The Church reminds us of the importance of vigilance and discernment in the use of evolving technology and media. We must ask, how are smart phones forming our relationships and faith? Studies related to such media use are indicating various negative effects of mobile technology and a decreased ability to attend to the more ordinary tasks and communications of life. A Catholic response to technology should also consider the impact on the spiritual dimension of the person, particularly efforts towards an ever-deepening encounter with God through prayer and common worship. So, it is worth understanding whether our mobile communication technology is a tool that simplifies our lives or simply a replacement of the real.
The diverted brain
Some researchers are exploring various ways that the brain is impacted by the use of technology. For example, it has been observed that using a keyboard versus writing by hand has an effect on learning and memory. In a Wall Street Journal article, Dr. Virginia Berninger wrote that "pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements (as with handwriting) activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory — the system for temporarily storing and managing information." So handwriting, while generally slower, activates the brain more effectively.
Video gaming also impacts the brain. Gamers have long been noted to have an increase in aggressive behaviors after acting out violence. One study "found that playing violent video games is a significant risk factor for later physical aggression in both Japan and the United States — for boys and girls." (Anderson, 2008) Gaming has also taken on social implications. In multiplayer settings, youth are readily accepting significant levels of advice from peers or strangers online. Gaming by design, trains the player to be rewarded as he/she progresses through a series of tasks or levels. These rewards or hits of dopamine, teach the brain to experience excitement, pleasure, or social acceptance, through this medium rather than through real- world experiences. Particularly for the young, these technology-based reinforcements can lead to seeking the virtual as a replacement for personal fulfillment.
Even for adults, mobile technology and social media stimulate the brain in a way which the print media or direct communication does not. It provides an immediate response and sense of connectedness. The brain has a way of adapting to this stimulation and tends to seek it out. This type of "techno-overload" creates an environment where a user’s attention is divided, as the person anticipates a text or form of communication. (Misra, 2014) As a result, the person who is media-multitasking is not fully present to those who are actually physically present to them. This seems to have a more significant impact on significant personal relationships.
Our ability to attend in relationship impacts our ability to be intimate, and this is fostered through very simple things like responsiveness, eye contact and touch. According to the writer Hara Marano, "Love lurks in the lulls, in the unstructured moments of just being together — the times we are most likely to turn to our devices." It seems that more couples are facing the challenge of what is being called "techno-interference" in their limited time together. I once observed a similar example of this while waiting for a flight. I looked around the crowded seating area, noticing an older woman quietly sitting in her seat with a lost look on her face. She had no one to talk with. Everyone around her was head-down checking something on their phones.
Our spiritual connection
We come to this technological smorgasbord thinking that we have such a wonderful selection of entrées and possibilities, but the fact is we are becoming less able to simply enjoy one thing at a time.
If Jesus had walked on the earth in the 21st century, would we have just been friends on Facebook or followed his latest parable Tweets? Of course, God ultimately communicates concretely, like a good father with his child. He participates in his child’s life and his child experiences and images his life and love. We need to take the opportunity in quiet moments, not lose them on the phone.
(Spadaro, MA, LPC, is a licensed professional counselor and
a member of the Diocese of Colorado Springs. His website is www.imagodeicounseling.com.)