It is not just the food our kids eat that effects their health; it is also the content they consume. As parents and kids’ workers, knowing your cyber super-foods from your streaming string cheese is key to effectively communicating the gospel in the digital age.
This article is taken from a seminar that we first ran at the New Wine United Breaks Out conference in July 2021. It’s called “Junk Media and Your Kids Digital Diet”, and we look at:-
The pros and cons of how kids and young people are engaging with media in the digital age,
How we as parents and kids ministry leaders can respond.
Hopefully by the end of this article you will be a little more equipped to spot the difference between your digital junk food and your streaming superfood!
You can watch a video of the seminar here, or scroll down to read a transcript.
So why should churches use media at all?
By the time the average young person is 18 they will have spent 35,000 hours on media, 9,000 hours in school, 2,500 hours engaging with their parents, and 900 hours in church. To put that another way that’s just under 4 years on media 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, versus just over 1 month in church.
A 2018 Ofcom report found that 36% of pre-schoolers plays games online for nearly 6 hours a week. 8 out of 10 3-4 year olds use YouTube to watch cartoons and funny videos. 52% are online almost 9 hours a week.
This then scales upwards from tweens and teens. A recent report from Common Sense Media found that the average US tween spends five hours a day on social media for entertainment, going up to seven hours for US teenagers – and that doesn’t include the time they spend using screens for school work. Seriously, I don’t know where they find the time!
Now, this isn’t a talk about if we should limit screen time, and if so how much is too much, and all those questions – that’s for you to work out for your family – but as we’ll find later a lot of modern content is designed and indeed fine tuned to be as addictive as possible, and as with the food we eat, not all media is good for us physically or mentally.
But, is all media bad?
As Christians should we be engaging with it at all?
Is there a biblical basis for the use of media?
If we’re going to engage in any conversation around how we, in our Christian communities, engage with media then this has to be the starting point.
Well, I believe that there is a theological basis for the use of media in supporting our children to learn more about God. I mean, for a starting point, the Bible is a piece of media. It’s a book, It is the word of God, written down! If the Epistles had been written today then Paul would have been writing them on Whatsapp, or on his blog!
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So, if digital media is the story telling medium of this generation why should the church use it?
If we turn to Deuteronomy chapter 6 verses 4 to 9 then we read…
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
This bible verse is showing how we should share what is 'on our hearts' about how amazing God is and we can use lots of different communication methods to do so.
So if God wants us to exhibit and broadcast things that we know to be true in the places and spaces that are available to us, let’s take a look at how the methods of communication have changed over the years in Christian history, and how Christians have adapted and embraced new methods of communication to communicate the things that we know to be true.
At the beginning of the nation of Israel, we are told how stories were passed from generation to generation. In this verbal, storytelling tradition we can imagine this happening around a camp fire. People would hear, learn and repeat the stories that were integrally a part of their cultural bedrock.
Then we learn about the Jewish people reading scrolls at meetings and in the temple. The stories that were told around the campfire, now refined, recorded and committed to manuscript.
By the 4th century the use of images and iconography was important in the early church. Pictorial representations of these stories, breathing in new context, and new life. In fact it was Augustine of Hippo (born AD 342) that first identified how words can be a sign post from the material into the unmaterial (that is the spiritual). Augustine was, of course, an influential bishop and one of the early church fathers.
We have all experienced the power of words and pictures to reach deep into our hearts. This process is called 'semiotics' and was the start of a different world view of words being a direct link to the spiritual. You could describe words and images as a portal into the spiritual realm.
The scrolls that we saw in the temple were then developed into one Holy Bible.
About 1,000 years after Augustine was born, John Wycliffe an English Theologian and professor at Oxford University translated the Bible into English, of course he had to write it out by hand.
It is interesting to note that this act, which we are all so grateful for now was considered a heresy by the Pope at the time. So much so that after he dies, John's body was dug up, burnt and scattered in a river! Not much of a reward! This does show how often we can be reluctant to take on new media. We haven’t always been early adopters! By the time the printing press was developed by Gutenberg in the mid 15th century there was a growing schism in the church, leading to Martin Luther, his 95 theses.
The journey now moves on to the use of multimedia.
We should note however that the tradition of storytelling, repetition, games and songs to teach children about the good news of Jesus remains the same over the years! Same message, different medium.
It is reassuring to note that Rev Billy Graham, one of the most famous evangelist of modern times identified that the church has been provided with new technology and that we should use it! He said 'God has given us new tools to do his work – electronic and visual tools, such as radio, films, television and telephones'
God invites and compels us to use an evolving array of media to communicate the things that are on our hearts. So we can conclude that modern digital media in and of itself is not problematic. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t moderate our consumption of it – in fact we definitely should. We should also learn to be discerning about what content we consume.
If there is any truth in the adage ‘you are what you eat’, is it also true to say ‘you are what you watch’
More and more nutritional studies are finding that not all food calories are the same, and so it is with media, not all content calories are the same. Some energise, revitalise and are life-giving. Others give a momentary high, leading to an emotional slump, and drain us physically, mentally and spiritually.
So, back to our original premise. “Junk Media and Your Kids Digital Diet”, and how to tell the difference between your digital junk food, and your streaming superfood.
What can junk food teach us anything about media?
To help modern Christian parents and kids workers to tell the difference between digital donuts, and algorithmic avocados we’ve come up with 3 tests.
Test 1: Is content self focussed, addicting & Distracting – or outward looking, encouraging and freeing
Junk food tends to be high in sugar. Studies show that eating sugar releases opioids and dopamine into our systems. Dopamine is a known neurotransmitter, and is a key part of what is known as our inbuilt ‘reward circuit’. This is the link between junk food, sugar and addictive behaviour. If we do something, or eat something that causes the release of dopamine into our systems that we feel a kind of high, and we are then inclined to repeat the behaviour in order to repeat the experience.
Over time the more we repeat these behaviours our brain adjusts to release less dopamine each time, meaning the only way to experience the same high is to do it more. This is why we end up compulsively eating junk food. Some research suggests that sugar can be even more addicting that cocaine! One study from Connecticut College found that Oreo cookies activate more neurons in the pleasure centres of rats brains than cocaine does!
Anyone familiar with the documentary The Social Dilemma will understand how social media platforms have design features baked – infinite scrolling, short form content, engagement notifications, likes comments… these are all derived from the gambling industry. Just like slot machines they are designed to keep people coming back for more.
A new study from Harvard University demonstrates how social media lights up the same reward circuit that sugar does. Every notification, like or mention triggers our little dopamine hit. The infinite scroll of Facebook or Instagram provides an unlimited number of instant rewards for very little effort!
The same study also showed that the reward centres of our brains are most active when we are talking about ourselves! In everyday life apparently we talk about ourselves 30 to 40% of the time. On social media it’s around 80% of the time. No wonder we keep coming back to it!
I know from my personal battles against Candy Crush, Angry Birds, YouTube rabbit holes, and habitual social media notification checking how hard it can be to escape the need for the next level, the next video, or the next like… The next dopamine hit.
So, if content is short form, self focussed and offers an instant, but strangely unsatisfying hit then it’s probably junk media.
By contrast it then follows that when seeking out more nutritious content that feeds us physically, mentally and spiritually that it should be longer form, outward focussed, informative and with a clear end point.
My son can spend lots of time watching Hacksmith Industries videos. If you haven’t seen them Hacksmith Industies take sci-fi technology that is featured in films like the marvel movies, and make real life versions. For him seeing a real life Captain America Shield being made is super fun, but it also inspires my son to get off the lap top, and try it out for himself.
How much more valuable is Christ-centred content that inspires our young people to go out and do the same. Content that communicates the character of Christ, and encourages creativity and Christ-likeness. A good case in point would be the Little Worship Company craft videos.
Test 2: Is it sugar coated, or of substance and nourishing?
Recently a campaign group called Action on Sugar commissioned some research into which was the most sugary drink you could buy on the high street. They found that a Starbucks Hot Mulled Fruit-Grape flavour with Chai, Orange and cinnamon venti contains a whopping 25 spoons of sugar per serving! That’s the same as an entire litre of Coke! The funny think being that they don’t actually taste that sweet. Most of the sugar is counterbalanced by the natural bitterness of the Chai. So I guess that Julie Andrew’s was right when she sung just a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.Far be it from me to contradict any of her melodic wisdom, but this probably isn’t great advice. Taken to it’s logical conclusion we should by adding sugar to our vegetables, or pasta sauce, or low fat yoghurt… Which is precisely what is done in the junk food industry.
Now thinking about junk media: Have you come across the recent cultural phenomenon that is the TikTok life hack? Little short form videos that give quick, easy, and innovative solutions to everyday problems. Some of them are pretty useful, like using bulldog clips clipped to the side of your desk to help keep your computer power leads neat and tidy. But as this format has become more and more popular content creators go after the views, and associated advertising revenue, by creating ever more ridiculous, and outlandish hacks. Creating videos that appear to be innovative, but fundamentally just don’t work, are pointless, misleading or are in some cases just dangerous.
Case in point the grilled cheese sandwich in the toaster hack that results in your toaster catching fire, or the video showing someone putting raw corn on the cob in the microwave, and coming out with popcorn – just nonsense.
All of this content is sweet to look at, but ultimately without any substance at all. At the end of it you come away feeling at best non-plussed or cheated, at worst burning your house down.
In contrast Jesus never needs to be sugar coated, and we don’t have to coerce people into liking him.
The pastor of my church, a chap called Chris, took a gap year before he went to university, and worked as a cowboy on a cattle ranch in the middle of Australia. When he got there he looked around and noticed that there were no fences. Just red dirt, blue sky and hundreds of miles of outback in every direction.
He asked them how the stopped the cows just wandering off. Their reply was, ‘it’s easy, we just put a well in the middle’. They knew that the cows would always come back to the source of the water that gives them life. They didn’t need to coerce them with fences to keep them coming back, they just trusted that the cows knew to keep returning.
It’s the same for us isn’t it. As Christian’s we always return to Jesus, because there is nothing so genuinely good as Him and His character.
Jesus knew this. We read in Matthew Jesus said,
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
The Children didn’t need to be coerced to be with Jesus, they already knew that they wanted to be with him. In fact is was the adults there who were getting in the way.
And so it is with our kids and content. Junk content is that which looks sweet, but ultimately tastes bad and has no substance. With streaming superfood we can taste and see that it is good. Great tasting, and good for us! A good example of this the brand new God Rocks Dance Craze videos.
Test 3: What does it do to us – are we active or passive?
Kriss Van Toullen in his recent BBC documentary What Are We Feeding Our Kids talked about how food companies engage in extensive research to develop food to be both incredibly delicious, and easy to digest. So, tasting and feeling good in your mouth, and getting to your stomach as quickly as possible – leaving you reaching for the next one! This means that ultra processed food is higher in calories, encourages us to eat more, and is easier to eat - literally it is designed so that you have to spend less time chewing. A double whammy as you both eat more calories, AND expended fewer calories eating and digesting it.
Not only that, but research has shown that eating too much processed food come promote inflammation in the body, which can be a trigger for depression. Van Toullen also demonstrated in his documentary that eating a diet high in ultra processed food actually changed neural pathways creating brain responses typical to those expected, as we’ve already seen in test 1, in people taking known addictive substances like cigarettes, alcohol and drugs.
And so, as it is with junk food, so it is with junk media. Research from the University of Pennsylvania found that when use of social media was limited to 10 minutes a day that this lead to significant reductions in loneliness and depression. Likewise UCL found that where people used social media for 5 hours or more per day (so your average American teenager) that 38% showed signs of having severe depression.
If you want to dig a little deeper on how media can effect the mental health of our young people then we’ve got a white paper that we created in partnership with The Lily Jo Project. You can download it as a free resource from raiseupfaith.com. It’s called Being Not Doing: The Church, Young People, and Mental Health, and we look at how children’s ministry leaders can respond to the mental health challenges of young people in the digital age.
The common feature across both junk food, and junk media is the passivity with which we engage with it. We passively consume junk food – literally spending less energy eating. And we passively consume media, as it is served up to us on and endless path of ‘up nexts’ and infinite scrolls.
But, at the same time a study by the Canadian Paediatric Society shows us that quality, and interactive media actually helps children from as young as 2 years old to develop language and literacy skills. It fosters aspects of cognitive development, and helps young people to retain taught information.
When trying to decide how healthy a piece of content is we can consider, does it encourage an active participation, or is it designed to be passively experienced.
Obviously this is not a binary choice, and nor is there always an objective answer to whether the media we’re engaging with is junk media, or streaming superfood. In reality it’s a sliding scale, and subjective. As parents and kids workers …
Finally, consider where it’s coming from. Who is providing it. In the same way that you wouldn’t expect to get steamed broccoli from a candyfloss machine we shouldn’t expect to get our streaming superfoods from platforms that are designed to addict and distract us. We need to search out content providers that curate, and create streaming superfoods!
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So thanks for you time, we’ hope you feel equipped to know the difference between your junk media and your streaming superfoods.
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