On my phone, I recently caught up with a friend who is doing graduate studies in Paris. After we concluded our FaceTime conversation, I couldn’t help but pause for a moment and savor the technology in my hand. When we stop to think about it, smartphone technology is a bit breathtaking. With just a touch on a screen, we instantly access almost any information imaginable. From almost anywhere, we quickly hail a ride to get where we need to go. If we are in a new city, we can get detailed directions to a close-by restaurant, gas station, or movie theatre. With our phone camera we can capture a memory-making moment and, in a flash, post it on Facebook or send it via a text message to our family and friends.
Our smartphones are helpful things, but they also can be harmful things. It may be time to put a warning label on your phone: “Excessive use of this phone may be hazardous to your life.” The problem is that many of us are not being very smart with our smartphones. They have become too much a part of our lives.
In Tony Reinke’s new book, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, he points out that on average we check our phones about 81,500 times each year or about once every four minutes of our waking lives. Rather than being tools to assist us, phones can become masters that enslave us.
Neuroscientists tell us our phones are actually re-wiring our brains. Technologists point out that smartphones are specifically designed to keep us glued to the screen. Other researchers and social observers note how excessive use of phones is transforming us into distracted people where intimacy in our interpersonal relationships is increasingly suffering. Excessive phone use fills our minds and hearts with digital junk food, impairing our literacy skills as well as our ability to think critically. Distracted drivers are a growing concern in automobile accidents.
We must also ponder the damaging effects of excessive phone use as it relates to our spiritual formation and cultivating intimacy with God. If spiritual formation requires an attentive life to Christ and others, a smartphone-driven, distracted life is a real and present danger for any apprentice of Jesus. Transparently, my phone woos me so much that on my day off, I often put it in a drawer out of sight. If I leave my cell phone at home even for a short drive to the grocery store, I feel a kind of panic, like I can’t function without it. How pathetic.
I believe it is time for us to become smarter with our smartphones so that we can pursue a more attentive, disciplined, and less distracted life. If you are not being very smart with your smartphone, if your intimacy with God, the wellbeing of your soul and your relationships are suffering as a result, let me suggest a wiser way forward.
First, get off your phone. Don’t text when you drive. On a weekly basis, do a several hour phone fast. I assure you the world will go on and you will survive. Not only will you survive, you will thrive. A technology fast is both freeing and enriching.
Second, get alone. One of the most foundational spiritual disciplines is solitude. We live in a very noisy world. Solitude not only nourishes our soul, it also helps us be more attentive to God and His still small voice in our lives.
Third, get in the Word. What is your regular weekly pattern for studying God’s Word? The spiritual discipline of study will fill your heart and mind with life-giving truth and timeless wisdom, not digital junk food of trivial information. Put your phone aside and pick up your Bible. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, “let the word of Christ richly dwell within you.”
Fourth, get outside. Get your eyes off the screen for a while and get them on God’s beautiful creation. Find places and spaces where God’s general revelation of creation can be restorative to your body, mind, and soul. Remember the word recreation comes from re-creation, and a part of Sabbath rest is the restorative nature of nature.
Fifth, get with others. One of the gnawing ironies of our smartphone digital age is that while we have never been more connected, we have never been lonelier. While we may have a ton of Facebook friends, we have too few face-to-face friends. Incarnated relationships formed and nurtured in real time and space are a vital component of human and societal flourishing. Embrace the spiritual discipline of community. Spend regular times eating together as a family and keep your phones away from the table. Join a small group that meets regularly and attend worship services each Sunday.
Let’s be grateful for our smartphones, but let’s also get smarter in managing them. If you are looking for a good resource to read, I suggest Tony Reinke’s 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You. It is my heartfelt prayer that we live lives characterized not by distractedness, but rather attentiveness to Christ, to others, and to our own hearts.