I’ve been thinking about brain science a little bit lately. On Sunday, I led a conversation with a room full of St. Paul parents about managing screen time. The conversation flowed out of the Digital Identity Faith Milestone event we hosted for 6th graders and their parents at the beginning of January. That means we came together to think about what parents can do to ensure their kids are living healthy, balanced lives and not spending too much time with electronic devices.
But of course, kids aren’t the only ones who struggle with putting down their phones. As you read this reflection, the clock is running on your own screen time. Any time I pick up my phone to send an email or a text, it’s highly likely that I will be lured away from any sense of purpose by Facebook, Twitter, or, now that my favorite college basketball team is doing so well, the ESPN app.
There’s no doubt that technology has many, many positive uses, and, even if we wanted to, it would be very difficult to live without it. The downside is that it’s so easy to allow the digital world to pull us away from what’s right in front of us and inside us. How does it happen? It’s science. As one article I read recently explains, our brains produce dopamine when we get into the flow of whatever we’re doing with our devices. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that relieves stress and makes us feel good. No wonder it’s so hard to quit scrolling Twitter, even when the news makes me angry.
I’m not a scientist, so I won’t pretend to discuss science in a sophisticated way. But, this has me thinking about what makes us happy and what feelings we might be running away from when we (I) instinctively dig into my pocket to pull out my phone. I’m not going to suggest an answer to our digital addictions, but the idea of running away into a virtual world reminds me of the story of a young man in the Bible who ran away with his inheritance only to find what he really needed was back where he started. This is the prodigal son that Jesus told us about. If you know the story, you know that the older brother was a little peeved when their father rejoiced at his brother’s return and threw him a big party. Basically, he said, “What about me?” And his father replied, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
Whether it’s our phones or something else we run to when we want to run away, may we remember in those moments that God is always with us, and all that belongs to God is already ours.
–Ryan Bailey, director of faith formation