In the Star Wars series, we witness the slow transformation of good to evil with the character of Darth Vader. Before he became a disciple of the dark side, Darth Vader was Anakin Skywalker, a good-hearted Jedi and hero of the Clone Wars. While he was considered one of the most powerful Jedi in the galaxy, Anakin had a weakness in that he let his raw passions, at times, guide his contemplation. Consequently, he became infatuated with a woman. He ended up breaking the Jedi code by secretly marrying Senator Padmé Amidala. This decision then snowballed. Anakin began to have visions of his new wife’s death in child-bearing. At this point, he opened himself up to become seduced by the dark side of the force. An influential figure named Chancellor Palpatine be-friended Anakin and fed him the false idea that he could use a certain power to cheat death and save Padme’s life. Of course, those familiar with the story know that Chancellor Palpatine was a Sith Lord in disguise. He slowly brain-washed Anankin to think the Jedi were holding him back and keeping him from the power he deserved. In the Star Wars saga, we notice how a demonic figure slowly seduces someone through emotion and promises of self-gratification to obtain ultimate power. Had Anakin simply followed the wise order of the Jedi and learned to channel his emotions, he would have never fallen trap to the cunning tricks of the dark side.
Today, we witness how this “dark side” formula of slowly seducing someone through short-term emotional gratification can pull a person away from their pure, natural state and usher them into a dark place. This “dark side” today represents the pop culture luring kids away from God, the Church, and their well-meaning parents.
One of the tricks of the demonic is to use seemingly harmless instruments as their starting point in order to infiltrate their ideas into a person. Just like the demonic used Anakin’s love of Padme as its entry point in which to begin brain-washing him, the pop culture exploits certain situations to make the slow transformation from good to bad. What are these things in our world that demonic forces are exploiting?
The more scientists study the negative effects of cell phones and social media on teenagers the more it becomes clear that the pop culture is using devices to indoctrinate teens and young adults from their pure, innocent state to a rebellious addict that wants nothing to do with God or the Church.
Many psychologists have repeatedly outlined the numbing effects that cell phone use does to the human brain – especially kids. Obviously, a cell phone in-and-of-itself is not dangerous. However, the texting, social media, staged photos, and access to anything on the internet allows the phone to be a risky and addictive tool in the wrong hands. Author Simon Sinek talks how texting and social media becomes addictive through the release of dopamine to our brain. Dopamine is a chemical released by nerve cells to transmit signals to other nerve cells. It’s a key player as it shapes (or un-shapes) the reward center of our brains. Sex, eating tasty food, getting texts and “likes” on social media all trigger a large release of dopamine to the brain. To be sure, a little bit of dopamine to the brain is healthy. With a little dopamine, the reward center of the brain will appreciate natural stimuli such as a sunset, the mountains, or picturesque cathedrals.
However, as this dopamine process keeps penetrating the brain in a constant, overload fashion, the more that person’s reward circuitry in their brain becomes damaged and eventually will re-wire the brain. Here, the brain no longer finds rewards in natural beauty but is rather drawn to shallow things that hold little meaning and happiness. Picture a bunch of kids standing inside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And instead of taking in the beauty in which surrounds them they are fixated at the cell-phone in front of them.
Psychologist Jim Owens states that the definition of addiction is compulsive, repeated behavior despite negative consequences. With the addictive nature of dopamine, we see how cell phones substitute as a drug. The more and more a person sees how many “likes” or “texts” they get, the more they are ushering large amounts of dopamine to their brain. According to Owens, too much dopamine overwhelms the brain. The brain then retreats and trims back dopamine receptor sites. The brain has a built-in mechanism that basically tells dopamine, we will now reduce the way we receive you so you can’t flood us anymore. Now, two problems result from this. First, you’ve just caused brain damage from excessive dopamine. Second, because the dopamine receptors have shrunk, you’ll never reach that temporary euphoric experience you first felt when all that dopamine rushed into your brain. Here is where addiction surfaces because you’ll constantly be searching for that initial experience but will never attain it. Addicts will usually admit that they are constantly chasing after their first “high.” The problem is they will never get there. Therefore, they are trapped in an endless cycle in which they are continuously looking for that first rush that no longer exists. But, the addict is under the delusion that this high is somewhere out there. So, they go harder and harder into their addiction to get at this.
When it comes to teenagers, they don’t stand a chance to the addictive nature of cell phones. Psychologist Katie Hurley showcases that over 50% of teens openly admit they are addicted to their phones. Surveys also show that 72% of teens feel the need to immediately respond to texts and social media responses.
The problem with this addiction is it ruins a person’s ability to think correctly. Psychologist Jim Taylor outlines how cell phone use decreases children’s ability to focus. He indicates, “Attention has been found to be a highly malleable quality and most directly influenced by the environment in which it is used. Children’s immediate environment determines the kind of attention that they develop. In generations past, kids would read more. With reading, children would develop strong attention spans in which there were few distractions. With the advent of television, children were exposed to more visual stimuli. This resulted in the slow process in which their attention became fragmented. Then the internet was invented and children were thrust into a vastly different environment in which, because distraction is the norm, consistent attention is impossible, imagination is unnecessary, and memory is inhibited.”
Technology conditions the brain to pay attention to information very differently than reading. The metaphor that Nicholas Carr uses is the difference between scuba diving and jet skiing. Book reading is like scuba diving in which the diver is submerged in a quiet, visually restricted, slow-paced setting with few distractions and, as a result, is required to focus sharply and think deeply on the information that is available to them. In contrast, using the internet is like jet skiing, in which the jet skier is skimming along the surface of the water at high speed, exposed to a broad array of stimuli, surrounded by many distractions, and only able to focus fleetingly on any one thing.
The idea that fast-paced stimuli ruins your brain’s ability to focus, and to think for that matter, began to surface several years ago. The psychology department at Virginia University produced a finding that demonstrated how fast-paced cartoons, such as Sponge Bob Square Pants, deteriorates children’s focus, memory, problem-solving, and processing ability. Dr. Dimitri Christakis went on to write, “Connecting fast-paced television viewing to deficits in executive function … has profound impacts for children’s cognitive and social development.” The study found that far from helping the child, the fast-paced stimuli eventually lead to behavior problems and literally stunted the child’s logical faculties.
This brain drain from fast-paced stimuli is now primarily channeled through cell phones. In her book, How To Break Up With Your Phone, Catherine Price articulates the long-term effects of cell phone addiction and how it ruins our attention span (see also here). According to Price, when we read digital content, the cluttered landscape of links, ads, notifications, and the short bursts of attention that are required by scrolling, swiping, and tweeting result in a distracted state in which the person throws out his or her critical thinking ability. She goes on to explain that this type of frequent distraction in the online environment rewires the human brain in a way in which it can’t focus with clarity.
In fact, psychologist Jim Taylor further highlights that studies have shown that reading uninterrupted text, such as a book, results in faster completion and better understanding and learning than those who read online text filled with hyperlinks, ads, videos, and other stimuli. As he states, “reading develops reflection, critical thinking, problem-solving, and vocabulary better than visual media.” (see here).
Even more so, recent scientific studies thoroughly show that cell phone and overuse of technology destroys our attention span. Sadly, the human attention span is now at an all-time low of 8.25 seconds (this helps explains why people don’t like it when I write an article of 3,000 words). In fact, a growing number of pediatricians believe that the fast-paced stimuli that surrounds the child’s environment likely leads to ADHD.
In short, the increase in fast paced-stimuli through smartphones have made us an attention deficit society. As Taylor indicates, “Frequent exposure by so-called digital natives to technology is actually wiring their brain in ways very different than in previous generations.”
If we think about this, it becomes stunningly clear. Children 200 years ago were incredibly more mature than they are today. It was common for teenagers back then to be trusted to take on more adult responsibility such as working on the farm and even raising kids. Kids got married earlier precisely because they were more responsible. Today, teenagers and millennials are incredibly immature and can barely take on any basic accountability let alone become parents (see here). Once upon a time, teenagers were a mature, trusted group that could think clearly, but thanks to the “toys” of technology, the teenager has now been altered into an immature, untrusting, self-absorbed person that holds little clarity of thought.
In short, far from helping teens, smartphones have turned them into intellectual zombies. Psychologist Romeo Vitelli writes how smartphone usage makes people more absent-minded and unable to concentrate in their cognitive ability. In fact, in his book, Nicholas Carr articulates that access to smartphones and the internet has made us lazier thinkers. Jim Taylor summed this up in a recent lecture saying that “excessive screen time literally ruins a person’s brain” (see also here). More of these reports are surfacing that technology clouds the logical function of the brain. A study at UCLA highlighted that those who had less use of smartphones and social media had better cognitive ability and more increased blood flow in their brain’s dorsal anterior cortex, prefrontal cortices, and lateral parietal cortices compared to the higher users of social media. A more detailed finding by doctors in Europe show that teenagers brain development has been stunted the last two decades with limited use of their rational center and increase use in their emotional center. The study also outlines an increase in dopamine activity in the logical channel of the brain – the prefrontal/cerebral cortex area.
The human brain develops through neural connections throughout life. This mapping of the brain starts from the back and ends at the front, when the logical center of the brain, the cerebral cortex, reaches maturity. However, before the cerebral cortex can cultivate, the amygdala, located in the lower center of the brain, is in charge. The amygdala is responsible for immediate “gut” reactions such as fear, anxiety, and all responses that elicit emotion. Therefore, a teenager doesn’t really think correctly because their cerebral cortex has not fully matured. Rather, their mind is guided by their passions and feelings, not their intellect. In other words, they don’t use reason; they use emotion to guide their thinking. Don’t assume that this phenomenon is confined to teens. The more adults reach for the self-gratification toys of the pop culture, the more their logical center of the brain shuts down and they become ruled by their overzealous passions. Here, we begin to see that much like the dark side took advantage of Annakin’s raw passion in order to change him for the worse, the pop culture takes advantage of the youth’s brain immaturity to alter them away from the pure person they were created to be.
What all this research cited in this article suggests is something we can figure out with common sense. That is, the toys of the pop culture (smartphones, social media, video games), that elicits fast-paced stimuli destroys a person’s ability to think and comprehend reality. Once a person’s losses his or her ability to reason, they become easy prey to be manipulated into believing the false ideas of the pop culture. Here, is how it happens. The pop culture uses devices, messages, and experiences that usher in an overflow of dopamine. Dopamine then rewires the reward center of the brain and essentially shuts off the rational area of the brain. From here, a person goes from wanting to pursue thinking and learning to now merely wanting to be entertained. Being rewired, the reward center now does not crave truth as people did in centuries past. Rather, the brain has been wired to merely want to be entertained through immediate gratification. At this point, the pop-culture has shut off your brain from thinking and now can more easily manipulate your thinking through appealing to emotional imagery.
In other words, the pop culture has cleverly wired our brains away from quiet contemplation now towards constant noise in which our rational center has been jettison in exchange for constant entertainment. It is no wonder people are bored at Mass and we hear that tired slogan “I don’t get anything out of Mass.” It is because their brain has been overly compromised by the pop culture.
In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters, the “senior demon” Screwtape reveals an interesting plan of the devil. In order to drive us away from God, Satan chooses to distract us with “noise.” He knows that if we are overrun by countless distractions and noise in all directions, that we will lose our focus from God and our true self and usher us into our fake self. In fact, the Church has long been aware of the noise of constant media messaging long before electronic communication reached the frantic pace today. In a Vatican document issued in 1986, the Church cautioned against “a culture of constant acceleration of instantaneous communication.”
With all the modern noise we no longer are able to sit quietly in adoration to hear God. As Scripture suggests, “The words of the wise are heard in silence, more than the cry of a prince among fools” (Ecclesiastes 9:17).
Not only do cell phones make us addicted, unintelligent lifeless zombies, a new study by psychologists show that heavy use of social media causes stress and depression. And yet another research team at the University of Pittsburgh concluded that the more time young adults used social media, the more they experienced depression. In a recent article, Psychologist Caroline Miller explains that the correlation between social media and depression is likely due to the superficial relationships established on social media. She goes on to say, “The less you are connected with human beings in a deep, empathetic way, the less you’re really getting the benefits of social interaction…The more superficial the relationship is, the less likely it’s going to cause you to feel connected.” She goes on to articulate that with a lack of real relationships the person will likely fall into depression. She’s drawing off scientific findings that show as a person’s brain becomes re-wired, they will cease to hold any normal, healthy relationships, and, instead replace them with fake cyber relationships solely based on visual imagery.
The recent movie “Ingrid Goes West” illuminated this depression state. Bishop Barron’s insightful commentary shows how the characters in this movie become obsessed and ultimately near suicidal by social media. Why? Because social media distorts reality and creates an artificial world in which friendships and experiences are staged through pictures. Consequently, this fake world doesn’t satisfy people because they become further detached from real connections and experiences. This, in turn, leaves the person in a desperate, worthless state. So, social media isolates us from the deep, meaningful relationships we need in our lives and often scares us from reaching out to talk about real conversations. Instead of our conversations being centered around meaningful topics like life, death, and God, the conversation in our relationships revolve around mundane topics about whatever is trending online.
In short, cell phones, social media, and the dopamine it produces is a poor substitute for God. Just look what it produces. It turns you into an addict. It destroys your attention span, cognitive ability, and prevents you from having real experiences and real relationships. Therefore, the pop culture’s “solutions” only end up exacerbating the human problem. It’s like throwing gasoline on the fire in hope to calm down the fire.
Despite all the negative effects of smartphones for teens and millennials, there is an antidote that will cure their addiction. Turning towards God and away from the pop culture while at first might seem hard, acts as the renewal of the person. If anything, seeing the ugliness of the addiction will likely jump-start the person toward Jesus. After all, a person won’t run to a savior if they first don’t see their problem. But, one practical, simple way I can suggest to undo the damage of the noise from the pop culture is through prayer. In a previous article, we showed scientific evidence of how prayer can alter your brain to a healthy state.
Even though the pop culture has grabbed children and ushered them into the dark side by stripping them of the basic human elements to think and to be happy, there remains hope. As dark as some people get in the pop culture world God can use certain events and experiences as a way to break through. A recent finding revealed that raising children within a structured religious environment protects their mental health.
In the Star Wars story recall what happened to Darth Vader at the end of Episode VI? He was saved by the persistent love of his son Luke. If, even Darth Vader had a death-bed conversion then there is always hope for anyone that seems sucked into the dark-side.