Smartphone Addiction and Our Spiritual ADD

Article by

Staff writer, desiringGod.org

If I am being honest, I have to admit that my iPhone habits have been largely unchecked, undisciplined, and unhealthy. And in a recent survey of 8,000 of our readers, many of you honestly admit the same struggle.

We asked you to finish this sentence: As I evaluate my life right now, my use of social media [Facebook, Twitter, Instagram] is . . .

(A) . . . under control, limited, and healthy.

(B) . . . not controlled or restricted, but also not having a negative influence on my life.

(C) . . . uncontrolled and unhealthy. I check my social networks compulsively throughout the day, and it’s probably not good for me.

About 40% of you answered (B) — you don’t intentionally limit your social media use, and you don’t notice harmful effects as a result.

Those of you who chose (C) — who admit your unlimited social media habits are unhealthy — were noticeably younger. Readers 18 to 39 are nearly twice as likely to call their habits injurious (38.5%) than those over forty (20.9%).

Simultaneously, among users who answered (A) — your social media habits are limited and healthy — the age-forty-plus respondents were twice as high (38.9%) as their younger counterparts (19.1%).

Social media self-doubt seems to break along a generational divide, and those of us under forty are perhaps most eager for a reminder to get offline and find a healthy balance with our phones.

So I turned to historian Bruce Hindmarsh. In studying the life and theology of John Newton, I depended on his groundbreaking research, captured in the book John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition.

As a professor of spiritual formation at Regent College in Vancouver and a historian of the eighteenth century, Hindmarsh keeps an eye on the cultural influences on Christians today, which certainly includes digital communications technology. His thoughtful perspective brings wisdom and balance to the mobile milieu.

iPhones and Discipleship

We live in an age of technological advance, with all its glory, conveniences, and consequences. How does this culture harm or hinder the spiritual life of the Christian?

Hindmarsh is concerned with form (the platforms and devices that shape our habits) as much as he is concerned with content (the gossip, slander, and porn that spread through the devices). The medium is part of the message. Our phones are “not just another envelope to throw the same content inside,” he said.

Our unchallenged social-media habits pose one of the most pressing discipleship challenges in the church today, according to Hindmarsh. In our three-part interview series, he offered five concerns and then followed with five practical responses.

Concern 1: Our Spiritual ADD

“Our spiritual condition is one of having spiritual ADD,” he says. “We are more easily distracted from the important issues of our lives moment by moment. The nature of digital communication is that we are endlessly distracted.”

So is the tech trend moving toward more distractions or fewer? He says the Apple Watch is proof these distractions are becoming more intrusive (and according to our survey, most of you agree that wearable tech will only further compound these distractions).

The root problem behind the endless distractions is that it leads to “a dispersed consciousness,” Hindmarsh says. “I remember one of my teachers saying there are some things in the spiritual life you need to be reminded of every six minutes — ‘recollected’ is the old word for this: We live in the presence of God, we live intentionally, and we live out of a calm center, spiritually.”

Digital distractions challenge all this, leading to a loss in worldview.

Concern 2: Losing Our Worldview

If we find ourselves living with a dispersed consciousness, we are not living from a cohesive worldview. Digital communication is atomization, “literally, at the level of a code, broken up into atoms.” He’s right. Digital information is broken down into a sequence of zeros and ones, a metaphor of the danger.

This atomization of information, where life gets broken down and processed in bits and bytes, “means it is harder and harder to see how things are connected to wholes, to how things are integrated, how one particular insight is connected to God’s world. Instead, we experience the world as fragments.” It becomes increasingly difficult to operate from a central worldview that orients our lives to everything else.

Concern 3: Losing Our Filters

There is also a loss of knowledge hierarchies. “It used to be that if I wanted to publish, just the expense of publishing meant that my proposal went through a peer review process. It went through rigorous scrutiny prior to it being released. There are many good things about being able to directly get one’s message out. But the loss of hierarchies is potentially a loss of filtering — a loss of wisdom. It means that knowledge is not a part of a system of apprenticeship, of learning from those who have experience in wisdom, who have been entrusted and authorized. And so there is a way that we have lost that ability to see things in terms of how they relate to trusted authorities.”

Concern 4: Posturing an Image

We are performers on a stage of social media, carefully crafting our appearance before an audience, seeking to impress and rouse applause (or likes, shares, favorites, and retweets). This is what Hindmarsh means by “image posturing.”

“Everybody is happy on Facebook. Everybody seems to have a better life than I do,” he says. “At the beginning of the modern period, there was a fellow named Jürgen Habermas [born in 1929], who wrote about, with the beginnings of periodical literature and the expansion of print media, a new way of understanding one’s self. We now have an audience-oriented sense of self. And anybody who has been on Facebook understands this. You are constantly thinking about communicating to an audience. And that can be very damaging.”

Concern 5: Living Disembodied

Of all the concerns, this is the biggest one for Hindmarsh. “For all of the friends we have on Facebook, this is a lonely world.” Loneliness is the loss of embodied relationships that cannot be replaced by friendships online.

Many Christians use social media to enrich personal relationships, and that is to be applauded. But our closest relationships cannot flourish only in disembodied, remote connections. “My body defines the extent of my availability,” he says. “It is my body that allows me to be present, to give and receive love. And having a body is what makes me available to others and makes them available to me.”

“The digital world of not you, not now, and not here is disembodied. So one of the most radical things we can do as Christians right now in this world is face-to-face communication, and preferably around a dinner table, around a meal. It is no accident that Christ left us with a meal. Meeting face-to-face around a meal is a radical context for discipleship.”

Certainly there remains a dimension of love that is available and yet disembodied, when we respond thoughtfully to emails or chat on Skype. But his overall point stands. All too easily we engage social media at the expense of those who are physically around us.

Those are five of the problems. So what are some other practical solutions we can put in place today?

Solution 1: Study the Disconnected

Many of us are deeply embedded in a society that’s online 24/7, and we need examples of faithful Christians who live offline. This can be true of believers who take lengthy, disconnected sabbaticals and report back on what they learned from the experiment (like Andy Crouch’s recent forty days offline).

But Hindmarsh is calling for more. “I would like to make a call for some people to become digital monks and some people to become digital hermits, to preserve and report back what it is like to live another way. It won’t be long, says the historian,” Hindmarsh says self-referentially, “until we have no one left who will remember life before computers or life before the Internet.”

This paradigm is not bizarre. “Just like it is good to have some astronauts who can report back what it is like to live in another reality,” he says, “I think there may be some people who actually are called to be digital hermits to see how far they can unplug and live that way. Not everyone, but some people.” And the rest of us can learn from them.

Solution 2: Fast from Your Phone

Smartphone fasting, whether one day a week, or for a week or more at a stretch, is a pressing need for most of us. “I think fasting is a great model — saying ‘no’ to something good to say ‘yes’ to something better, checking that we have not become addicted and enslaved, and making space for God.”

Many of us will need to make physical separation from our phones. “Some people will need to put their smartphone in another room than their bedroom so it is not the first thing they look at in the morning,” he suggests. “They can begin with prayer and Bible reading and have a space for that, rather than immediately jumping on digital media.”

Solution 3: Write a Letter by Hand

One practical suggestion is a simple complement to phone fasting. “It is important, when you say ‘no’ to a practice, to say ‘yes’ to another practice, a focal practice. So maybe while you give up email for a time, choose to write a letter with pen, ink, and paper. It is a wonderful way to say something that has a different kind of impact on others.”

Solution 4: Use Filters

Use technology in order to limit your technology consumption, Hindmarsh counsels. “Use reminders to shut off the phone and pray. And use filters. I think probably everyone should have filtering and accountability software of some kind on their computers, phones, and devices.”

Solution 5: Acknowledge God in Technology

Most importantly, beginning now, we need to live in the presence of God as we live in the presence of our online friends. We must remember that what we type on our phones with our thumbs is an extension of our obedience to God and our testimony to the world. We can forget this.

“We need ways of acknowledging that in my world of email and texting and Facebook, it is not simply a secular world. God is there,” Hindmarsh stresses. “Scripture and prayer and Christian fellowship, all the things that constitute the Christian life, are present in my digital world. God is there.”

So as digital media breaks and fragments our attention, as we feel the tug away from a biblical worldview and toward spiritual distraction, we simply lose our awareness of life in God’s presence. Whatever else we try to do with our phones, we must operate from a God-saturated worldview. It is because we want more of God and because we want to be satisfied by his presence that we seek out edifying content online, guard ourselves from the lure of vanity, fast from our phones, and prioritize our embodied worship with the people of God.

These are exciting times loaded with new potential. These are also anxious times requiring our most diligent reflection as we face perhaps the most challenging discipleship question of our generation. By the power of Christ, we will not be mastered by anything, even by phones that offer us many good benefits (1 Corinthians 6:12).


My entire conversation with Hindmarsh on technology will be released in three Ask Pastor John episodes on April 17, 20, and 21.