According to the American Psychological Association, nearly half of millennials worry about the negative effects of social media on their physical and mental health. The same young adults reported feeling disconnected from family even when they are together.
Americans have started to develop strategies to deal with technology concerns. Some common approaches include prohibiting cellphones at the dinner table, doing a “digital detox” periodically and turning off social media notifications.
All of these strategies are commendable, but they fail to address the more fundamental change being wrought by the digital environment on our psyches.
When we learn to read, our brain changes. Scientists refer to this as “neuroplasticity.” This just means that all of our experiences have the potential to forge new connections between the “circuits” in our brain. No matter how old we are, there is always some capacity for “rewiring” the way we think.
Digital tools have introduced new changes in the brain, not all of them good. Distraction and heightened anxiety are all too common features of life in the digital age. The strategies that restrict smartphone use in family situations are attempts to lessen these effects, but they don’t attend to the deeper transformation taking place.
There is a Greek word, “metanoia,” that relates well to these modern developments. Metanoia literally means “change of mind.”
In Scripture, the term appears in the context of spiritual repentance and conversion. In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus launches his public ministry, he announces that the kingdom of heaven is at hand and urges his followers to metanoia or repentance.
To repent is to turn away from sin and toward righteousness and virtue. In a million little instances, every time we turn toward the screen, our brain is making small changes to how we react to the world around us.
When feeling lonely or anxious, is our first impulse to seek God in prayer or to watch a video to soothe our aching psyche?
When worried about an illness, do we place our trust in God or do we Google symptoms and treatments until we think we know more than the doctor?
When stumped by a question or bit of trivia, do we allow ourselves to wonder at what the answer might be or do we Google it immediately?
All of these practices are indications of the metanoia taking place in the digital age.
Contemplation is a corrective for distraction; trust in God is a worthy substitute for Google and as Socrates had it, wonder is the beginning of wisdom. When these things are hollowed out by our technological “conversion,” then we would do well to repent and return our minds to Christ.
Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.