Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Technology, the Adolescent Brain, and Community

We start today's blog by expressing our common grief with our sisters and brothers in Haiti. As John Donne wrote, "No man is an island. entire of itself . . . therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." We pray with our family in Haiti and encourage everyone to give as you are able to the relief and rebuilding efforts there.

One thing those of us who work with high school students know is that there's going to be a tech device, or several, somewhere. They come in all shapes and forms: cell phones, ipods, you name it. These items may disappear for a while, but you can be certain that once there is a break, or maybe a lull in activity, they will reappear. This is a challenge for many of us as we emphasize that community is important in our faith. We take Jesus' words seriously: Love God, Love Neighbor. For many of us this means honoring the physical presence of the other, recognizing in them God's wonderful creation, being attentive to what and how the Spirit of God would reveal through them. Thus, while we do not decry tech for its own sake we encourage, sometimes mandate through ritual or rules that items be put away while we are together in organized activity. We do desire that when we are gathered together in community we are attentive to each other as we allow God to work through us in the worship. Worship happens as we sing unto the Lord, read/hear/share God's Word, pray, and hear what is happening with those around us.

What helps us when we gather in this fashion are the cues we receive form each other, both verbal and non-verbal. We get these primarily from reading faces, awareness of changes in body posture, and recognizing various tones of voice. These cues are applicable to many social settings but here I am concerned with the youth group gathered in Christian community. We learn to recognize these cues from being around others and often we are helped to interpret them by someone who is more versed in these matters: a parent, a friend, a mentor . . . . How are we doing with helping our young people, our high school students in this adolescent phase of life be sensitive to others? Have you, as a youth worker, noticed a decrease in reading cues? Maybe it seemed that a particular youth or group of youth was non-responsive or unnecessarily belligerent, or maybe they totally misread your facial expression and thought you were angry when you were not. Some of this may be attributable to adolescents operating more out of the region of the brain regulating emotions while making the shift to increased use of the executive functioning frontal region. Yet, it seems that this is further compounded.

Dr Gary Small, in iBrain, notes that the constant immersion in and connection with technology leads to changes in brain wiring. With adolescent brains still developing, they are particularly likely to experience these changes. Of course, there are some gains. As many of us have observed, adolescents are very adept at multi-tasking to give an example. Nevertheless with gains there are often loses. Small observes that the interaction with technology frequently does not use parts of the brain integral to face-to-face social interaction. Could this development of social skills be hindered in our adolescent high school youth? Do we need to be social interpreters when we gather? What are the implications for us in our youth groups as we seek to foster Christian community?
Loving God, Loving Neighbor

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