The Macro-Shifts In Family-Shaping Forces

About a year ago a friend sent me a link to an article in The Atlantic by Jonathan Haidt, the NYU social psychologist and author. The piece, a lengthy exposé of what Haidt calls a divisive “After Babel” American culture, fueled by the rise in social media’s forming influence, is titled “Why the Last 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” I read the article straight through, then took a took breath, then realized I’d been changed by it. Haidt’s smart, insightful, and upending observations about the sea changes re-shaping American life rang deeply true to me—and raised even deeper alarms about the toxic influence of portable technologies and social media, especially among young people.

Though Haidt describes himself as an atheist, he has a remarkably open posture toward religious institutions and faith. He uses biblical imagery as an undercurrent in his observations, and his truth-seeking has a spiritual flavor to it.

Now Haidt is out with a sort-of Magnum Opus on Gen Z’s tsunami of mental health challenges, led by the startling rise in crippling anxiety that is impacting so many young adults. The book is titled The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness. Haidt’s premise in the book is both simple and devastating:

“Overprotection in the real world and underprotection in the virtual world are the major reasons why children born after 1995 became the anxious generation.”

For some context, here’s how Haidt targets the macro-shifts in family formation that have resulted from overprotective parenting and underprotective attitudes toward smartphones, smartphone culture, and social-media dynamics:

“[The ‘real world’ refers to] relationships and social interactions characterized by four features that have been typical for millions of years:

  1. They are embodied, meaning that we use our bodies to communicate, we are conscious of the bodies of others, and we respond to the bodies of others both consciously and unconsciously.
  2. They are synchronous, which means they are happening at the same time, with subtle cues about timing and turn taking.
  3. They involve primarily one-to-one or one-to-several communication, with only one interaction happening at a given moment.
  4. They take place within communities that have a high bar for entry and exit, so people are strongly motivated to invest in relationship and repair rifts when they happen.

In contrast… the ‘virtual world’ [refers] to relationship and interactions characterized by four features that have been typical for just a few decades:

  1. They are disembodied, meaning that no body is needed, just language. Partners could be (and already are) artificial intelligences (Ais).
  2. They are heavily asynchronous, happening via text-based posts and comments. (A video call is different; it is synchronous.)
  3. They involve a substantial number of one-to-many communications, broadcasting to a potentially vast audience. Multiple interactions can be happening in parallel.
  4. They take place withing communities that have a low bar for entry and exit, so people can block others or just quit when they are not pleased. Communities tend to be short-lived, and relationships are often disposable.”

Haidt points out that, for most families, the lines between the real world and the virtual world are often blurred. “The key factor,” he says, “is the commitment required to make relationships work. When people are raised in a community that they cannot easily escape, they do what our ancestors have done for millions of years: they learn how to manage relationships, and how to manage themselves and their emotions in order to keep those precious relationship going.”

The impact of these shifts is obvious in our ministry work with families—relational skills have been degraded, and family connections and influence have been mitigated by technologies and a “missing hub” that once exerted a gravitational pull on everyone in the family system. We’ve seen these themes show up in our survey work with families in our Fourth-Soil Parenting Project—an effort to equip ministry leaders with innovative new tools for fueling faith influence in the home. In the context of extended conversations with parents, ministry leaders recorded their answers to a wide variety of faith-influencing questions. Many referenced a kind of “fuzzy center” to their family’s relationship with God and participation in religious activities. New technologies have dispersed once-central hubs for factual truth-telling (journalism), moral behavior, economic opportunity, work life, and (now) religious commitment and spirituality.

Haidt’s book urges an approach to the forming influence of new technologies, social media, and over-parenting that surgically (and boldly) reverses the toxicity we’ve allowed and re-embraces the patterns of embodied relationship we are created by God to thrive through. We have the same challenges in front of us, seen through the lens of our ministry passions and priorities. For a deeper dive into Haidt’s observations, and a short primer on his “menu of solutions,” check out this interview with him on The Daily Show.

Just for You!
If you’ve been reading my Friday blogs for the last few months, you know my new book Editing Jesus comes out soon—June 4th to be exact. The book’s publisher has put together an extended excerpt (the first three chapters!) that is exclusively available to the Vibrant Faith community. So, here you go… Just click on this link and you can download a pdf of this long excerpt from the book.   

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including his new release (June 4) Editing Jesus: Confronting the Distorted Faith of the American Church, The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.



A Deeper Way to Lead Others Into Faith Maturity… Guide your people into depth relationally and experientially… A new curriculum by Rick Lawrence for both youth & adult ministries. Learn More Here




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