Will Our Children Be Victims of Digital Dementia?
By Trace Embry
Have you noticed how many teens can barely walk from point A to point B without wearing headphones today? Why are five people sitting in a car so often observed talking to five people outside the same car via cell phones? And God forbid the kids are actually using a smartphone that hasn’t been deloused. A family is observed dining out together—all engaging someone else, or something else, other than their family via a techno-gadgets. These situations are not uncommon. The implications for relationships are obvious; but, few know what to call this phenomenon or what to do about it. And even fewer have pondered its devastating implications for individuals, families, the church, or for the culture at large. When do people—especially teenagers—take time to contemplate the deeper issues of life anymore—such as origin, meaning, morality, and destiny? Studies show they don’t. In fact, biologically, many can’t! Look around; for those of us who can still think, the frightening implications of anhedonia are everywhere! I firmly believe that anhedonia is a grossly overlooked component to what is keeping therapeutic programs with troubled teenagers filled; yet, few are yet to catch on.
WHAT IS ANHEDONIA? According to Dr. Archibald Hart, anhedonia is a destruction of the pleasure center in the brain. Most doctors and mental health care professionals—if they’ve heard the term at all—only understand anhedonia as a manifestation of depression, schizophrenia or drug addiction. Many of these same professionals are too often mistakenly dispensing powerful medications that too often only complicate the problem. More and more doctors are beginning to catch on, however. Dr. Archibald Hart writes in his book, “Thrilled to Death” that anhedonia is also a condition independent of depression, schizophrenia and drug addition. I call it “21st Century Anhedonia”. But, instead of depression, schizophrenia or drug addiction bringing on anhedonia, the anhedonia brings on symptoms that mimic depression, schizophrenia and drug addiction—and a myriad other things, like ADD, ADHD and the like. And, like any drug addiction, anhedonia is a chemical problem! It comes largely from the over stimulation of pleasurable and exciting activities— along with multitasking—particularly on many of today’s techno-gadgets. Dr. Hart claims that Modern technology is a prime vehicle for anhedonia in teenagers today. He claims 80% of the American public suffer with it from one degree or the other. I would say, in the today’s teenage population, unless one is Amish, it’s virtually one hundred percent! It’s just a matter of degree. The brain was never designed to handle the degree of stimuli that so many Americans, today, indulge in so often and for so long. This is particularly true in the teen population. Perhaps this is why prominent psychologist, Dr. Robert Leahy, said, “Today’s teens are dealing with the same degree of anxiety as the average psych patient in the 1950s!” Anhedonia has often been associated with and/or confused with a form of “neural atrophy,” “digital dementia” and “digital addiction”.
Anhedonia could be considered a much more subtle form of slavery. And, like slavery of the 19th century, it’s so engrained into our culture that only a few even question its devastating implications. This iSlavery is now a systemic problem in America—a problem that effects virtually everyone; yet, few can put their finger on it. Even fewer know what to do about it. But, unlike slavery of the 19th century, iSlavery is largely a self-inflicted wound. Like a lot of America’s ills, we’ve come to think of it as “just how things are”. In the case of our kids—we’ve come to believe it’s just part of growing up. Why? Because it’s still so new relative to human history. Never before has the human brain encountered such a degree of stimuli. Our kids are particularly vulnerable, because of where they’re brain’s are at in their respective stages of development. And, because American culture is now addicted to their digital gadgets, folks like Dr. Hart and me are often made to look like neanderthals or worse for even bringing it up. But, science and the evidence is on our side. I used to say, “Time will tell”. But, with clinics opening up all around the world for “digital addictions”, unfortunately for the multitudes, time will have become history. And I believe, like 19th century slavery, it will be a history of regret.
Parents can observe their anhedonic children progress in acuteness as their excitement and adrenaline levels must be regularly amped up until the very thing that used to bring them pleasure now bores them to tears. Boredom, apathy, lethargy, depression, sullenness, anger, rage, and self destruction appear to be the natural progression in this climb to the pinnacle of anhedonia—a pinnacle that is actually more of a pit—a sort of hell. Junior’s insatiable pursuit of pleasure and excitement often leads to sinful habits and addictions—not limited to and not the least of which are digital addictions. And, like any addiction, the law of diminishing returns is inevitable. But, an anhedonic teen can also be addicted to things that are otherwise healthy, such as food, exercise, music, technology, etc. They can also actually excel in areas and subjects that truly thrill them. But for others areas and subjects—regardless of how necessary they may be for life—the anhedonic teen can’t answer the bell. His chemistry has actually been altered. But what is hampering this generation most is an addiction to technology and the excitement and pleasure it brings virtually around the clock. As Junior engages in endless pursuits of technology at home, parents naively assume, that because Junior isn’t pursuing sinful vices in the streets, they can then breathe easy. Unfortunately, these gadgets are too often being used for warping the minds, emotions, and spirits of those captivated by them—which includes most of us today. And this is not just because of the content, but in the actual time spent on them—regardless of the content. Unhealthy attitudes, behaviors, and relationships result—rivaling that of other vices. We aren’t used to the idea that too much of even a good thing quickly becomes a bad thing. How many more patties can McDonald’s get on a hamburger to satiate the appetites of an insatiable American public? After “super size”, is the next step “super duper size” and then “extra super duper size”? When is enough enough, for a people with more resources than self control? When will we understand our times and know what to do?
It’s never been 2016 before. At the turn of the 20th century, when technology was moving at the speed of sound, the automobile, telephone, and the radio, were just a few of the many technological advances that forced parents to deal with new scenarios not faced by previous generations. It took decades for their posterity to realize all the precautions needed to engage these new inventions safely. How many people had to be injured and killed in automobiles before we realized that brakes, brake lights, turn signals, headlights, horns, fenders, seat belts, traffic lights and signs etc, were a good idea? Today’s dangers are much greater, though they don’t immediately manifest themselves in the physical domain. In time, unfortunately, they often do. Troubled teens, today, are harming themselves and killing themselves in record numbers. They are microwaving their souls and killing themselves from the inside out; yet, so few realize it—largely because we have become a society whose worldview is preeminently based on empirical evidences only.
Today, with technology now moving at the speed of light, we are yet to fully understand all of the negative effects to the critical, constructive, and creative thinking capacities of the brain caused by the abuse of technology. But, we do know this damage is real. We also know some things need to change to stem the tide. Atrophy takes place in these areas of the brain that push-button technology is largely responsible for. This is not to mention its effect on the areas of the human experience that cannot be measured empirically, such as the heart, mind, emotions and the spiritual nature of human beings. Today, it’s hard for kids to do anything remotely mundane without being indoctrinated by what’s coming through their headphones. This includes walking from point A to point B, exercising, driving and even when doing homework. This leaves them no time to contemplate the deeper and more important issues of life. At the turn of the last century, teenagers weren’t plowing the back 40 to headphones. Perhaps this is why they still had enough critical, constructive, and creative gray matter to repair the farm equipment when it broke down—or perhaps invent new and better ones, while maintaining the discipline to plow a straight furrow! This is one reason why I suggest that headphones be banned in the home. If parents can’t hear it, neither should Junior. And when Junior claims that he can’t do homework unless he’s listening to his favorite pop band, that’s a classic indication of his anhedonic state. Studies prove my case. That’s like saying I can’t get to work until I have a fifth of whiskey in me. The brain works better slower and when it completes one task at a time. But, that takes self- discipline—something sorely lacking in America today. The researchers at MIT have already confirmed that kids are 30% more productive when they DON’T multitask.
To give you one small example of what is happening to our kids as a result of the push- button techno-age, just try getting your order right at McDonald’s these days! Just try giving the attendant paper and copper in order to get back silver. They have to call the manager! My first job was at a McDonalds almost 40 years ago. We didn’t have little icons of hamburgers and fries on electronic key pads. We had a pencil and a note pad. And if we didn’t get the orders right and give proper change, the manager would find some other teenager who could! And don’t think the executives in Silicon Valley don’t know what they’re doing to your kids and mine; because they do. That’s why they send their kids to Waldorf Schools. There isn’t a computer to be found in any of the classrooms! Everything is done with pen and paper!
We at SHA (Shepherd’s Hill Academy) understand that if an anhedonic troubled teen cannot think critically, constructively, or creatively, his capacity to love and think and empathize like God through a biblical worldview drastically diminishes. God becomes an abstract too difficult and boring for the anhedonic brain to conceive or desire. It is virtually impossible for him to acquire a congruent understanding of Scripture; because, bible study, even more than school work, becomes an exercise in mental brutality. Almost nobody, including doctors, is familiar with Anhedonia independent of its relationship to drug addiction, schizophrenia and depression. It isn’t even considered when educators try to figure out why the U.S. is now 26th in education compared to other countries around the world. And it can’t be money; because America spends more than virtually any other nation on the planet on education. Before America allowed herself to be pleasured into imbecility, she had always been at the top of the world educationally. Pastors, youth workers, and parents don’t take it into consideration either when they love and work and preach their guts out trying to get their teenagers to attain some biblical knowledge and acquire a biblical worldview.
Until we get the anhedonia and digital dementia thing dealt with, we’re spitting up a rope wondering why Junior can’t pay attention; won’t engage in conversation; is sullen and withdrawn; hates himself and everyone around him; escapes into a word of sex, drugs and rock and roll; and, refuses to do anything productive with his life. And all while we pay doctors and therapists to falsely diagnose and dispense medications he too often doesn’t need in the first place.
The good news is that anhedonia is reversible—but, it doesn’t come through medications! It comes by engaging the child in some form of critical, constructive, or creative thinking activity—preferably using his hands, feet, and back. But, because of many parents’ out-of-control situations with their kids at home, they often feel helpless to make their kids engage in the activities necessary to rebuild the pleasure centers in their brains. Pulling the plug on TV might be a start. SHA offers the perfect proving ground and environment to engage teens in these healing activities. They get a chance to enjoy the endless array of healthy and wholesome activities that God has given teens to enjoy life with. This happens when they’re relieved of the many negative influences of our culture and are immersed in an outdoor wilderness-type environment that requires critical, constructive, and creative thinking skills for the most fundamental details of life —without all the technology. The results are incredible—and without medications. In fact, of the kids coming to SHA on bushel loads of medications, 70% are leaving medication free! We know that proper stimuli builds healthy bodies and healthy brains. Digital overload is destroying both.
Once a teen’s full mental faculties are returned to him, he is much more likely to accept the logical and natural God-given truths of life—especially as they pertain to moral living and eternal destiny. In turn, his ability to make independent choices that are congruent with healthy living becomes an outworking of his heart change induced by the loving year-long Christ-centered authoritative community environment that Shepherd’s Hill Academy provides—an unplugged environment free of the myriad negative cultural influences systemic to our culture. But, without the understanding of how so much of our culturally-induced (i.e. technology) stimuli is affecting our teens (i.e. anhedonia), the positive changes we see in teenagers wouldn’t be as drastic or happen as often as they do.
However, in saying all this about modern technology, we understand that we live in a techno-world. We are not against electronics or medication. Balance and prudence are the keys. But, once anhedonia has done its debilitating work in a teen, a detoxification and therapeutic make-over should be what the doctor orders—not medication! We know from science and experience that outside stimuli changes body and brain chemistry. Stimulating a kid with the love, training, nurture, discipline, and the truth of God’s Word, will, and way, over time, transforms a troubled teen far more efficiently and effectively than medications. It also confirms St. Francis’s assessment on the condition of man when he said, “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in You.”
For the church, the implications of anhedonia are perhaps even more frightening. Kids will not, on their own, pull away from the immediate pleasures of 21st century adolescence long enough to engage the deeper things of life. They swing, like monkeys on a vine, from one exciting and pleasurable experience to another. Before they let go of one, they’ve already latched on to another. There is no margin in their lives to contemplate life’s deeper issues—and too often parents aren’t requiring any. And churches are actually fueling this situation by turning up the wick on the entertainment factor in order to draw kids into the church. Consequently, this is one reason why the American church is now a mile wide and an inch deep. The average new convert to Christianity in the teen population stays 8-11 weeks before he moves on to something more exciting. Among other things, we believe anhedonia is largely responsible for this situation. Many parents have fallen into similar traps due to their own over committed lifestyles. Yes, indeed, the parents are anhedonic as well. In some cases, worse.
The mantra of the 80’s, “He who dies with the most toys wins”, has come home to roost. Now, our kids are playing with all those toys without us; because, we are too busy working to pay for them all! And the result is an anhedonic generation that is not able to properly grasp a biblical worldview for themselves, much less perpetuate a biblical worldview to their kids. George Barna’s statistics bear witness to this fact; yet, as far as I know, he knows nothing of anhedonia. With this generation of young Americans so anhedonic, we will need a remnant of committed young people who still get it and who will be willing to stand firm in order to salvage and perpetuate the message of the Gospel. We will also need this generation to get it in order to perpetuate what our founding fathers and forefathers worked and fought so hard to build and preserve; because, not only are there frightening implications for the church; but, there are frightening implications for our American culture as well.
Today’s Americans are a people who have little tolerance for pain. But, the truth is that we become weary of pleasure before we become weary of pain; because, with pain you always have something to look forward to—which is the relief of the pain. However, with pleasure, when you just experienced what you thought would bring you the “ultimate” and it has let you down, where do you go from there? You go insane. This plays into the equation as to why kids are cutting themselves today. Isn’t it interesting that a June 5th 2006 Fox news report disclosed that 1 in 5 female Ivy League college students are cutting themselves? This report came from two different Ivy League schools. Interestingly, poorer sectors of the inner city don’t seem to have these issues.
The affluence of today’s teens has too often given them a vehicle for an endless pursuit of pleasure that has actually ended up with them experiencing more pain and more suicide than young people in poverty! It’s just a different kind of pain. It’s actually worse! Isn’t it interesting that suicide is three times more likely to happen in affluent homes than in homes stricken with poverty? Education and social economic status aren’t necessarily the clear indicators of mental, emotional, or spiritual health it was once thought to be.
Our educational institutions are teaching our kids what to think; they aren’t teaching our kids how to think! The dissemination of iPads to young kids from their public school systems for the purpose of completing school assignments isn’t helping the problem of anhedonia. The American Academy of Pediatrics actually recommends no TV before the age of two and very limited after that. And with the condition of anhedonia now being a virtually undetected epidemic in 21st century America, knowing how to think may not actually be a necessary component to American life much longer; because, only a free enterprise system really thrives with a thinking people. Anhedonia could actually be a plus to a totalitarian regime.
The bottom line is that parents need to do more to shape their children’s worldview; because if parents don’t do it, someone or something else will. Why would critically- thinking adult parents give their kids the freedom to “figure it out for themselves” when it comes to boundaries with digital technology when the frontal lobe in their brains aren’t even fully developed until they’re 25 years old? Parents have 18 years to shape their kids’ worldview in a positive and healthy way. It sounds so noble and politically correct for parents to give their kids this kind of latitude; but, in general, the parents who believe this are living in a fool’s paradise. The average American teen is in front of some type of electronic stimuli for seven and a half hours each day! With multitasking factored in, that number increases to eleven and a half hours! All the devotions, church, VBS, and Sunday school we send our kids to will be of little effect if we parents don’t exercise the faith and insight to teach and live out our faith and worldview, while limiting the anhedonia-producing and worldview-shaping stimuli that bombard and indoctrinate our kids minds each and every day. And our current situation and statistics bears it out.
This is a call for Christian parents to put limits on their kids’ multitasking habits and to require some balance when it comes to their technological indulgences. We need to raise the bar of accomplishment in certain areas of our kids’ lives—like the things in life that build both body and brain matter and nurture the spirit of a human being. We also need to limit the activities that atrophy these things—like staying up all night trying to beat the next level of a violent video game or waiting for the next text or social media post to receive or send. This is also a call for parents to heed Deut. 6:6-7, “These commandments I give to you today are to be upon your hearts. Talk about them when you sit at home; when you walk along the road; when you lie down and when you get up.” With virtually every American affected by this issue to one degree or the other, the American church better sound the alarm before anhedonia melts our brains to the point of not even relating the alarm to a crisis.
Editors Note: Trace Embry is the Founder and Director of Shepherd’s Hill Academy–a Christ-centered therapeutic program and school for troubled teenagers. Trace is also the host of The nationally-syndicated, License to Parent radio program.