Digital media has an impact on how we process information as well as our reading patterns. This article looks at the impact of digital media and asks how this influences the way we read God’s Word.

Source: Una Sancta, 2017. 2 pages.

Living by the Word in an Age of Digital Media

Parents and teachers often express concern regarding the role digital media plays in the lives of children. Their concern is not new but has been ongoing since the television became a common household device. Already thirty years ago, in an address to Canadian Reformed teachers, Dr. C VanDam articulated this concern: "We live in a society that is becoming more and more conditioned by images (especially television). Such conditioning generally results in quick, but also much superficial understanding. Verbal communication no longer has the uncontested place it once had" (VanDam, 1988). In his presentation, VanDam stressed the priority of the Word (i.e. Scripture) as the medium through which God revealed Himself to His people in the Old Testament and continues to reveal Himself today. VanDam concluded his speech by stating, "Our children should go forth as able communicators of the Word in all of life". How is digital media impacting our ability to 'take in' and internalise the Word of God in preparation to be communica­tors of the Word in all of life? While this question can be answered in a variety of ways, the focus will be on the physiological impact digital media has on attention.

The terms 'digital native' and digital immigrant' are often used to describe the difference between how children and young people in their 20s approach digital technology as compared to those aged 30 and above. Young people have grown up surrounded by digital technology and as a consequence it is a 'normal' part of their environment. Continual, regular exposure to digital media (television, gaming, computer, internet usage and social media) affects our attention and concentration. Research shows that intense visual and auditory experiences connected with screens affect how the brain develops. Frequent television viewing may be associated with risk for development of attention problems, learning difficulties and adverse long-term educational outcomes.

You may question the validity of such research when you observe an otherwise (over)active child able to sit still for hours while watching television or playing games on the computer or another device. The reason for this single-minded attention to digital media lies in the 'pleasure centre' of our brain. The rapidly changing images, the continual auditory input as well as the reward of achieving a level or winning a game provides the brain with on-going rewards by releasing dopamine into the brain.

Dopamine, a chemical produced within the brainstem, controls the body's motivation to meet basic survival needs. When released correctly, it motivates a person to seek food when hungry, water when thirsty and to seek warmth when cold. The body reads these experiences as pleasurable, hence dopamine has been called the body's 'feel-good' chemical. The release of dopamine encourages the development of behavioural patterns: if something feels good, our body will continue to seek it. In itself this is good; the release of dopamine is important and necessary for the body to meet critical daily survival needs. However, when we over-indulge in experiences which release dopamine, the long-term effect is detrimental. The brain begins to expect the continuous reward. In the case of digital media, the dopamine is released as a response to rapidly changing scenes in a television program, likes and twitter on social media or in achieving high scores in games. Too much digital (and social) media in forms of television, computer or gaming and online social interaction can overstimulate the developing brain, leading to long-term effects on cognition and attention.

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains, states that using Google and the internet has changed how we read and process informa­tion. He says that where once he was a scuba diver in the sea of words, he now zips along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski (Carr, 2011). This analogy is apt and can be seen in how most people use GOOGLE. They begin with one site, and after a brief perusal of the page, quickly click on interesting links. In his book, Carr goes on to explain this 'new' way of reading has become the accepted norm for many people; and is being seen as a superior way to gain knowledge. Carr states that the internet medium promotes superficial reading and shallow thinking. What is the cause of this and how is it impacting our ability to internalise God's Word?

Carr uses the concept of 'neuroplasticity' to explain the change in how we read and process information. While the brain structure is unchangeable, the neural pathways which bring in and process information in the brain are flexible. Areas of the brain which are more active become 'stronger' and better developed then other brain areas. The ongoing decisions required to navigate internet sites makes it difficult to sustain the attention necessary to interpret and evaluate the information at a deeper level. Internet usage of this intensity has neurological consequences: the areas of the brain which provide focus and concentrated attention necessary for sustained and deeper level reading become less active. This in turn impacts our ability to store information in long-term memory.

How is this change in reading and in our brains impacting our ability to internalise God's Word? Scripture is very clear in God's command for His people to meditate on His Word. Joshua 1:8 states, "This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success." Similar instruction can be found throughout the Old and New Testament (Psalm 4; 119; Malachi 3; Philippians 4; 1 Timothy 4). Meditation on God's Word requires the sustained, concentrated attention as we read through Scripture. In an age of digital media, are our brain structures changing to the point where we are no longer able to do this?

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