Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Smartphone Usage

Recently, Tony Reinke interviewed British thinker Alastair Roberts. His first question was, “If a young Christian adult came to you, wondering about whether their personal smartphone habits were healthy or not, what are the preliminary diagnostic tests you would offer?” Roberts’s written answer was substantive and perceptive enough that we thought it would be serve our readers to make it available as a stand-alone article here.

The smartphone — we should not let its name deceive us.

The smartphone is not just a glorified phone. That we use the term “smartphone” is an accidental result of the path taken by its technological evolution. The smartphone is, in fact, a personal mobile device that is at once a camera, computer, calculator, gaming platform, means of sending mail, GPS, PDA, phone, reading tool, miniature music and video player, window onto a neighborhood and connected world, and many, many other things besides.

As a device, the smartphone as it typically and currently exists must also be understood as a technological counterpart to two key developments in the character of the Internet. The first of these developments is the rise of the social web (related to what some have termed “Web 2.0”), resulting from the shift of the Internet from a less structured and open realm, populated by a more distinctive demographic of creators and publishers, to a heavily colonized realm of mass participation, social networking and interaction, and sharing (which is dominated, shaped, and policed by powerful companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter).

The second and later of these developments is the rapid rise of the app. Our connection to the online world on our mobiles is now overwhelmingly dominated by the use of apps — chiefly within an environment established and managed by Google or Apple — rather than by mobile browsers.

The app represents a wider diffusion and greater immediacy of the connected realm into our lives. Rather than the more determined process of “going online” by opening a browser on our mobile devices, we are always connected through mobile apps. Being connected functions less as a purposeful action than as a continual state, part of the unconsidered and ubiquitous wallpaper of our contemporary existence. The app-based experience of the online world is localized, personalized, and a continual background to our experience. The smartphone is a landmark development in the process that Marva Dawn has termed the “technologizing” of our intimacy and the “intimatizing” of our technology. Keeping all of this in mind is essential as we continue this conversation.

Are Your Smartphone Habits Healthy?

If we are to assess whether our smartphone habits are healthy or not — and this is hardly a question that should be exclusive to young Christian adults! — perhaps a helpful place to start is by challenging the underlying cultural script that typically drives our adoption of new technologies. This script is one that rests heavily on choice and potential as such and the notion of freedom from (upon the removal of constraints, limitations, and restrictions) and is much less attentive to the reality of freedom for — to our being liberated to become more fully and faithfully human in communion with God and each other.

The familiar cultural script is that more is typically better — more interactive, faster, more efficient, more connected, more fluid, more integrated, more social, more intimate, more inclusive, more “user-friendly” — and that the further our limitations are rolled back, the freer we become. Yet many of us are rediscovering the truth of Edmund Burke’s dictum that many of the restraints upon us, and not merely our liberties, should be reckoned among our rights and the grounds of our freedom. Pursuing unguarded liberty with things puts us in very real danger of having those things “take liberties” with us (1 Corinthians 6:12). The loss of natural limitations often doesn’t leave us better off, and many struggle to re-establish these broken barriers in the far less certain form of sanity-restoring disciplines.

The diagnostic tests that we should run — and should continually be running — ought to be informed by a clearer concept of what our freedom is for and the sorts of shapes that it takes. The bigger questions that we need to address are as follows:

  • Do our particular uses of our smartphones, and our use of a smartphone more generally, have the actual effect — not just hold the theoretical possibility — of making us better servants of God and of our neighbors?

  • Are our smartphones tools that facilitate our commitment to the central purposes and values of our lives, or are they — and our habitual modes of using them — constantly distracting, diverting, or obstructing us from them?

More specific diagnostic questions could include the following:

  1. Is my smartphone making it difficult for me to give the activities and persons in my life the full and undivided attention and self-presence that they require and deserve?

  2. Do I habitually use my smartphone as an easy escape and distraction from the difficult task of wrestling through the experience of lack of stimulation and boredom to the rewarding reality of true engagement?

  3. Is my smartphone use squeezing out my inner life, encroaching upon time that would otherwise be given to private contemplation, reflection, and meditation? Do I use it as a way to distract myself from unsettling truths and realities that can slowly come into focus in moments of silence and solitude?

  4. Am I using hyper-connectedness to substitute a self unthinkingly immersed in a shallow and amniotic communal consciousness and its emotions, for the difficult task of developing my own judgment, character, disciplines, resolve, and identity?

  5. Are my uses of my smartphone arresting and hampering my processes of deliberation and reflection, encouraging reactive judgments and premature decisions?

  6. Is my use of my smartphone mediating my relationship with and understanding of myself in unhealthy ways?

  7. Is my smartphone a tool that I use, or has it fettered my attention and time to other persons and activities that are wasteful and overly demanding of them?

  8. Are my uses of my smartphone preventing me from developing and maintaining healthy patterns and routines in my life, disrupting my sleeping patterns, interrupting my concentration upon my work, habituating me to the fragmentation of my time and attention?

  9. Is my smartphone usage consuming time that I used to, or could potentially, devote to worthier activities? Do I use my smartphone to “kill time” that I could otherwise fill with prayer, reading, writing, edifying conversation, face-to-face interactions, and more?

  10. Are my uses of my smartphone conducive to the faithfulness and freedom of others? Am I using my smartphone in ways that create unhealthy demands and pressures upon them?

Of course, as they are the epitome of multipurpose devices, our uses of our smartphones are complex and varied, and their effect upon our lives in the aggregate is often difficult to assess for this reason. Consequently, it is important to attend both to particular uses of our smartphones and the space that they occupy in our lives more generally. Alan Jacobs’s recent article in The Atlantic on abandoning his smartphone for a “dumbphone” is a good example of the benefits of “disaggregating” the purposes and uses of our smartphones and determining which of them truly enrich and equip our lives’ purposes and values and which do not.

One of the things that Jacobs observed, for instance, was that his smartphone represented a highly intimatized device for him in a way that his dumbphone could not. I suspect, however, that even a dumbphone would be intimatized for many of my own and younger generations, for whom intensive texting has represented a means of maintaining a persistent low-level hum of sociality throughout our day-to-day lives and activities (and significantly different patterns and levels of mobile phone uses and addictions can often be observed between the sexes in these respects).

These diagnostic questions are tests that we need to perform upon ourselves. We should beware of issuing general condemnations of devices or media more generally and of the communities that use them. Although there are common patterns of dysfunctional usage, these patterns of usage, while often encouraged by our media and devices and even more so by communities of users, are seldom straightforwardly determined by them.

For more, read Tony Reinke’s full interview with Alastair Roberts.