Screens and hell

Fifteen years into the journey of parenting, finally I am beginning to glimpse the relationship between screens and hell. 

Allow me to explain. From roughly the mid-George W. Bush to the late Barack H. Obama era, I focused on the benefits of the screen. Shiny phone in hand, I uttered all the slogans: portal to universal knowledge, etc. I took solace in the idea that like Switzerland, technology was “neutral.” I stepped aside as my children logged on, did their homework and played games.  

But all of that is gone. Years into what has become street-by-street and house-by-house combat, I am hardened. Switzerland’s breathtaking mountain peaks are still visible on the horizon, but I have been shot up so many times by nefarious actors operating along the Swiss border that I can no longer chant the old slogans. I am entering a dark phase. 

The way I see it, a core parental job responsibility is to modulate the amount of instant gratification and deferred rewards in the home. There’s nothing wrong with sugar and candy, but all in moderation. There is also a time for vegetables.  

On any given day, we parents can choose to bring home big bags of candy: a new app, game or device, carryout dinner, a movie, a trip to the mall, a vacation to Disney. We parents know that as the kids rip open these bags, we all get to enjoy smiles, laughs, immediacy, dopamine, good feelings and videos.  

But back to vegetables. We parents also know that a different type of good thing happens when we limit the candy and train the focus on deferred rewards. We get to see things such as chores, skills, conscientiousness and perseverance. We get to see our kids enjoy tending a garden, reading a book, building something, or serving their community. 

Social scientists have observed that a baseline investment of some 10,000 hours is needed to attain basic proficiency in the piano, ballet, painting, Russian, or pretty much anything. When we keep the candy to a minimum, our kids begin to set the foundation for their 10,000-hour competencies. 

As for screens, in my early parenting I observed a simple equation: more screen-time seemed to mean more good feelings, a brief sugar rush, an admittedly easy “reward.” But now, screens have ceased to operate within my parental system of instant gratification and deferred rewards. Like parasites or malware, the screens are overriding the entire system. I have lost control. 

I am no neuroscientist, but I see that the screen now is executing an embodied strategy within the very bodies I am charged with protecting. This has become personal. By eroding the delay between my kids’ perceived “effort” and resulting “reward” or gratification, the screen is remapping their brains to expect candy all the time. By disgorging unprecedented amounts of dopamine — read “candy” — onto my children’s neural receptors, the screen is accustoming them to faster and bigger neurochemical payoffs. My kids’ prefrontal cortexes are now at risk of becoming a scorched no-man’s-land of instant gratification, a kind of training ground for hell. 

Before we get all defensive, I am not suggesting some kind of neurochemical determinism — that a child clutching a screen throughout childhood is necessarily destined for hell. Rather, I mean to say that a child clutching a screen is necessarily destined to encounter a higher degree of struggle as he or she attempts to acquire faith and virtue — read “vegetables” —  through neural circuitry which was compromised by sustained and elevated exposure to candy. If grace builds on nature, then grace builds, in part, on neural receptors. 

It seems unlikely, but as a man of faith who wants nothing more than holiness for my children, I have arrived at conclusions guided by brain scientists. If we do nothing — or too little, too late — to regulate screen time, we should expect our children to quit in the dip, when the going gets tough. We should realize that they are at high risk for lifelong compulsions to shopping, alcohol, pornography, opioids or other drugs. We shouldn’t be surprised when they struggle with marriage, jobs, mortgages and move back home. We should expect them to find daily prayer nearly impossible and the Bible impenetrable. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. A relationship between screens and heaven also exists: screens can be portals for formation in holiness (check out your parish subscription to FORMED). But the stakes are perilous. Some parents — myself excluded — have this all figured out. The rest of us, perhaps, need to take a good, long look in the mirror to size up the extent of the problem.  

Johnson is associate director of the St. Thomas More Institute. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018