Friday 29 October 2010

Facebook as Digital 'Crack'

Daniela Elser wrote an interesting column on Facebook a couple of weeks ago (Sydney Morning Herald 9-10 Oct). In it she seems to put her finger on a number of reasons for the popularity of Facebook around the world:
  • It offers us the possibility of reinventing ourselves or presenting a specific crafted image of ourselves to our Facebook friends.
  • It has changed the way we interact with others.
  • It offers a sense of connection, or in Elser's words, it offers a "digital inoculation against any creeping sense of disconnection or isolation".
  • It offers an opportunity to "socialise in solitude" (to quote Aaron Sorkin the writer of 'The Social Network' which is the story of Facebook's creation - see the trailer below).  
  • It allows us to be hyper-focused on constructing hyper-elaborated identities.
  • We live more distracted lives because of our constant checking and updating of our profiles. 
 Daniela Elser writes:
One of the most intoxicating things about Facebook is the possibility it represents for reinvention. From our words, to our image, to our friends, Facebook lets us control the public perception of ourselves with an iron fist that would surely please even Kim Jong-il.

Sadly, while recognising that Facebook is allowing us to do this to ourselves, she fell short of suggesting ways that we might use it responsibly (like any drug).  However, she does recognise that Facebook "...speaks to an underlying human need to feel like we are the centre of things".  She cites recent survey research that indicates that 48% of Facebook and Twitter users check or update their profiles from bed on a daily basis either during the night or first thing in the morning.  This comes hot on the heels of other research that shows that addiction to the Internet is a problem for 25% of young adults at University.    

I love technology, and so I know just how strong the urge is to present false images of myself, to be less than honest about my heart's desires at times, particularly the desire to be liked and respected. I think the essence of the problem is a subtle difference between the word 'need' and 'desire'.  Elser suggests that we have a 'need' to feel that we are the centre of things, worthy of attention, needing to be admired, liked etc. While I have no doubt that we have a human need to be loved, I don't accept that we have a 'need' to be at the centre of the world.  This is a 'desire', and it is one that is in opposition to God's desire for us to give him first place in our lives. This is the desire that he created us for. Our desire is to be for him not for the promotion of self.

What a different view the Bible gives in Romans 12:1-8 of what we should desire, and what true community looks like when its members centre their lives on God. Rather than spending our lives feeding a need to be recognised, to be liked and to be admired, we are called to give ourselves to a life of sacrifice - "living sacrifices". We are not to be conformed to the patterns of the world. Rather, because of God's mercy to us we are "not to think of (ourselves) more highly than (we) ought". As God's children in Christ, we have been given gifts from God due to his grace and mercy, not for ourselves, but to fulfil our part as " body in Christ, and individually members one of another".  Whatever good gifts God has given are to be used for the good of the Body of Christ and the glory of God.

Is Facebook bad? No, I don't think so. It is a social networking site that can be used to sustain relationships and maintain contact with friends around the world. But it does have the potential to become an addiction and to shift our focus too much to our own sense of self worth and the need to create an identity that is pleasing to us and others. This is not ultimately something which will be for our good.
Other posts and resources

Daniela Elser column 'Hooked on the digital crack of Facebook', Sydney Morning Herald (HERE)

Previous post on 'Late Night Habits and the Mental Health of Young Adults' (HERE)

'The Social Network' (HERE)

Thursday 21 October 2010

God the City and Us

When police broke into an apartment in Sydney in January 2008 and found the decomposed body of 61 year-old Jorge Coloma (here), there was much community discussion of how his absence could have gone unnoticed for over a year. He had died from natural causes in his bedroom. No one noticed that he'd disappeared. Even a pile of twelve months worth of mail and unpaid bills did not lead anyone check to his apartment or call the police. It took a year before neighbours felt that something was wrong. People asked why authorities had not done something. Others wondered about his family; wasn't there one family member that had missed him? Neighbours also began to ask themselves questions, why hadn't they spoken up much sooner? Jorge's story and many others like it are the dark side of city life, but there is another side.

The Bible depicts the new restored and redeemed world as a city. Jesus revealed to John what God had in store for his people, he saw '...the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband' (Revelation 21:2). The city is not an evil aberration that is a consequence of the fall, but rather it is a form of human settlement. Jeremiah (29:5-5) commended the survivors of Israel after the destruction of Jerusalem and their exile to Babylon with the words of God that they were to:
"Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper."
The remnant of Israel were to build towns and ultimately cities and to contribute to their good.

Understanding the importance and role of the city

Cities can be lonely places, where it is easy to be anonymous or to lead an isolated life. They can be places where people like Jorge can die alone, and where others can suffer physically and emotionally alone and without support. Cities are places where homelessness is common and abuse of one kind or another a daily part of life.

But they are also places of rich culture and learning, places where ideas are exchanged and people's lives can be enriched. They are places where Christians can preach and share the word of God, serve the sick and needy, train and equip others for ministry and life, raise a family, be part of the delivery of God’s grace to lost people.

Tim Keller has pointed out that the human desire to congregate inevitably leads to the formation of cities as people congregate together for security, to share resources, for commerce, to learn from one another an so on. Keller suggests that if you capture the city with the gospel you capture the nation (here). The city he points out can be a wonderful place to live and raise a family (listen to his talk here). It is a strategic place to build gospel ministry.

As Christians it would be easy to assume that the city is a sinful wasteland and retreat to the peace and tranquillity of a remote farm to live a life of isolation, but that is not what we are generally called to do. Cities are places over which God is sovereign where he is at work, and as always they are strategic, because it is in cities that many people come together to work, trade, learn, play, create, perform and so on. There is much talk about the impact of technology on human activity - new ways to travel, instant forms of mass global communication, new ways to connect or ‘wire’ communities (see previous posts here and here) - but while technology is changing the way we spend our time, where we spend it, and how we communicate with one another, the need for human contact remains and community remains. As such, the buildings and physical buildings and spaces we create should reflect our desire to be with other people, to share our lives and the gospel others.

What are the implications of the above?

How does the above inform the way we use the space that we live in at home, the way we think about the role of space and property in gospel ministry, the way we engage with and seek to build our local communities? A few quick thoughts on practical ways that we can think about these issues.

a) Our houses - if we need to choose a house or apartment to rent, or we're fortunate enough to be able buy one, we should look at the property with community eyes. How easy will this property make it to get to know my neighbours? Is it open in design or closed? How is the space within the property conducive to family life and offering hospitality to others? Can I see other people from my apartment balcony, the front veranda, the front or back yard? How long will it take me to get to work, church, the people I care for, and so on (loss of time due to travel is important)? Such thinking turns on its head the way we generally think about our real estate. As well, within the apartment or home, is there a good mix of individual and shared space? If raising a family we should avoid creating personal retreats equipped with all one needs for individual survival. Don’t locate televisions and computers in children’s bedrooms. If you are building a house, don’t cover the block with house at the expense of yard.

b) Church buildings – When designing, renovating, relocating or extending church buildings, we need to think about the type of spaces that we create in the church and how we use it. Rows of pews facing a high alter will have a different effect on communication and interaction than seats in the round or even at tables. Our traditional church buildings with stained glass windows and grand facades were designed like the temple to be seen from afar and to draw people to them. While accepting that heritage issues will prevent us making too many changes to such buildings, we can praise God that they are often in the best locations in town. We can also change how we use space inside them and how we use their location and their use to establish relationships with the people living near us. If locating a new church we need to consider all options for where we place it, what form the building should take and whether it will serve ministry to one another while ‘connecting’ with our communities. Of course the activities we develop in and from the building and the way we live our lives within the community will matter, but the buildings and their spaces do make a difference.

c) The city around us - As citizens within a city what are the things that we should join others in advocating? While Christians represent a small proportion of citizens how can we use our voices and sometimes public and professional positions to influence public decisions about our cities? And how can we use the spaces we have? In relation to planning we should be supportive of:
  • More and better public spaces (parks, playing fields, walking tracks, cycle ways etc).
  • Better public transport, pedestrian ways, cycle ways, spaces to encourage people to congregate (see Tim Chester’s thoughts on this here).
  • Careful planning to integrate commercial, residential and recreational spaces in ways that make human movement easy, that increases visibility (for safety as well as community building), that reduce isolation and the need for long distance travel.
If this post has raised some issues for you please check out Case #18 that has the theme 'City Life' in which we will explore a number of these and other issues as they relate to living and engaging in ministry in cities. 

Related links and reading

An excellent book on this topic has been written by Philip Bess, 'Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred (Religion and Contemporary Culture) (here)

Tim Keller's excellent summary of a biblical view of the city (here) and his talk on how the city can help us to raise a family (here).

A longer article of mine title 'God in the City' appeared in Case #18 and can be downloaded here.

Monday 11 October 2010

Late Night Habits and the Mental Health of Young Adults

I've written previously on this blog about the challenge of making good use of time. In my post 'The Tyranny and Challenge of Time' I cited the 2009 OECD Social Indicators report that has shown Australians spend less leisure time with friends than just about everyone. I also wrote some time ago about 'Time and the Family' and in particular how families are spending less time together including a reduction in eating meals together.  Finally, I have written about the impact of 'Children's Loss of Play', including its impact on them and the things they might be learning about rest and work. 

Our inability to manage time seems to be an increasing challenge in an age when ironically we have so many technology applications that reduce travel times, remove much of the domestic drudgery of past ages and increases our opportunities to use time well. There is no doubt that we are living in an age where we are busy beyond what is good for us and that this can have an impact on others.

A recent research study has raised new fears about the way young adults (aged 17-24) use their time, and in particular the way their sleep habits are affecting their mental health. 

Sleep Deprivation Study
Associate Professor Nicholas Glozier from The George Institute for International Health, University of Sydney, Sydney has led a team of researchers to examine the impact of sleep deprivation on the mental health of young adults. The results are worrying. The findings were published in September in the journal 'Sleep'. Just over twenty thousand young adults (aged 17-24) were randomly identified through the state vehicle licensing authority and surveyed. A random sample of 5,000 people was then chosen for follow-up interviews 12-18 months later. There were 2837 who provided complete data.
What the study showed is that about 25% of young adults are affected by psychological distress, which is defined as poor mental health comprising common symptoms of low mood and anxiety. As well, a considerable proportion of young adults who indicated some level of distress in the first stage of the study went on to develop more severe mental disorders, recurrent episodes and the associated negative effects of this, including suicide attempts, self harm and welfare dependence.

The research identified a link between the amount of sleep that young people have and psychological problems; specifically, that shorter sleep was associated with psychological distress. The very short sleepers amongst those identified in the first stage of the study without psychological distress had an increased risk for the onset of psychological distress. Furthermore, of 945 participants who did report psychological distress in stage one, 419 (44%) were distressed at the follow up stage of the research. It was found that each hour less of sleep increased the risk of psychological distress persisting after all other factors were controlled or discounted. Participants who demonstrated 'long sleep duration' showed no association with distress at any time point.

In relation to the amount of sleep young people have:
  • 18% reported sleeping less than seven hours per night on average and a further 30% slept between 7 and 8 hours.  
  • Almost one third (31.9%) returned scores on the study instrument, which indicated high levels of current psychological distress.  
  • Over half of those reporting fewer than 6 hours sleep had higher levels of current psychological distress compared to a quarter of those sleeping the recommended level in young adults of 8-9 hours per night. 
  • Shorter sleep duration was also associated with a number of baseline characteristics including recent deliberate self-harm, using marijuana, excessive Internet use, other drugs and drinking at harmful levels.
Psychological distress was also associated more strongly with the female gender (40% versus 28% in males), unemployment (33% versus 28% in the employed), drug use (45% versus 32%), harmful alcohol use (38% versus 32%), high sensation seeking behaviour (44% versus 22% in lowest category) and recent deliberate self-harm (70% versus 31%).

This study's findings suggest that recent increases in the levels of distress reported by young adults may be related to changes in their sleep patterns.

Associate Professor Glozier suggests that:
"The increased reporting of stress seen in many countries over the past decade or two in this young adult population may reflect lifestyle or other changes that lead to too few hours of sleep."

The researchers also report that shorter sleep duration in younger age groups is associated with a number of factors including increased television viewing, computer gaming, and Internet use.  All of these appear to be becoming more commonplace, with young people communicating with each other late into the night, gaming, updating their Facebook and so on. While we have become accustomed to young people wanting to stay up late and rise later, this research suggests that wake time is not changing much through the week due to school, university or work commitments. This has the net effect of reducing sleep.

Making Sense of these Issues

It seems that young adults are not managing their time well and as a consequence, they may be losing valuable sleep time with disastrous consequences for their lives. This troubles me because my suspicion is that there is a relationship between the topics of all of my posts on time and its use.  What is common?
  • Life is busy
  • Time seems limited
  • We manage this time poorly
  • We end up doing things that don't help our relationships with other people
  • We seem to have a clash between our drive to succeed and live life to the full and  our well-being
Robert Banks suggested in his book 'The Tyranny of Time' we need to reclaim and rethink the way we use our time. The solution is not to drop out of society, to take extended breaks between periods of excessive pressure and time stress, nor is it just the application of self-help strategies.  Rather, we need to look at the deeper issues that drive the way we use time. Are our priorities in life distorted and driven by things that get in the way? In biblical terms these would be seen as idols, that is, something that attains such prominence in our lives that it supplants the central place that God and his purposes should have in our lives. The Bible teaches that we were made to centre our lives on God not other things. Study, work, friends, games, families, while in and of themselves are good, can distract us from what we designed to be if they assume a dominant place in our lives. We are commended to serve the living and true God (1 Thessalonians 1:9) and avoid those things that distract us from this. It is in turning to Christ that we will achieve true meaning and purpose.

What can we do about this?

Associate Professor Glozier and his colleagues are trying to devise clinical methods to help young people.  Patients are being treated with light therapy in the mornings and hormones such as Melatonin to help them sleep earlier. While these things will no doubt help those whose lives have developed psychological distress, there are more fundamental things that we can do before problems develop.

What are some of the basic things that all parents, teachers, bosses, brothers and friends can do to help?  It seems to me that in life one of the most significant influences on us are other people and the examples they set for us. We need to start with our own lives and begin to set new examples. As parents we may also need to be much more proactive in moderating our children's behaviour at younger ages and not placing burdens on them that inadvertently may drive them towards unhealthy pressures to study, work, succeed and be successful in everything.  Parents might ask the following basic questions:
  • How great a priority do I place on achievement and success in my own life?
  • What example do I set for my children, workmates and friends in relation to how I use my time?
  • To what extent do my priorities model priorities for my children and other people around me that might have a negative impact on how they use their time?
While my focus in this post has been on young adults, and the responsibilities of parents, I could just as easily have turned the focus on workers and their leaders, church members and their pastors and so on.
Writing this post has led me to engage in much self reflection about the priorities I have in my own life. I would encourage readers to do likewise.   
Other Resources

Saturday 2 October 2010

Jeremy Begbie on Music & Theology - Some Resources

As many readers of this blog know, Professor Jeremy Begbie has just concluded a series of talks and performances for the 2010 New College Lectures at the University of New South Wales (Sydney). The series had the theme ‘Music, Modernity and God’ and addressed three sub themes – ‘Creativity’, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Language’.

The second lecture has been posted in its entirety on the CASE website HERE.

In the meantime, there are a number of resources you can tap to find out more about his work.

1. Two great interviews

a) Jeremy Begbie was interviewed (at the keyboard) on Hope 103.2 radio station during the lectures and this was broadcast on the 19th September on the 'Open House' program.  You can listen to the program by downloading an MP3 file or listening online HERE.

b) ABC Radio National's Rachael Kohn interviewed Jeremy on 'The Spirit of Things' during the Lectures. This program was aired on the 26th September and can be downloaded or listened to HERE.

2. Jeremy's Case article

If you would like to read some of Jeremy Begbie’s work, the recent article he wrote for CASE is a great place to start – ‘Polyphony of life: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’. The whole issue of Case #23 in which it appears is devoted to the theme ‘Music and Theology’ and I have reviewed it HERE. The magazine can be purchased HERE.

3. My summary of the Lectures

You can read the post in which I summarised the Lectures HERE.

4. Jeremy's latest book

Jeremy Begbie’s most recent book ‘Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music’ (2007) also covers some of the content of the lectures. He also has a new book in preparation but this won’t be available for 18-24 months.

5. The second lecture

As indicated above the 2nd lecture, 'Freedom – Can we be free with God in our space?' HERE

Other related posts & Links

'Music, Life & Worship' (here)

Prof Trevor Hart 2008 New College Lectures on 'God, Creativity & Creators' (here)