Maintaining Relational Presence in a Technological World

Photo by James Pond

Becoming Aware

A shovel, a mirror, and a tray.

Recently I stood before a classroom of parents with these rudimentary objects.  The shovel, mirror, and tray presented stark contrasts to the technological tools I was trying to help parents view as influences that are shaping their kids’ lives.

The journey that brought me to this place of teaching parents about their teenager’s use of technology and how it shapes them may be similar to yours. Like many people who work with youth, as a college pastor I found myself quickly intrigued by all the new electronic media students were utilizing. Thanks to my college students I started a blog in ’04, followed by Facebook in ’05 and Twitter in ’07.  And you never saw me without my trusted Blackberry or iPhone.

But it was not until this last year that I started to become wary of the changes that I was noticing in myself.  I was distracted and unfocused. I began to feel phantom vibrations in my pocket 1, though no cell phone was there. I noticed myself incessantly sending tweets from a Coldplay concert though I was on a date with my wife.

I knew it was getting bad when my 3-year-old daughter would walk around the house imitating me by pretending like she was talking on the phone.  More and more I felt concerned with what was happening “out there,” and not present with what was happening immediately in front of me.  It was a lonely and disheartening recognition of how technology was using me.

I’m now a marriage and family therapist, and one of the turning points for me was when it dawned on me during a therapy session that many of my clients come to therapy because it may be the only time during the week that they have someone else’s undivided attention.  As a therapist I was present with these people day in and day out, so I decided that my family deserved that same treatment and more.  From that point on, I decided to use use technology in such a way that it didn’t come in between my most important relationships.


Helping Others Navigate the Technological Terrain

As a youth pastor, volunteer, or parent of an adolescent, you are going to find yourself in the position of trying to help both kids and parents navigate the world of technology that teenagers are immersed in. My hope is that the following ideas can better provide you with the tools necessary to bring fruitful discussions and changes in your youth ministry, family, and personal life.


The Shovel—Technology Shapes Us

I first saw this analogy employed by technologist and author John Dyer. 2  John stood before the audience with a shovel in his hand, explaining that when we use a shovel, whether for good (i.e. to plant a tree), or for bad (i.e. to hit somebody), the shovel still has a shaping effect.  No technology is neutral.

In the case of the shovel, regardless of how we use it, it is likely to leave us with calluses. The philosopher and communication theorist Marshall McLuhan said that “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.” 3  Most of us are largely unaware of the weight of media influence in our lives.  We must begin to start thinking beyond just how we use technology, to how it is actually shaping us.

Action Step #1: Help those involved in your youth ministry understand that any use of technology will shape them in some way.

  • Hold a seminar that is aimed at helping parents, volunteers, and students understand that technology can be employed for both good (homework research; college searches; chatting with friends), and bad (viewing pornography; gossiping; bullying).
  • Demonstrate to them how technology shapes us all. For example, you could have parents think about the number of phone numbers they used to have memorized, compared with today. You could have youth talk about how texting has enabled them always to be connected, without having to be physically present.
  • As an experiment, families could download Rescue Time to their computers, and then at the end of each week look at how much time they spent online, and where they spent it. This information can be a catalyst for determining if that’s how each member of the family wants to spend their time, and how they spend their time online may be transforming them.


The Mirror: Technology Reflects Identity

One of the things that I have really begun to notice at the gym the last few years is the amount of time that teenage boys spend looking at themselves in the mirror.  They will periodically flex their biceps or pull up their shirt to get a look at their abs.  In a similar way, social media technologies such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are the mirrors by which many teenagers receive back a reflection of who they believe they are, or how they want to be seen.  This reflecting back aids in the construction of their identity.

As adolescents begin to answer the question of “Who am I?”, they use various online channels as the conduits of identity construction. There are a couple of relevant terms 4  for this construction of self, but one of the more compelling terms is that of the “saturated self” presented by psychologist and social construction theorist Kenneth Gergen. 5

Gergen’s theory is that in the formation of relationships, people often use mediating technologies. He explains, “For as new and disparate voices are added to one’s being, committed identity becomes an increasingly arduous achievement.” 6  Thus if one lacks an inner core/identity, Gergen believes what one is left with is a “saturated self”, or “multiphrenia”, which is a term he uses to explain what happens when identities are shaped by too many choices of self-expression.  So for example, as a teenager forms relationships, they are often using the technologies available to them such as their cell phones, Facebook, internet chat, etc.  But if they don’t have a strong sense of self already in place, all the technologies that they use eventually saturate them and keep them from developing a coherent identity.

Action Step #2: Help those involved in your youth ministry ground themselves more relationally in face-to-face interactions.

  • For example, you can teach several biblical passages where one’s face-to-face relational interactions bring about a clearer sense of their identity.  For instance, in Genesis 2:23 Adam becomes a differentiated being 7, setting him apart from his initial creatureliness.  This differentiation is best realized in relationship to another person, Eve.  In I Corinthians 12 and Romans 12, members of the body of Christ construct identity, and have a clearer sense of self because of their relationship to the whole body, something they can’t achieve in isolation.
  • Work on striving for face-to-face relationships with the volunteers, parents and teenagers in your youth ministry.  When possible, meet face-to-face, rather than using email, chat, or even the phone.  In a culture where efficiency is often valued over relationship, you might be the one opportunity they have to be relationally grounded.
  • Help encourage teenagers by reminding them of the various qualities you see in their identity.  For example, a parent could keep a journal about their teenager, and on occasion share the qualities that they notice as having a positive shaping effect on their identity.  Or a youth pastor could take time hand-write a note to a student, encouraging the spiritual growth they are seeing in their lives.  The use of a different technological medium (writing) has a more personal effect than they are used to receiving through the use of much of the social media technology they spend each day using.


The Tray: Technology Needs Boundaries

“My vocation is, at each moment, to make the person in front of me the most important person in my life.” 8

As I read those words of a nun, as quoted by the Roman Catholic priest and author Ronald Rolheiser, I came to the realization that I have not always done a good job of being present with other people.  One of the challenges that technology poses is that it makes “what is happening out there” often more important than what is happening right in front of us. For example, texting friends to see what they are up to can quickly become more important than enjoying the meal with the friends who are physically present with you at the time.  But like a tray that has corners and edges, our friendships with others are constructed of relational edges and boundaries that help us know where we begin and end in relationship to one another.

Action Step #3: Help those involved in your youth ministry develop various boundaries around their use of technology.

  • For example, teach the story of creation, highlighting the fact that God created in six days and then rested on the seventh.  This Sabbath rest is a reminder to us that we need to set boundaries in our week, and around our use of technology and other tools we utilize. Doing so also reminds us that we are dependent upon God, and not upon ourselves or the tools that we use.
  • Place a tray or basket where all people present can physically place their cell phones in when entering the youth room.  Setting aside these devices visually demonstrates to yourself and others that you’re wanting to be present with those you are in relationship with.  This is a great practice to institute as a family at home, placing a basket or tray in a prominent place in the house where all members of the family can place their electronic devices. 9  
  • Ask others their perception of your use of technology.  Sometimes we have a distorted sense of how much our use of technology gets in the way of our relationships.  Getting others’ opinions may change how we use technology.

As I reflect back on how my thinking on technology has shifted, I am constantly reminded of something one of my favorite Fuller Seminary professors once said in class.  Dr. Ray Anderson was talking about the importance of being grounded in relationships, reflecting on the fruits of the Spirit as Paul writes in Galatians 5:22-23.  Dr. Anderson commented that he could say that he exhibited those fruits of the Spirit, but what he really needed to do was go home and ask his wife and children if that was true.  They could give us the best indication of whether or not it was true.

In much the same way I have started to realize that the best indicator of whether or not I’m using technology, or it’s using me, is to ask my wife and kids.  Their responses will be a good indication of whether or not I’m really present when I’m with them, or if my use of technology is getting in the way.

I would encourage you to sit down with your kids or the youth you work with, and ask them how you may be better present in their lives.  Ask them if your cell phone, or laptop, or some other technological tool gets in the way of your relationship.  This conversation is a great start to opening the doors to what may be a fruitful interaction in your family life and youth ministry.


Action Points

Here are a few simple ideas that can be implemented immediately in the context of a youth ministry or family:

  • Begin the Conversation: Set aside a time where each member of the family or youth ministry honestly shares some ways they believe the use of technology is shaping them. Then allow others in the family or youth ministry to reflect back what they have heard to the speaker, as well as adding their own additional insight.
  • Set Boundaries: Place a tray or box in the central part of your home or youth ministry, and begin the practice of placing all electronic devices there upon arriving.  Talk together about how this practice changes your experience of being with one another.
  • Technological Fast: Teach on the theological idea of Sabbath and solitude, drawing from the creation story in Genesis, and Jesus withdrawing to solitude in his     ministry.  Use these teachings as catalysts to practice a technological fast in your youth ministry or     home.  The fast can be of any length, but should be followed up by further discussion of implementing a weekly one day fast.

 


 

1. Angela Haupt, Good Vibrations? Bad?  None at All? (USA Today, 2007). 

2. John Dyer, Using Technology, Without It Using You (Dallas: Echo Conference,  2009), http://www.echoconference.com.

3. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.  (Boston: The MIT Press, 1994), 17-18.

4. Andrew F. Wood & Matthew J. Smith, Online Communication: Linking Technology, Identity, and Culture.  (London: Routledge, 2004).

5. Kenneth Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dillemas of Identity in Contemporary Life. (New York: Basic Books, 1992).

6. Kenneth Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dillemas of Identity in Contemporary Life. (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 73.

7. Ray Anderson, Being Human: Essays in Theological Anthropology. (Pasadena: Fuller Seminary Press, 1991), 37.

8. Ronald Rolheiser, The Restless Heart: Finding Our Spiritual Home in Times of Loneliness.  (Denville: Doubleday, 2004), 23.

9. For more instruction on implementing boundaries for your electronic devices at home: Rhett Smith, Your Marriage and Facebook: Just Don’t Be an “Idiot” (2010); John Dyer, Why You Need a Technology Basket at Home. (2010)