I had a brief but profound existential dilemma a few days ago.
My phone now tracks my screen time. This was not a feature I expected, nor one I asked for – and yet it’s here, a box popping up onscreen to cheerfully tell me how many hours, minutes, and seconds I spend per week staring at the screen – and how it compares to previous weeks.
No, I am not going to tell you the number.
What I will tell you is that it was higher than I expected. High enough to surprise me and leave me uneasy. And it made me consider what I do and don’t do on screens, how I do and do not spend my time with and on technology – and what it means for me as a believer.
If I am being honest, I will admit that there are, to me, some technological and screen-based activities that are a net good: in other words, they are far more of a benefit than a detriment to my life. Texting my mom and my husband helps me feel closer to them when I’m farther away. My prayer app encourages me to pray. I read books on Kindle and, because of that, I read more voraciously. I read my Bible on sundry screens sometimes. And I like that my phone tells me when traffic is bad and I need to take another route home.
But I will also admit that there are problems with my technological reliance – even now, after I’ve massively cut down on it in almost every aspect of my life. Unfortunately, I still spend a lot of time online in one way or another, and the way you spend your time speaks to your priorities. I waste minutes reading articles that are fine and good, but also not anything I particularly care about, just because they’re there and I have time to burn. I can get swept up in media and social media coverage of the news to the point that my nerves feel raw – or, worse, I become numb and desensitized to the import of events. I work myself up into indignant frenzies over articles and Tweets written by people who will never know him and will never care what I think of them.
The biggest effects, though, aren’t those. They are subtler, wider-reaching, and far more dangerous in their implications not just for us as believers, but for everyone.
Many scientists have pointed out that our Internet-dwelling is destroying our attention spans and our ability to think or just be quietly or on our own. We’re ruining our own ability to focus, teaching ourselves to be incapable of silence or reflection without pulling a phone out of our pockets. But the capacity to pause, to reflect, to allow our heads to be filled with boredom, with silence, with stillness – the meandering parts of the day that used to be filled with, as my dad would put it, a whole lot of nothing – are dwindling rapidly.
It’s into those silences, those moments of quiet and lull and thoughtfulness and openness that God speaks. Do we really want to forget they exist, to keep filling them with the next article, the next game, the next widget? Shouldn’t we preserve some of the rhythms of silence in our lives?
Scientists also point out that we’re setting ourselves up for addiction, too. Many technologies give us a dopamine rush for pushing a button, reaching a new screen, lingering just a bit longer. Former Facebook executives have spoken out about the dangers of this. Adults have gone broke from freemium gaming online. With enough addictions out there to numb us to everything else in our lives, are we really in need of another one?
But more insidious by far is the nature of the corporations and the philosophies we’re supporting. The big tech companies – Google and Apple and Facebook and Amazon – are founded on, and run according to, some unnerving, ambitious, and unnerving philosophies about the savior-role that technology should play in civilization (read Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind for an excellent study of this). In the eyes of the major players, technology is the god that will save us, and ought to be treated as such. And yet while many believers will boycott a business or an event that seems anti-Christian, we continue to walk right up to the golden calf in hopes of sustenance. We throw our money at it. And we implicitly support how it acts and what it does and the priorities it sets.
So what’s a believer to do? I know, I know. Not all of us can throw our phones out the door or decide never to log into our email again. We have jobs that demand us to interact with technology, and faraway relatives, and a need for GPS. I get it. But we can start somewhere, and that’s what I’ve decided to do. Here’s how.
- Determine what is vital.
“I need some technology, though, just to engage in daily life,” you protest, and I get it. I really do. Engagement with the modern world demands it. But here is my question: what specifically do you need? Access to your work email? The nav system in your car? Texting to keep you close to family and friends? Name those things. Be specific. What technology do you genuinely need, and what technology is a want disguised as a need? Get rid of the wants that really aren’t needs…that you don’t really want, anyhow.
2. Figure out how much time you spend online.
Maybe you’re like me and your phone will tell you. If not, good news. There are tools for that, and you can find them here: http://safe.becausefamily.org/tools-to-monitor-your-own-screen-time-in-2018/. Reckon with how much time you actually spend looking at screens.
3. Determine what is good, godly, or both. Technology can be bent to a godly purpose! What is good? And how do you define ‘good’? For me, I can feel that a technology or a gadget is good if: a) it helps me get closer to God (reading quality stuff / praying), b) it helps me minister or fulfills a spiritual desire (this blog), or c) it’s something that brings joy or fulfillment without being addictive / an idol (I like to look up bird calls to identify birds, okay?) Jettison everything else.
4. Go analog. Honestly, you don’t need a computer for everything. Write the note instead of emailing it. Turn the lights on and off yourself. Don’t be afraid to do some things that are plenty simple to do without the aid of tech.
5. Be more aware of how you spend your time and what you spend it on in general. Two questions have helped me as I navigate better ways to spend my time and to determine the amount of it that I spend on technology, and they are these: what habit is this practice building in me? And what does this act say about what I value and prioritize? The answers have told me a lot about myself, and just as much about what should stay…or go.
6. Schedule a detox. Why not stop some of the tech things you’re uneasy about? The hour of reading you do that’s really just a time-waster, when you read nothing of value? The fact that almost all of your communication with others is done online with little or no other interaction? The interactions with social media that leave you angry and frustrated and result in an attitude that is entirely un-Christlike? Cut these out for a week – just a week! If at the end of the week you’re desperate to return to your old ways, go ahead. But in some cases, you might find out you don’t miss your old patterns at all. That’s how I’ve changed a lot of my own technological behavior, and how I will continue to do so.
In fairness, I don’t think there’s one size-fits-all solution for every believer. But I do think we as Christians can get far too entangled in technology, that our interaction with it can quickly become idolatrous, and that it can tempt us into feeling involved – in the world, in the body of Christ, in life – without being involved. Paying attention to how we engage in it, how much we depend on it, and what our interactions with it say about what is important to us and what isn’t can make a world of difference.