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"Crushed" by Hannah Anderson

An Axis Course On The "Everything Smartphone" Guided Toolkit

Mr. Rogers, reverse-tech engineering, and remembering our own childhood.

By Hannah Anderson

A record spins on a turntable, and the camera pans across a variety of familiar objects: a trumpet, cans of paint, a stack of books, a piano, a television. But suddenly a massive steel plate begins to descend, compressing them all in what appears to be an industrial-sized trash compactor. The trumpet twists and bends. The paint cans explode. The piano shatters. A television bursts, sending sparks flying. Eventually, the steel plate rises, and in place of the previous objects lies a thin, powerful tablet.

This is not a scene for a horror movie about a mired dystopia in which the means of production have been replaced by robot overlords. It’s a commercial called “Crush,” made by Apple, introducing its newest iPad Pro—the thinnest, most powerful version of an iPad ever made.

For over a decade, voices like Andy Crouch warned about the unintended effects of the digital age, especially how online life rewires our brains and alters how we form community. For parents of children, the conversation is particularly fraught as children’s brains are developing in real time: How much screen time is too much? What types of engagement are okay? Does it make a difference if something is educational? How long should you wait before letting your child have a smartphone?

But there’s something even more disquieting and, if the Apple launch video is any indication, ominous about the questions we face as parents. While the steel plate seemingly compressed all of the original artifacts into the tablet, it also annihilated them. In this way critics like Crouch could not have asked for a more accurate portrayal of their concerns about digital engagement, i.e. the violent elimination of a way of being as the tangible world is replaced by ever-thinning, increasingly-disembodied technology.

More than a theoretical problem, the potential to live in increasingly virtual spaces (like the metaverse) affects how our children will engage with material reality, i.e. the “real world.” Author Jonathan Haidt points to this in his recent book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness. Charting corresponding increases in smartphone use and teen mental health issues, Haidt links these trends to changes in parenting over these same years. Increasingly, caregivers moved away from play-based childhood that included outdoor free play to an increasingly adult-driven, mediated experience of the “real world.” Not only were children gaining access to digital technology earlier, they were also losing access to the material world with its freedom and play.

This gap is deeply ironic, if only because children are utterly and unapologetically physical. From dirty diapers to smash cakes, fingerpaints and play-dough, mud pies and running through backyard sprinklers, children inhabit a world of rich materiality. They give kisses and hug us with those same sticky hands and leave fingerprints on the very screens the adults around them are debating. They drop things and break them. They spill milk and fall down. They scrape their knees, loose teeth, and then as they grow, they are shrouded in the unmistakable scents of pubescence.

But somehow by the time we reach adulthood, the physicality of childhood has been deemed too uncontrollable and we begin to associate maturing with disembodiment. We’re taught to sit still to learn. Top-earning careers are those that don’t require physical labor. As our bodies age, we twist, cut, and contort them into unnatural shapes.

Ours is a culture already deeply at odds with the physical world. That smartphones—with all their deleterious effects—would naturally fit in such a world is no surprise.

So perhaps instead of asking “What is okay?” and “How much time is too much time?” we should start by asking, “What are we teaching our children about the physical world around them?” And Christian parents who want to pass on a living, vibrant faith should be the first ones asking this.

Christianity is an inherently embodied faith whose distinctiveness rests on the belief that God came into material reality, lived among us, died a physical death, and was bodily resurrected. So important was Christ’s physical life, the Apostle John opens his first epistle by reinforcing his own sensory experience of him.

John writes, “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—that life was revealed, and we have seen it and we testify and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us.” (1 John 1:1-2 CSB)

For Christian parents, then, the challenge of the digital age is not simply to protect our children from the online dangers or too much screen time. The challenge is figuring out how to honor God’s creation and their place in it.

The challenge for parents is to learn something our children already know.

In a 1985 interview, Oprah Winfrey asked famed child-educator Fred Rogers what he thought was the biggest mistake parents make in raising their children. “Not to remember their own childhood,” Rogers replied.

“But you know what?” Winfrey rejoined. “It’s so hard once you get to be a parent… you get to our age and you forget what it was like to be this size. You really do forget.”

“Well,” Rogers continued, in that steady deliberate voice that generations of young viewers have come to love, “children help re-evoke what it was like. That’s why, when you’re a parent, you have a new chance to grow.”

Rogers, who was also an ordained Presbyterian minister, was echoing something that Jesus himself taught during his earthly ministry: in order to enter God’s kingdom, we must become like little children (Matt 18:2; 19:14). In order to inhabit God’s reality, we must learn from those who inhabit the world in deeply dependent, humble, trusting, and yes, physical ways.

In our disembodied age, parents are right to consider healthy limits on screen time. But more importantly, we must protect and learn from our children’s own physicality. We must choose to celebrate and honor God’s creation—whether that means getting down to play in the dirt, planting a garden in it, or throwing clay on a wheel. And perhaps in this way, we might recover what children already know. The world is messy. The world is good. It is full of beauty and delight. And it can’t be replaced by a screen.

Hannah Anderson is an author of Humble Roots and Heaven and Nature Sing. She is currently pursuing an MDiv at Duke Divinity School with a focus in theology and art.