Next time you’re at a county fair, watch the faces of children buckling in for one of those stomach-churning rides. They pull their belts tight, grab on to the bar that holds them in, and suddenly they’re on their way. They spin one way, reverse directions, go up, drop down, over and over, in every possible combination. They scream, they laugh, they hold on tight — realizing that until the ride stops they don’t have any other choice.
For most children today, and for a great many of their parents, that county fair ride is a pretty good metaphor for our modern way of life. In a world where everything happens now, and where instant gratification has become an inalienable right, the value of quiet time to reflect and ponder is becoming increasingly irrelevant in our noisy and distracting environment. New products and ideas come and go at strobe-light speed. We barely have time to decide if an idea or entertainment is worth our attention before it is gone, replaced by yet another shouting voice.
While there are obvious benefits to the technology at our fingertips, there are also costs to living in a white noise world. We have little time to judge the constantly popping balloons that surround us, we can only jerk in reaction to their explosions. We spend far more time reacting than acting.
Young children, whose instincts are to sample whatever the world puts in front of them, understandingly lack the maturity to filter the important from the merely distracting. If, to them, life is nothing but flashing lights and ringing bells, then that’s what they’ll expect as they move along the blinking conveyor belt of life into adulthood.
To some degree, of course, it’s always been this way. But any adult can see that the speed, volume and intensity of it all is increasing at a rapid rate.
Psychologists have a term for it: choice overloading — and a quick Google search will show you how intensely it is being studied as a relatively new form of social dysfunction. It occurs when the individual becomes overwhelmed by everything placed in front of him. Often the flood of choices results in the person making no choice at all. He becomes passive, and simply accepts whatever momentarily catches his eye, until something new catches his eye.
A child who becomes conditioned to this approach to life is ill-prepared to make the serious decisions of adulthood. All choices seem bright, sparkly, and momentarily interesting. One choice doesn’t seem any more valuable than another.
Parents may have a glimpse of the inherent problems children face in a world where the firecrackers never stop going off, but we may underestimate the strength of the enemy. When the screen is everywhere, how exactly do you turn it off?
Church can help. Competent religious instruction can help children (and adults) take a break from their life and come closer to deep reflection and self-analysis. And yet how many times at church have I seen not only children but adults with their collective noses down during the sermon or prayer time, their thumbs twitching across a screen? It’s as if we are being conditioned to respond to any thoughtful and reflective moment with a default emotional judgment of boredom, which, by definition, must be eliminated by another distraction.
Some will rise above all of this, and find the strength to harness the digital power at our control while still finding time to reflect on our lives and control the stimuli bombarding us. But I fear many will become the passive victims of the overload of choices and distractions, doing little more than gripping the handrail of their life’s ride that keep spinning them in circles, moving so quickly they don’t realize that they’re really going nowhere in a doughnut-hole life.
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