A lightbulb went on in my head the other morning when WGN 9 morning news announced a segment about the "iGeneration" and how young people growing up in the age of hand-held technology are suffering from anxiety more than those in earlier generations.
The conclusion we are supposed to make, I think, is that technology is causing problems for our youth - or maybe for all of us. The belief seems to be that phones distract people from things that are "more important", they leave a child's "social and emotional growth" stunted, and they deceive young people into perpetually comparing themselves and their lives to social media ideals. We are led to believe that phones cause FOMO and many other manifestations of worry, that phones are at the root of the alarming rates of anxiety and depression in this generation of young people. Something must be done about ALL the time our youth spend on their phones!
I know parents wring their hands about the obsession youth have with their phones. Just like when previous generations feared that sitting too close to the TV would harm a child's eyesight, current parents fear that too much phone time harms a child's social and emotional growth, intellectual development, and, yes, mental health. They think that all the anxiety and depression must be caused by the increase in phone use or at least strongly correlate with it. They want to know what to "do" about it. My gut says that phones are not the problem. The problem, at the risk of sounding "churchy", is too little church.
You see, while society has turned its attention toward phones - and FOMO, and lifestyle and achievement and politics and money and awards and scholarships and getting ahead and not being left behind, and travel and vacation homes and looking good and eating healthy and being really really busy, it has also turned away from church. Church is where families can spend time together worshiping a God from whom all blessings flow, wondering about the mysterious and supernatural Holy Spirit in and among us, learning and understanding and internalizing the person and purpose of Jesus Christ, finding joy and peace in the mundane and profound, caring for each other and the world. I have no data to back this up, but I am pretty sure it was the diminishing importance of church and faith and religion in family life that preceded the anxiety we notice in today's iGeneration.
Psychologists like Gordon Allport, Erik Erikson and others have advanced theories that associate mature intrinsic faith with sound mind and good mental health. Even so, it is seems more generally accepted that extrinsic faith and punitive or authoritarian religion cause mental distress. The trouble starts when we tell ourselves that this gives all churches and faith itself a bad name. That just makes it easier to say no to church. Or at least, not now. It makes it easier to limit church to those days when we know what to expect - aka Christmas and Easter.
But church is important. Attending worship is an effective habit for anyone who wants a chance at mature intrinsic saving faith. There are other habits, too, and this is not to say that some do not have deep faith without going to church, but church is the easiest one because someone else does all the work to make it happen. You just need to show up. It is good for parents to bring children to church to begin this faith development early and often. It may seem boring - as does a social studies class for a squirrelly sixth grader, but children learn and in learning, they grow... in wisdom and stature.
My job brings me into contact with a lot of teens, many of whom have had very little church growing up, even if they consider themselves "church members" or even went through confirmation. Those who grew up attending church regularly as children are different. Whether they believe or not is not the point. They have a confidence in knowing - about the Bible and about God about the words and actions that set Jesus apart from the holier-than-thou counterparts of his time. They have confidence in knowing that the story is not just what they are facing in the moment, but the beauty and love and light and wonder that transcends time and enters into the tiniest detail of life. They have perspective that life unfolds in messy and worrisome ways, but that despite it all, there is a light that shines in the darkness that will lead them into wide open places - where they know they are loved and cherished.
That confidence, understanding and perspective does not appear overnight. It does not develop in a week-long mission trip or a few days in Sunday school. It rarely comes as religious awakening or epiphany. It comes from practicing and exploring faith for the long haul. So I don't think the antidote to the anxiety of the iGeneration is to limit phone time or screen time or social media posts. It is to raise our children knowing and trusting God. It is to make time for church again.