy loves (Confessions Book II.I)”. Our students are on social media because it’s where they feel connected, empowered, heard, seen, etc. It makes them feel good.
These feelings are not inherently wrong, in fact, they are good, but the ways in which we satisfy these desires matters, or else they are simply “shadowy loves” (umbrosis amoribus). These worldly things, i.e. social media and cell phones, are simply offering a shadow of the true, good, and beautiful—and shadows never last.
What’s worse is that the digital systems in place demand the attention of kids. Their eyeballs are for sale, and social media companies and advertisers will do whatever it takes to get, and keep, their attention. And not to mention, these apps are “free”! But what they don’t know is that the cost is dangerously high.
As someone who studied Public Relations in college, I was particularly interested in the psychology of it all. When it comes down to it, advertising, at its core, is based in fear—fear of missing out, of being alone, of being unimportant. It’s no wonder then that it was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, who is considered to be the father public relations—he’s the guy who got Americans smoking cigarettes (and we see how that turned out).
According to the American Journal of Epidemiology, higher social media use correlated with self-reported declines in mental and physical health and life satisfaction (AJE, 2017).
In the most startling statistic I’ve come across, self-harm resulting in hospital admissions for teen girls (age 15-19) is up 62 percent since 2009, and for pre-teen girls (ages 10-14), up a devastating 189 percent. (CDC).
Our kids have the whole world at their fingertips, but the reality is that they can’t handle the whole world. They are saturated in information and images, likes and comments. Their lives are on display and must be curated accordingly. They’re lonely, yet never alone. They’re unsure, yet a google away from all the answers. Augustine would have found this problem paralyzing.
While it seems a bit helpless, we can take back our time. We can adhere to the words of Paul in his letter to the Philippians, to think about, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise.” Not only should we think about these things, but we should post about these things, tweet about these things, like and share these things. Convince the algorithms that it’s these things worth promoting.
And moreover, track your screen time. Be aware of how much time you are on a screen, and decide how much is good for you. Turn off your notifications and control when you open up your phone. Wear a real watch instead of looking at your phone screen!
“If only there had been someone to regulate my disorder and turn to my profit the fleeting beauties of the things around me,” wrote Augustine. Fleeting beauty surrounds our kids, and we must point them to the True Beauty, in whose presence there is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11, ESV).