Friday, March 21, 2008

Internet Addiction and Faith

In a recent post entitled Disconnect Anxiety and You (and Me) -- Virtual Tribalism, I discussed an article from Canada's National Post about the need people feel to be connected to the net at all times, or at least to be connected via their mobile phones--an article that included a couple of quotes from me at the end.

So, I was surprised to learn about an article published a couple of days ago in the Joplin Globe, out of Joplin, Missouri. The article's headline reads: Mat Anderson: More face time, less Facebook, and a little blurb accompanying it reads, "To feed the need for social connectedness, teens report logging in to Facebook and MySpace accounts an average or three times per day."

The author is Mat Anderson, and there's a picture accompanying the article that I assume is him:

I include this here merely to provide some visual interest to this post. Okay, by now you're probably saying to yourself, what's the point of all this? Okay, let's go to the article. It begins with Mat's confession:

When I first logged onto the site five years ago, it seemed like a great way to keep in touch with friends and maybe even meet some new ones. Within weeks of creating my profile, I had added dozens of “friends” and I was spending about two hours a day on the site. A year later, my “friend” count had reached quadruple digits and MySpace was the center of my world. I delighted in receiving comments and new friend requests and despaired if no one read my blogs or I fell out of someone’s Top 8 friends. In short, MySpace had become MyLife.

While it may sound ridiculous to some readers, this story is echoed by millions of teens across America. To feed the need for social connectedness, teens report logging in to Facebook and MySpace accounts an average or three times per day. Many experts say these behaviors are a sign of a return to tribal instincts, and a cause for serious concern.

Now, from a general semantics perspective, we'd be concerned about making an inference connecting "return to tribal instincts" with "a cause for serious concern," as these two phenomena are not necessarily connected, but let's hold that aside and continue on with the article:

“Rather than people surrounding you in a village, you’re in a virtual tribe,” says Lance Strate, chairman of Fordham University’s Communication and Media Studies Department.

“When there were real tribes, people had no concept of individualism. If someone were excommunicated from the tribe, he’d allow himself to wander away and die. He couldn’t imagine life outside of the group.”

Woohoo!!! There I am! And interestingly enough, it's my quote from the significantly different National Post article. Not that it's altered in any way, not even down to the mistaken identification of me as department chair. Nor is it particularly taken out of context. But I just wonder about reusing my quote in this way? Is this good journalism? Be that as it may, let's see what else Mat has to say:

Today, that same tribal mindset is found in teen culture and is emphasized in the world of social networking. Teens spend hours updating profiles with personal information, uploading pictures for friends to comment and browsing the profiles of friends and strangers alike. As time spent online increases and these sites become the social center of a teen’s life, the thought of being disconnected becomes more horrific.

In recent research, teens described feeling anxious, panicky and even empty when deprived of Internet access. They reported the greatest fear of being disconnected was that they were “out of the loop” and risked being left behind by friends. Experts say this addiction to technology and the need to find identity with an online group of friends are symptoms of a greater void in the lives of teens.

This is where parents come in. Teens crave and need social interaction that is real. As more of teens’ social experiences occur online, it becomes the responsibility of parents to guard their teen’s developmental need for face-to-face social interaction.

So, look, I'm not taking major issue with what Mat is saying here, I'm just surprised at the way he uses the notion of the tribal mindset in this entirely negative way in conjunction with the notion of internet addiction. Are tribal peoples addicted to their media, to oral tradition, the singing of songs, etc.? I suppose you could say so, but it doesn't sound right to me, as they are living a way of life that eminently facilitates the survival of the group, that is the product of tens of thousands of years of evolution, that is the only way of life they know and the only option open to them.

And even when it becomes one among other alternatives, I wouldn't say that a tribal mindset is necessarily negative or inferior. In the context of the extreme individualism that developed in the west as a consequence of alphabetic literacy and print culture, some return to a kind of neo-tribalism in the electronic era can be seen as an effort to restore balance to the culture.

The fact that Mat doesn't seem to understand my views on tribalism is no doubt due to the fact that he used my quotes from the other article without talking to me at all, whereas the original journalist had interviewed me for twenty minutes and picked out a few bits afterwards.

So, anyway, on with the show, and the article, which ends with some advice from Mat:

Here are some tips to get started:

* Put the computer in a public place. By doing this you can monitor the amount of time your teen spends online as well as the content that is being accessed.

* Establish times to unplug. Parents should set specific times when families can interact with each other without the distractions of text messaging, phone calls and the Internet.

* Challenge your teen to be offline for a week. While many won’t make it, those who do may discover that life can be more enjoyable when unplugged.

* Practice what you preach. If parents have trouble disconnecting from cell phones and Blackberrys, teens view that example as perfectly acceptable behavior.

Through my experience I learned that I could have thousands of online friends but virtually no relationships. This left me feeling isolated, lonely and insecure. Once I made the difficult decision to unplug, I realized the time I spent on MySpace was time that I could have used to build real friendships, have genuine experiences and pursue my dreams.

By teaching teens these rewards of a life lived offline, parents can help teens develop a true sense of identity while leading happier and fuller lives.

You can evaluate the usefulness of his advice for yourself, but in the meantime, here's the author's blurb at the end of the article:

Mat Anderson is the staff writer and research specialist at The Bridge in Joplin. For more information visit

So, you can go check out The Future Paradigm, I did and the first thing I found was this very article. And here's what it says under "About Us" on the side:

The Future Paradigm is a free resource of Bridge Ministries that is designed to educate parents about the unique challenges and issues that teens today face. We are dedicated to bringing you the most relevant and useful information about trends in teen culture as well as the latest teen research from around America.
And going to their "About Us" page, here's what it says about their purpose:

The Bridge is equal parts ministry and attraction. On the one hand, we are striving to be the new Main Street. The place where you go to be with your friends. A lidless environment where you can live and be and grow and meet and shine. On the other hand, The Bridge is a ministry where the exchange of ideas is not limited to acceptable social subjects, but includes subjects (like faith and politics) which have been too taboo to mention in other years or settings. Behind the scenes, staff members and volunteers are listening, connecting, loving, sharing, and sacrificing to bring the hope of Christ to everyone through actions, attitude, and words. We will not relegate Christ to our apparel or our overhead sound system. His Spirit is alive in us and you should see that.

And it goes on in this vein. Now, dear friends, you know this is a religious orientation I do not share, although I am not necessarily opposed to people of faith. It is in fact quite reasonable to recognize that traditional religions are grounded in older media environments, and are threatened to their vary foundations by the electronic media. So this orientation is entirely rational.

So I guess it's not surprising that Mat picked out my quotes, as opposed to the others quoted in the National Post article, who were much more empirical, quantitative research oriented social scientists than little old philosophical me. As we used to sing back in the old, dear departed media ecology program, media ecology, something like theology. And it was Neil Postman who explained that what we are doing is not social science, but moral theology. I just wish that people like Mat would read up on media ecology, read Neil Postman, Walter Ong, and Marshall McLuhan, and then they'd have a much better idea of the full dynamics of what's at work here. And hey Mat, if you're reading this, my book, Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study isn't a bad place to start. Just a suggestion...

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