Today’s personal devices may be wireless, but digital users seem to be more tethered than ever. From computer to phone to tablet to television, Americans spend more time in front of a screen than ever and show no signs of slowing down. The effects of this widespread digitalization of life, for better or worse, are widely debated. But there can be no doubt about one thing: the digital life is here to stay, and it is changing everything. Work, faith, relationships, the very contours of young adulthood—all of these and more are dramatically shaped by the realities of our screen age.
Barna Group’s latest study reveals three cultural trends emerging out of the “new normal” of digital life.
The Hyperlinked Life
Digital life connects—and disconnects—adults in life and faith.
In 2013, two images of Saint Peter’s Square captured the world’s attention. The first, taken in 2005, shows a crowd attending the funeral of Pope John Paul II. The second, taken in 2013 from an angle similar to the first photo, shows a crowd observing the election of Pope Francis—only this photo exhibits a particular glow. Nearly every person in the picture is holding up a digital screen to capture the event.
These images are emblematic of a larger cultural shift that has just begun. In the hyperlinked age, people now view life—from its smallest details to its monumental moments—through a digital lens. And through this lens, they experience faith as well.
In fact, there’s not much that adults today don’t experience through a digital lens. And while the benefits of technology are many—increased information, social connectivity and even communities and tools for spiritual growth, to name a few—the hyperlinked life also opens up new challenges.
Because the relationship to personal devices is so strong, it naturally affects personal relationships—for better and for worse. Social media, of course, lives up to its name. As Barna data show, more than one-third of adults (36%) stop whatever they’re doing to check their device when they get a new text or message. About the same number (35%) admit their personal electronics sometimes separates them from other people.
The hyperlinked life has its advantages and disadvantages for a life of faith, too. For all their hyper-connectivity, for example, only 21% of adults say they set aside time each day to connect with God.
First Gen Digital Natives
The first generation of digital natives are coming of age—and inaugurating a new young adulthood unlike any generation before.
The “next greatest” generation. The me-me-me generation. Whatever you call them, nearly everyone has something to say about Millennials. But if you ask Millennials themselves what makes their generation unique, chances are their answer will have something to do with technology. Nearly one-quarter of Millennials (24%) identify the use of technology as the distinctive characteristic of their generation, and 62% like that they know more about technology than older adults. This fluency with technology has revolutionized the way Millennials engage with the world.
What is striking, however, is that the first generation to grow up as digital natives is looking not for mere flashing lights, but for substance. An overwhelming 87% of Millennials say they want to live a meaningful life.
This mix of technological savvy and the search for meaning may explain a few generational surprises. For example, despite rising rates of co-habitation and delayed marriage, Barna research shows a majority of Millennials (82%) want to get married even more than the general population (62%). And even though born again Millennials are notable for their social activism, they also defy expectations as the generation that practices evangelism most. There’s more to this digitally connected tribe than meets the eye.
Twenty-four-seven digital availability means greater expectations in one’s work and social lives.
There can be no doubt that personal technology is a pervasive part of life today. Yet when it comes to its value, adults are nearly split on the issue: 47% say their devices have made them more productive, while 53% believe their devices have made them more distracted.
Adults are beginning to realize that even digital lights burn out—and more often than not, their tech-savvy users burn out with them. The data suggests it’s a difficult lesson to learn, however. Many idealize the concept of logging off periodically, if only for a little while, but few actually do so. Only a little over half of Americans (54%) say they relax on a regular basis—leaving nearly half who do not.
Meanwhile, perpetual digital connectedness takes its toll. Less than half of Americans (42%) feel satisfied with their work/life balance, and even fewer are content with their relationship boundaries (38%), their levels of overall stress (28%) and their practice of rest (39%). And while nearly everyone is plugged in nonstop, only about one in five say they spend eight to 12 hours a day being truly productive. And an overwhelming 55% say they wish they had accomplished more the day before.
About the Research
The research included in this report is part of Barna Group’s FRAMES project. This project included four separate nationwide studies conducted between May and August 2013. These public opinion studies were conducted using a mix of telephone (including cell phones) and online interviewing among 4,495 adults. The maximum sampling error for any of the four studies is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
© Barna Group, 2014.
Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.
Is Openness to Prayer a Door to Digital Church Engagement?
What Churches Might Miss When Measuring Digital Attendance
3 Trends Redefining the Information Age
From the Archives
Get Barna in your inbox
Subscribe to Barna’s free newsletters for the latest data and insights to navigate today’s most complex issues.