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Youth culture and the digital revolution: What to do?

Phil Knox

04 Nov, 2016


The internet is always evolving, faster than we can comprehend and with a major impact on young people. Youth for Christ's Phil Knox explores practical steps forward.


In our next door neighbour’s garden there is a tree. As trees go it is pretty rubbish; not particularly symmetrical, stumpy branches with not many leaves. Yet on a day last year when our neighbours gave it some serious pruning, the impact on us was substantial. The increased light through our patio doors was just short of a blinding, celestial, modern-day transfiguration. As the tree had grown we knew it was there, but had had no perception of its effect on our lives.

If you were born before 1990, you have had the privilege of witnessing first-hand the digital revolution in your lifetime. Your grandchildren will ask you (or your avatar/hologram), ‘What was life like before the internet?’ And yet for many, the internet has been like the tree in our neighbour’s garden, growing and gaining in influence. We have been aware of its presence but not recognised the deeper implications on humanity.

Phoebe’s blog addresses some of the really big and far reaching effects of the internet on young people, their spirituality and specifically their brain development. When I read The Shallows I experienced similar, ‘a-ha’, ‘wow’ and ‘shut the front door!’ moments and so much of what he wrote resonated with the changes I observed in my life with increased online activity. Most of us youth workers will be digital immigrants – we have known a pre-digital world and have moved in, but every one of the young people in our communities and churches are digital natives – they have never known life without the internet. So we have a unique stand point from which we must observe the challenges and opportunities the changes to our brains present us with and from which we must speak and navigate a way forward. Here are a few of my reflections:

Let’s celebrate the positives

I love Phoebe’s enthusiasm for the global view the internet gives our young people and the other opportunities it affords. There can be a tendency to only berate the problems. Indeed, in The Shallows Nicholas Carr mentions that during the previous information revolution, when the printing press was invented, the church was extremely suspicious about the shift from the spoken to the written word. That worked out OK. I love that in a digital revolution we think much more in stories, images and poetry, that accessing information is a Google matrix rather than a linear journey, that Generation Z prefers emojis to text, pictorial Instagram to wordy Twitter and wants to create content not just consume it. This should be gold to the church. We follow a Jesus whose communication was image rich, narrative heavy, short and sweet. We love a God who asks questions, invites conversation and is creativity personified. This is a train we need to board in our droves if we are to engage this generation.

There are some things we need to fight

Carr says that when we go online we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning. I agree with Phoebe that depth is worth fighting for. I am challenged, saddened and astounded by some of the lack of Biblical knowledge in both mature Christian leaders and the young people I encounter. The internet is not solely to blame, but the environment Carr talks about doesn’t help. Just because we have the Bible app on our person 24/7 doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be memorising verses. Tweets from @DailyBible are not a substitute for a daily quiet time. There’s no quick download for prayer, fasting, solitude or sacrificial relational community. These things are worth fighting for and where the internet is a hindrance here it needs calling out.

We need to get and keep our house in order

One of Carr’s major findings was that brain’s do not become hard wired after a certain age. At one time this was mainstream educational theory, but Carr argues that the brain constantly adapts to its repeated activities at every age of life. This means that as adults, we are just as susceptible to the good and bad habits the internet can inspire. I know church leaders who cannot go five minutes without a Facebook fix, see pensioners glued to Candy Crush on public transport and my mum is a comedy What’sApper. In short we need to lead the way on making sure it is the Bible changing how we engage with the internet and not the other way around. I used to take my phone to bed with me – mainly as an alarm – but I could not resist one last look at Twitter before I went to bed and checking BBC News when I woke up. I resolutely decided a few years ago that I wanted my last words at night to be to my heavenly Father, not to the world in 140 characters and that my first action of the day to be to read the unchanging Word, not the signs of the times. So now my phone charges downstairs each night and I don’t look at it until I have read my Bible. This has changed my life. Our young people need us to demonstrate healthy engagement with the digital world and putting God first. Let’s get our homepage in order.

The teenagers we serve are incredible. The young people who will come to our youth house group I will lead tonight are part of a generation that is not just the church of tomorrow but the church of today. They are entrepreneurial, creative, honest and hilarious. They are also part of a society that has never been more distracted or entertained. For their sake let us not be naïve to the slow growth of the tree, the pervasive and all-consuming potential of the digital world. Let’s take the good, reject the bad, model healthy engagement and always listen to the ways in which it is affecting the lives of those we seek to love and influence.

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