Unplug, iGen

Put the Phone Down and Live

God’s people have never fit in. They’ve always been the outliers and radicals, the locust-eating wilderness wanderers. That’s because we’re not called to fit in. We’re called to be a city on a hill, displaying a different way of life (Matthew 5:14). We’re called to be a light in the darkness, shining a countercultural ideology (Matthew 5:15–16).

We’re called to be extraordinary, and that’s not something to be embarrassed about. That’s something to be celebrated, because that’s what it means to be a Christian. And that’s what it means to be a youth who wants to use technology to honor God: we will be different.

There is a growing movement of young people who are saying, We refuse to be the stereotype of the tech-addicted youth. We believe there’s more to technology than this, and we don’t want to waste or abuse what God has given us. We know there’s a whole world out there, a whole life ahead of us, and a whole harvest waiting for laborers. So, for his glory, we’ll rise up and be different.

Embrace the Gift of Technology

We live in a world of constant connection, legitimate FOMO (fear of missing out), and media-saturation. How do we swim against the current, avoid idolizing technology, and instead use it in meaningful, gospel-motivated ways?

“Don’t wait for your parents to impose limits on how much time you spend on your phone.”

What we need is strategic, joyful, balanced discipline. We need to make strategic choices about what digital technology and media we use without caving to the pressure to use everything. We need to delight in being different and fight for healthy habits while joyfully embracing the gift of technology. We need a balanced approach in viewing technology and social media without drifting into extremism (e.g., avoiding it out of fear or obsessing over it out of idolatry). And we need discipline to use technology for God’s glory instead of our own selfish gain.

As a fellow member of iGen who struggles hard to do this, let me share six practical strategies that I’m applying to technology in hopes of glorifying God and celebrating life.

1. Beat your parents to limiting tech.

Teens, don’t wait for your parents to impose limits on how much time you spend on your phone or what social media sites you join. Create your own limits! Start turning off your phone at night and storing it in another room. Avoid social media for one day a week. Maybe even deactivate some social media accounts.

Or consider getting off social media altogether. The Guardian published a series of short testimonies from young people who have quit social media. Since Ben has been unplugged, he says, “I’m more productive and less concerned with what other people think about me — now, the only person I have to regularly compare myself with is me. I’m in a much more positive mindset without social media than I ever was with it. It’s let me see who my friends truly are, and who I was only concerned with simply because they were there on social media.”

That same freedom is available to us too.

2. Prioritize real relationships.

Spend time with your family without your devices nearby. Ask friends to hang out in person — and then suggest that everyone put their phones away so you can avoid distractions. Invest in a local church where you can serve those around you. Volunteer in your community. Visit your grandparents. Babysit for families that need help. Find mentors. Support your siblings.

Pour your life into people, real people with whom you can talk face-to-face and laugh with and hear their tone of voice and make authentic connections with. You don’t have to ignore the good reflections of community you can find online, but your priority should be the embodied relationships God has given you locally.

3. Take mental health seriously.

Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has found, “All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness. Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media.”

“Social media becomes bad when we use it as a toy for selfish gain instead of a tool for gospel love.”

Her conclusion? “If you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence based on this survey, it would be straightforward: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something — anything — that does not involve a screen.” But most of us don’t need statistics and research to tell us this.

If we want to serve God and love our neighbors to the best of our ability, we need to take our mental health seriously. We need to sleep. We need to go outside. We need to eat real food. We need to read a book. We need to recognize our finiteness and submit to the limits, rest, and rhythms God has given us.

4. Use social media to build God’s kingdom, not your own.

Social media doesn’t have to be bad. Instead, it can be a resource to bring hope and encouragement and laughter and reflection into each other’s lives. It can be a way to lift high the name of Jesus and love others well.

But social media can be bad when we use it to build our own kingdom instead of God’s. My friend says we should use technology as “tools, not toys.” Social media becomes bad when we use it as a toy for selfish gain instead of a tool for gospel love — to mindlessly entertain ourselves, to puff up our egos, to tear others down, instead of serving our online neighbors.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can rebel against that side of social media and use it instead for God’s glory and others’ good (Matthew 6:33). We can bring change.

5. Be freed by the gospel of full acceptance.

Tim Keller has taught that the gospel is good news of gracious acceptance. He famously said, “We are more flawed and sinful than we ever dared believe, yet we are more loved and accepted than we ever dared hope at the same time.”

However, many in my generation struggle to truly believe that. Social media has indoctrinated us to think we must work for acceptance. That’s how we view social media: a relentless factory of comparison, competition, insecurity, and a search for validation. We need a certain look, a certain amount of followers, a certain kind of comment to be seen and known and loved.

The problem is, we can never find that acceptance on social media. In a dark twist of irony, it leaves us more insecure and starved for validation than before. We are not enough, and social media makes us feel the wound of that. That’s why we need the gospel to free us from the deadly treadmill of online approval. We need the flesh-and-blood hope of atonement and acceptance. Because that acceptance is the only thing that will lift the crushing burden of validation from likes and follows. That acceptance will set us free indeed (John 8:32).

6. Protect yourself with accountability.

The history of the phone is fascinating. What was created as a tool to talk to someone in real time has become the greatest isolator in our culture. The smartphone is now inherently private. What we look at and listen to is known only by us (or so we think).

“What was created as a tool to talk to someone in real time has become the greatest isolator in our culture.”

And that is terribly dangerous. We need spiritual accountability and authority in our lives. We need parents, pastors, and spiritual mentors who will help us. We need them to talk to us regularly about our tech habits — not just to impose limits or create rules but to engage with our questions and have the hard conversations.

Do you have these people — people who are praying for you, people you talk to about your tech use regularly (weekly or monthly), people who will check your phone or who have helped you install purity software or limits on your wifi, people who are discipling you and teaching you from God’s word about boundaries, purity, and self-control? You need these people.

Generation Unplugged

For some of us, this will not be an easy path. It will require dying to ourselves and our devices daily. But it will be worth it. God wants a different life for iGen than one fragmented and frittered away on meaningless pursuits. He wants us to be so fixed on his glory and so in love with his beauty that we live with all our might for him. And he will be with us every step of the way.

As we pursue this new way of life, this new way of using technology, let’s watch what God will do with a generation unleashed to use it for him. With our eyes on him (and up from our phones), we could change the world.