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Peter Lawler summarizes some key points from Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. First, Lawler comments, “That over-the-top title (which I don’t like) doesn’t do justice to the content of the book, which shows that young people are getting smarter in some ways, but dumber in others. Unfortunately for our future, the ways they’re getting dumber are far more important for their dignity and happiness.”

Here’s his summary of some key points in the chapter on “Screen Time”:

1. Virtually all of our students have hours–and often many, many hours–of daily exposure to screens.

2. So they excel at multitasking and interactivity, and they have very strong spatial skills.

3. They also have remarkable visual acuity; they’re ready for rushing images and updated information.

4. BUT these skills don’t transfer well to–they don’t have much to do with–the non-screen portions of their lives.

5. Their screen experiences, in fact, undermine their taste and capacity for building knowledge and developing their verbal skills.

6. They, for example, hate quiet and being alone. Because they rely so much on screens keeping them connected, they can’t rely on themselves. Because they’re constantly restless or stimulated, they don’t know what it is to enjoy civilized leisure. The best possible punishment for an adolescent today is to make him or her spend an evening alone in his or her room without any screens, devices, or gadgets to divert him or her. It’s amazing the extent to which screens have become multidimensional diversions from what we really know about ourselves.

7. Young people today typically are too agitated and impatient to engage in concerted study. Their imaginations are impoverished when they’re visually unstimulated. So their eros is too. They can’t experience anxiety as a prelude to wonder, and they too rarely become seekers and searchers.

8. They have trouble comprehending or being moved by the linear, sequential analysis of texts.

9. So they find it virtually impossible to spend an idle afternoon with a detective story and nothing more.

10. That’s why they can be both so mentally agile and culturally ignorant. That’s even why they know little to nothing about how to live well with love and death, as well as why their relational lives are so impoverished.

11. And that’s why higher education–or liberal education–has to be about giving students experiences that they can’t get on screen. That’s even why liberal education has to have as little as possible to do with screens.

12. Everywhere and at all times, liberal education is countercultural. And so today it’s necessarily somewhat anti-technology, especially anti-screen.  That’s one reason among many I’m so hard on MOOCs, online courses, PowerPoint, and anyone who uses the word “disrupting” without subversive irony.

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18 thoughts on “How Constant “Screen Time” Affects Our Lives”

  1. Paul M. says:

    Most of these worries about the ill effects of our digital lifestyle were once thought in regards to the rise of print culture.

    1. Thomas Womack says:

      Any sources and evidence you could cite for that statement? (After all, the “print culture” does go back a few centuries…)

  2. M T says:

    This was great (but I did read it on a screen).

  3. Interesting reading. I’m glad more people are becoming aware of the effects of a web-dominated life.

  4. Eric says:

    J.T., you better be careful. With so much blogging I’m guessing that your screen time is pretty significant as well.

  5. LG says:

    As a high school teacher who loves and spends a lot of time with bright, well-read teenagers, and though I agree with the final points about the necessity of a good liberal education, I find 5-10 incredibly dismissive of the capacity of young minds. Of course, left to their own devices, most teenagers will choose an afternoon in front of the tube or texting friends rather than curled up with a novel. But so would you, and so would I, and so would Shakespeare if he’d been untrained and familiar with the technology that we have. The idea that anything about humanity’s propensity to idleness and vapid entertainment is NEW ought to be simply preposterous to any student of history.

    1. Thomas Womack says:

      About teens preferring to spend all afternoon TV-watching or texting rather than reading a novel, you say <> Thankfully that is NOT the case for many people I know (including myself) — nevertheless, to whatever degree it is true, it seems a tragic development. None could deny that “humanity’s propensity to idelness and vapid entertainment” is nothing new–but screen technology would seem to be a dangerously active agent in promoting such sin. It is good and helpful to be warned about it.

      1. Thomas Womack says:

        sorry, the quote didn’t print — you said, “so would you, and so would I”….

      2. LG says:

        Thomas, I simply meant that, if you and I had been left untrained, unshaped, we would also almost undoubtedly choose the easiest form of entertainment possible — and teenagers are only partway through their training. I would prefer a book in some cases, and a movie in others; I have friends who hate screens and won’t have them in their houses, friends whose dyslexia prevents their reading at all, and friends all along the spectrum in between, as do you, I suspect. All else being equal, most humans are given to laziness if they are not trained in the value of difficult things — that’s all I was saying.

        Of course I recognize the need to be aware of the potential new problems that come with new technology, but read 5-10 above again, and compare them with the many lectures of 19th century moralists about the dangers of the novel to budding young minds!

  6. ThinkTank says:

    On balance, then, do we think the rise of (say) DVD-based Christian programs are a bad thing? I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts.

  7. anaquaduck says:

    What I do find great is the ability to seek out info, particularly when mainstream is all there is…I even get to understand songs on the radio with a quick lyrics check now. Being hooked on anything has the ability to undermine the solid stuff in our lives. The biggest concern or skill is knowing how to interpret all that stuff that passes our eyes & ears. Having it too easy can make us spoilt & unappreciative.

  8. Curt Day says:

    I’m not sure how many of the complaints about young people stem from screen time and how many come from our worship of prosperity. It is from our prosperity that we have lost the ability to think critically. And the loss of that ability has caused us to accept the newest technological advantages without questioning. This lack of questioning and inability to see futures costs is because we are too much in a rush to consume the present.

    The overdependence on technology has hurt us in how we relate to others personally. This comes from the research of Sherry Turkle in her book Alone Together. This is a book I would refer to in class when teaching an intro class in Information Technology. The diminished ability to relate personally can lead to a decline in verbal skills.

    In terms of screen time hurting kids’ abilities in logic, that might have more to do with the content of what is on their screen. And why kids look at and focus on what they have on their screens might have more to do with the numbing effect that prosperity has on us in that it creates a bubble world from which we are afraid to venture out of.

    Having said all of the above, this post makes some good observations. Liberal education should be countercultural and there should be more learning experiences that are outside of the screen. However, the more one abstains from technology, the more that person becomes the mirror image of the person becoming addicted to technology. What both have in common is an inability to think critically because they rely more on all-or-nothing thinking.

  9. Melody says:

    I don’t agree with most of this.

    I spend a lot of time in front a screen or even popping back and forth between multiple screens (computer, tv, phone) but it doesn’t diminish my ability to sit for hours reading a mystery novel. And though I enjoy books more, I hardly see the inherent virtue in whiling away my time with a book over a blog.

    Learning is easier than ever. A few google searches set me immediately on the information I need or at least the information to get me to the information. Because of screens, the answer to any question is never, “I don’t know”, but “Let’s find out!”

    And complaining about the effect on relationships baffles me. What is the effect but that we can communicate in relationships more frequently than ever?

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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