I can see it in their smiles, how they walk, the way they talk, and how they relate to each other. In all the years we have been working with youth, we have come to see something that is invisible to the naked eye, but for those who stand on the frontlines with this rising generation it is absolutely clear. I am sure if you took a moment to pay attention you would see it too.
There is something so precious at stake that its value cannot be measured in cash or gold. It is something so raw and real that it is instantly recognized on a youth’s face when they experience it. It causes humans to believe in something more. That there are beautiful journeys waiting for us to discover. That life in itself is a glorious mystery waiting to be unraveled. I am talking about our sense of wonder. As we grow, our sense of wonder inspires us to charge forward in life as we imagine what it would be like to experience a certain career, to get married and one day have children of our own. I believe that the greatest inventors, artists and leaders in history, Einstein, Da Vinci, Gandhi to name a few, were somehow able to hold on to their ability to steward it: Wonder.
Can you relate to the awe inspiring feeling that overtakes you when you step out your front door after it snowed the night before? We call it a “winter wonderland.”
Who remembers their first crush? How old were you? How did it make you feel? I was 12 years old when I experienced my first real crush. When I was around her it was exhilarating. I was captivated by her smile, her big eyes and long wavy hair. She was such a mystery that was awe inspiring. I "wondered" about what I say to her when we talked, what it would feel like to hold hands, and dare I even imagine the thought of a kiss? Seeing her was a rush of wonder. It made me want to strive to be the best version of myself.
I believe the weight of the world and wonder cannot exist in the same moment. It is an experience that sets the body, soul and heart free in a moment that incarnates discovery and innocence.
Here is a truth I have become well acquainted with in my work with youth over the years, the most beautiful things in life are also the most fragile. Childhood is the foundation from which we build our lives, but we know that it can also be stolen. Innocence turns gravity down; it protects children from the weight of the world, but innocence can be broken. Sex is a beautiful gift. It is a wonder inspiring form of communication that incarnates our deepest feelings, emotions and desires, but we also know that sex at the wrong age and context can be a weapon inflicting indescribable pain and destruction. We must be vigilant to protect the wonder of this rising generation.
Nearly every family in America and countless across the world have a window that has been pried wide open and its cold heartless draft is blowing out the wonder of an entire generation. When wonder is heartlessly snuffed out, childhood ends and the mystery and innocence of life go out with it. A youth’s ability to be awoken to the majesty of life on this planet is crippled. The internet has opened a window to their lives and it is blowing out their wonder and in return placing a ball and chain around their ankles.
What they live out online is anchored to them in the physical world and it is destroying lives. So much of the design behind the web is orchestrated by an economic machine that monetizes the time and attention of users turning them into products for maximum profit.
Between 2014-2017 the life expectancy of Americans began to decline and it’s not what you think. The old weren't dying younger, rather young people were choosing to end their lives early, while others were overdosing on drugs. The ball and chain around their ankles became too burdensome. There was no more wonder left in the world for them to live for.
So what is going on and how do we stop it?
We know that social media is directly linked to poor mental health. It is designed to keep users hooked no matter what the cost. That somewhere out there beyond the curated hyper click-bait content, fake news, photoshopped influencers that profit from social comparison, and the relentless search for more likes and followers is the elusive promise that youth will finally feel like they measure up; that they are enough.
We also know that gaming is synthetic wonder. It is wonder synthesized through coded algorithms that present make believe worlds where they are the star of the universe and the heroes of their very own story because the wonder in the real world dried up a long time ago.
The average age when a youngster first discovers porn is between 8-11 years old. Maybe it was their natural sense of wonder surrounding sex or something their friends showed them at school. The digital world is omnipresent in their daily lives. One thing we know is certain, young people stumbling upon online porn is a form of child abuse. When a youth types "sex" in their search engine they are presented with content being created to please a massively overly indulged, bored and sexually numb consumer. This creates a huge market for shocking indignities to human beings, such as torture sex taps, bestiality clips, incest and for the most numb and addicted consumers child abuse videos (CSAM).
What happens to the wonder of a youth who is exposed to this as their first sexual experience? Because it involves sex and naked bodies, it likely causes a biological response triggering the reward center of the brain to pump their bodies with a euphoric cocktail of feel good hormones. Their innocence, sensitivity and wonder are crushed. The ball and chain wrapped around their leg comes from the lie that they are the kind of boy or girl that feels good when exposed to something they know deep in their hearts is very wrong. Pedophiles have been known to use similar strategies to physiologically break their victims as they point out any biological responses during abuse and tell them it makes their victims complicit. Current internet legislation, such as Section 230 of the CDA leave little motivation to shield their exploitive content away from 850 million minors online. Data harvesting and online advertising monetizes minors time and attention, which equals cold hard cash for websites who offer porn for free.
I would be horrified to imagine what would have been going through my 12-year-old brain if these sex abuse images and videos where hardwired to my sexual scripts. Studies found that 88 percent of the most popular porn being consumed is loaded with violence against women. How would that have changed my experience meeting my first crush? Would I have even been able to look her in the eyes without the ball and chain yanking me away. Would my wonder have been snuffed out with horrible unwanted fantasies? What kind of man would this have turned me into today?
This is the crushing reality facing this generation and it is obliterating their identities and ability to experience life to its fullest, but it does not have to end this way. Healing is possible and another path can be taken to protect the sanctity of childhood and adolescents in the digital age.
I was given a second chance at life. I suffered a massive head injury skateboarding in my early 20’s. I lost my memory, my personality and my ability to experience wonder. My brain had bounced off the back of my skull causing bleeding and by some miracle I lived. I was not going to waste my second shot at life and I set my course for purpose and meaning. Doctors told me to prepare myself to lower my expectations of what I could achieve in life. I overcame my dyslexia, I learned new languages, and I took my education to new levels. I learned in this season that neuroplasticity gives us the ability to chart our course in life and the wiring of our brain will catch up.
Here is our hope at Wired Human, that together we can cut the heavy weights off of this generation to restore hope, innocence and wonder. That the brain health of this rising generation can find healing from the destructive forces running ramped online. Whether your child is 8 years old with little exposure to digital trauma or 17 years old with a porn addiction there is hope that they can chart a new course that is counter culture to the values being pushed online. That their brains can wire themselves to the right values that protect their yes to what they truly desire in life; successful purpose filled careers, a vibrant and confident sense of self and a shot at finding the love of their life to start a family with one day. That they learn to let love in, to love others well and live out purpose filled lives.