The growing problem of digital fatigue

Last week I participated in the Global Leadership Summit , a digitally streamed event from Willow Creek Church in Illinois. I learned quite a bit. I was moved and inspired. But the impact would have been even greater on me if I had been at Willow Creek, live. What I liked about the format, even if it was digital, was that it was streamed to a church where we met (in Salt Lake City as it turned out) so the impersonal-ness was mitigated by joining a hundred or so people there rather than sitting behind a screen and keyboard by myself. But besides the richer personal experience, one speaker, Craig Groeschel said something that resonated with my view of digital interaction. To paraphrase, he said something to the effect: “I have a theory that younger generation may start to reject social media.” I would say the issue is broader and more immanent. I think we are ALL suffering from “digital fatigue” and the next great “digital” wave will focus on how to engage people in-person. We have begun to tire of digital means as the ONLY means for relationship. I would challenge Craig to focus on building an app that brings people together, in-person, rather than online. Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Google and many others are spending billions and hiring thousands of PhD’s to wire our brains to seek digital interaction over in-person. They want to monetize “relationship” and the only way for an online organization to do that is to get you to stay online. Craig’s church, Life.Church, underwrote the “YouVersion” bible app. I would challenge them to write an anti-app app like the “Sit with Us” app that brings teens together at school so they don’t have to sit alone at lunch. How about a “Talk about God with us” app that brings us together to talk about God and study His word in-person ?

I participate in two very different organizations that are facing the same issue. One organization is the one I work for: Bible Study Fellowship International (BSF to keep it short) . The other is a technical user community: At the very simplest level, BSF is an organization that teaches the bible and is an organization that teaches technology. Both organizations traditionally “taught” their subject matter in a personal, face to face setting. Both organizations face a demographic shift from a group that values face to face interaction to a rising demographic that says “meh” to getting together in person. Or, so some have thought.

I consider anyone born in the U.S. after 1950 to be a digital native. Yeah, tech in the 60’s was pretty basic but as computers have shrunk and computing power has grown, we have a whole, now mature, generation that has grown up in a digital age. There are differences in how folks have embraced the digital world but I don’t think a 60 year old today is much different than 20-something when it comes to a digital diet. There are heavy eaters and “nibblers” but the “food” is the same.  There is a spectrum of how folks embrace digital delivery of content, but we all span that rainbow. But although we are all swimming in the digital sea, there is a great difference in how a 50-something views relationships and how a 20-something views a relationship. And, there’s the rub. When it comes to relationship-oriented activities, the over 40 demographic views a “relationship” as a personal, in-person experience much more so than an under 40 demographic. That is a broad generalization but I would say that is basically true.

WE are the problem folks! Yes, you, who were born after 1950 and before 1980! We are the source of the problem because we failed to see the warning signs that our growing focus on career, our yielding to convenience over substance caused us to abdicate our responsibility to introduce our offspring to value of in-person, real human interaction. We took for granted that the generation we were raising would naturally gravitate to face to face interaction, while at the same time we sent them text messages about how much we loved them.

There is a rising tide of evidence and discussion that perhaps we missed an opportunity to teach our children what a “relationship” really is. Proverbs 22:6 (NIV) says: “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” Rather than sit down with a book and snuggle in together for a story, we handed our kids a Kindle thinking our responsibility was done. With that kind of “start” what did we expect the outcome to be? Technology is not the problem. Technology is not “culture”. Technology is a tool which I think we have misused in the name of efficiency. We are just beginning to see how the tool has impacted the rising generation. The impact is on relationships. The tool of technology has painted our perception of relationship with a digital patina that skews what real relationship is.

So, how do we gain back what we have lost? How do you take a digitally focused generation which undervalues real person to person relationship and teach them what a relationship is really like? You don’t do it by doubling down on the use of technology. You don’t go ‘fully digital’ to “attract” digital natives unless it is an on-ramp to real relationship. Even if you are wildly successful in “attracting” you still have the challenge of creating a real “relational” experience. Guess what? That takes a personal commitment to mentor, side by side, those we care about and want to bring onboard the “relationship bus” we know is richer and more complete than a “Facebook friend”.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not some closet Luddite posing as a programmer. I LOVE technology. I am wired for it. I also know the difference between an “online” relationship and an in person relationship and I know in my heart that face to face, in-person interaction is superior to a digital connection. Do I text, Skype and call my kids? Heck yeah! They live 1200 miles away. The old AT&T tag line: “Long distance is the next best thing to being there” could be updated for the 21st century to say: “Digital connection is the next best thing to being there” but the emphasis should be “the NEXT best thing” not the ONLY thing. We settle for digital over in-person because we assume the barriers to in-person are too great. In some cases, they are. But we should always lead with and prefer in-person.

So, let me just “go biblical” on you for a minute and reflect on how God interacts with his people. We see throughout the Bible that God repeatedly shows up “in person” at key moments in history. And when He isn’t showing up physically, He animates a man or woman to speak to us: a.k.a prophets. He could have just as easily put all His messages inside our heads like a Vulcan mind-meld, but He repeatedly shapes us in person or through a person. We deal with God as relational humans in-person. The ultimate instantiation as a person is that God shows up in the Person of Jesus. Again, God is God. He can do whatever He wants to interact with us, but He consistently chooses to do so as a person. Why does he do that? Because He knows humans need other humans (Genesis 2:18) We learn from other humans and learn to BE human by interacting with humans. The digital chasm allows us to function as the “next best thing” but it isn’t the best. We should strive for the best.

So our digital fatigue should drive us back together. Not by using cooler, more interactive technology but by leveraging our God-given desire to interact human to human, in person. We know innately that this is the best way and we also know that human in-person interaction is messy and difficult. But that shouldn’t dissuade us for seeking it as the best method for humans to interact. There are no digital shortcuts to a rich, flourishing relationship with people. Put down those digital tools and instead use the tools you were born with: A kind smile, a warm touch, tears that come with joy and sorrow, a voice of encouragement and love, hugs that communicate that you care. THOSE tools will transform us from digital avatars back into humans and restore us to real, flourishing lives.

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