Technology doesn’t just do things for us. It does things to us, changing not just what we do but who we are.Sherry Turkle
When I was growing up our phone was attached to the wall via a phone cord plugged into a phone jack. It was a rotary dial phone. Not only was it all we had, it was all we knew.
So I was pretty excited when in high school I got a cordless phone for my room. I could walk and talk.
And this was also at a time when you couldn’t turn off a phone; you simply hung it up. Though I suppose you could unplug it.
Much has changed.
One of the first little realizations I had when I got my first iPhone several years ago and had our “landline” phone disconnected was that I would never again arrive home and have to check phone messages. The flipside of that realization is that now people could reach me wherever I was. And they could do so by calling and also by texting me or sending me an email.
I confess that when I got my first iPhone I was pretty entranced by the whole thing. The novelty of being able to listen to podcasts and music, search on Google, watch YouTube videos, and communicate with people all on the same pocket-sized device was pretty cool.
A few things happen, though, when you have a smartphone. Often we are never far from our smartphones. Rarely do we actually turn them off. And because I almost always have it with me, it comes with this new set of social expectations. It creates this feeling that I always should be available. And immediately available at that. If someone texts me, it feels like I’m supposed to text back as soon as possible. I also foist this expectation onto others I text. Seeing the animated ellipses that indicate someone is texting back keeps me poised for their response.
Perhaps one of the most insidious aspects of having a smartphone is the temptation to use them to distract ourselves in virtually every so-called free moment. Instead of risking boredom or the possibility of hearing our own thoughts or a few minutes of silence, many of us turn to our smartphones. There are games to play, texts to respond to, things to shop for, and videos to watch. What began as a novelty has long become habitual. And like all habits, they form us. And our habitual–addictive?–use of our smartphones is not even consciously habitual. We don’t actively seek to make our smartphones our all-purpose distraction machines, but our passivity about them leaves us vulnerable.
This brings me to why turning off our phones is a spiritual practice for an accelerating age. Because everything in our lives is a matter of discipleship. This includes the use and place of personal technology in our lives. Because anything that affects our attitudes, our actions, our relationships, our spending habits, and how we use our time connects to our relationship with Jesus. And surely our smartphones affect all of these things. So if we’re going to grow into increasingly mature followers of Jesus, and become more effective participants in the kingdom of God, how should we treat these devices?
First, I think each of us needs to reflect on the various ways our smartphones impact us. For example, if your first instinct when a little bored is to take out your phone to distract yourself, maybe don’t. If you take your phone to bed and gaze at it until you can’t keep your eyes open or look at it first thing in the morning to check for messages or the news, maybe you need to evaluate its place in your life. The question is: are we actually letting these smartphones disciple us into a way of relating to ourselves, others, and the world?
Though many would assert that technology is neutral, I’m not so convinced.
And, second, because our smartphones give us access to everything out there on the internet–including the various forms of social media–they also can have the effect of distorting our perception of reality. Think of the impact TikTok and Instagram has had on young women. Think about how our news and Google searches get filtered through algorithms designed by people with particular agendas. And do we think that what we read on Twitter is actually representative of what most–or even many–normal people believe?
Third, it’s not only what we’re doing with our smartphones. It’s also what turning to our smartphone keeps us from doing. Maybe it’s become our way of avoiding difficult or uncomfortable emotions or thoughts. Because while we all need the occasional distraction from ourselves and our troubles, habitually distracting ourselves from all of the uncomfortable stuff in life has the consequence of shielding us from who we are, of what’s happening or not happening in our lives, or what bothers us about the world around us. With our smartphones. we have a constantly available reality-buffer. But like it or not, reality will find its way in. We’re just making sure we’re less equipped to deal with it.
And all of this can have the effect of making it more difficult to be attentive to the presence of God in our lives. If the last thing we do at night and the first thing we do in the morning is check our phones–our texts, emails, news, Facebook or whatever–what are we training ourselves to do? How does the constant use of our smartphones affect our brains and hearts, the direction of our thinking, our ability to be present in the moment with the very people around us, and our capacity for self-reflection?
Now, let me say this. I’m also speaking to myself here. In fact, I’ve had a partial draft of this very post written for a couple of weeks. But I’ve been putting off finishing it, because I realize what a hypocrite I can be when it comes to this stuff. You’ve heard the expression, “Preaching to the choir.” Well, I am.
So now the obvious question: What do we do? How do we make turning off our phones into a spiritual practice? So here are some suggestions (ones I need to heed more consistently as well). I’m not saying all of us need to use all of them. But one or two might help us approach these tempting little devices more wisely.
- Don’t go to bed with and wake up with your phone. Read your Bible or a good devotional book instead. I did this for awhile with a couple of A.W. Tozer books. I need to return to this habit, especially at night.
- Schedule specific times when you will ignore texts, messages, and social media. Don’t be available all the time. If you have to, let people know. You can always return a message. Remember voice mail? Most messages and texts and calls are not urgent. We need to learn to wait.
- Pick a longer period of time–maybe a morning, evening, or, gasp, an entire day–when you turn your phone off and leave it off.
- Remove apps from your phone that make using it all the time a temptation.
- If you have a habit of wasting time on your phone at specific times, pick a different activity for that time.
I would also suggest paying attention to what doing any of the above feels like. Is it uncomfortable or awkward? Does it make you anxious or bring you relief? How hard is it to leave your phone turned off? What does your normal use of your phone say about you? Write your thoughts down in a journal. Pray about it. Ask God to reveal anything you need to see.
So how about we intentionally turn off our phones, whether for an hour or a day? In Psalm 73:28 it says that God’s presence is my good. Turning off our phones is one way of experiencing that this is true.