The iPhone has a feature on it called Screen Time, which allows users to obtain daily and weekly reports on their phone usage (and other apple screens if one adjusts the settings). Details emerge such as: time spent on Facebook, in Messenger, playing Candy Crush, listening to podcasts, using the actual phone portion of the iPhone, reading on the Kindle app, etc. It also records the number of times users pick up their phone each day and logs which apps are most frequented upon pickup.
In short, this feature tells us who we are. It illuminates our priorities and lifts the blinds on our habits.
My most recent look at the “Weekly Report” (another feature of Screen Time) brought me face-to-face with a stark reality beyond shame or embarrassment: I’ve turned my phone, and its individual apps, into an idol.
In the Christian faith, an idol is simply, yet overwhelmingly, anything that stands in place of or in front of God. Anything we worship. Evidence of worship is seen in time, money, and headspace spent on, and longing for anything that’s not God.
This is not to say that Christians need to hole up in their homes and worship facedown all the hours of the day save for sleeping. In fact, our lives and how we live them should be worship as we are sanctified by the Holy Spirit to be more like Jesus. This little paragraph needs to be expanded into a whole blog post, and will, so for those of you reading who are not Christian, just grasp that a life of worship is one of service and love. By loving and serving our fellow man, Christians are performing acts of worship to God.
Back to the iPhone becoming an idol for me.
My most recent Weekly Report revealed that I spent an average of 7 hours and 7 minutes interacting with my phone PER DAY last week. Per. Day. Immediately I was defensive and clicked into the report for more details. My panic was mellowed a bit, albeit briefly, when I saw that what goes into this report does, indeed, include the Kindle app, podcasts, music apps, and Waze (a traffic app), all of which I use throughout the day at home and, mostly, in the car.
Still, when I stripped away the time spent on those apps I was faced with many hours a day that lead up to a part-time job’s worth of hours per week of things like Facebook, Instagram, Candy Crush, Safari (mindless Internet searching since I find greater ease in deeper searches by using my laptop), and texting.
I slide texting into this category of appalling phone use because as I sat back and reviewed my texts, I realized that we have, as a culture, come to expect that we are all on call for each other because we text. We all know that we have our phones on us all the time, so we have become conditioned to think it okay to text mild to moderately important things. I have a handful of people I speak to on the phone daily or almost daily. My husband, two best friends, my brother, and at least one of my parents. Emergencies are handled by voice, and I’ve come to realize that I’ve never let a life-or-death situation hang in the balance due to missing a text.
What does this all mean?
Last week I spent over 40 hours interacting with my phone. I don’t like that. I don’t like the Swiss army knife the phone has become in my life. As I read Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, I saw myself in a number of the studies he discussed and one thing became clear: I’m going to my phone before I’m going to God.
No, God isn’t going to tell me the time, because He doesn’t particularly care about time the way we do, but I have a watch for that, and I’ve been working on wearing it daily. Why is a watch so important to me? Because studies show that most of the time when people pick up their phone to check the time, while it’s in their hand they often begin tapping through one app or another “just for a second” and I don’t believe I’m excluded from that.
So, God isn’t telling me the time and He’s not giving me directions to my Gynecologist’s office, which I can never remember how to get to, but He is in my waking hours. He’s there when I first wake and roll over to turn off my alarm and “just check social media real quick” and I ignore Him. He’s there while I eat my breakfast and talk to my eldest son, sometimes staring at my phone instead of engaging in a morning prayer time before we all head out for our days. God is there in the evening when my husband and I scroll through apps while watching TV, not really engaging with Him or one another, and God is there as I fall asleep playing a round of Candy Crush or watching a show on the Hulu app six inches from my face, setting prayer and thanksgiving aside.
Further, God is there as I lament about not having enough time to finish a paper or those couple of books I’ve been working on for the last four years. He has given me this human concept of time, and a limited amount of it on this space rock of planet Earth, and I’m frittering it away under the illusion of human contact that’s not particularly connective.
There are two threads emerging here, and I need to set one aside for you to examine further on your own with someone who has a real handle on it. Cal Newport, who I mentioned earlier, is a real champion in the space of howwe engage with technology. I highly recommend you read his book Digital Minimalism (I listened to the audiobook and will be starting it again it’s so good), and search for interviews he’s done on podcasts. His website www.calnewport.com will link you to all the press and media he’s done, and this is where you’ll find his blog and your only real chance to interact with him as he’s never had a social media account. Ever. He’s only a year or two older than me and has been able to maintain solid connections and develop a successful career without the use of Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. I highly recommend you check him out.
The other thread, which I’m exploring concurrently to the social, biological, and physical effects of tech use, is how it affects me spiritually. I spent more time mindlessly scrolling social media in 2019 than I did telling people about Jesus. Or praying. Or writing. Or doing any other singular thing than all the minutes combined on the phone. And for me, going forward, it is no longer okay.
I believe that social media can be used in all of its power for good. But in order to do so it must be used with intention, which is not the way in which I typically engage with it. And, if I’m going to use the small platforms I have to share the Gospel in any way, I need to first spend time with the Source of all life and get my prayer life in order.
I’m currently reading Deep Work by Cal Newport about the importance of solitude, and coupling that with Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place because technology and God have been inverted in their importance in my life over time. I want to qualify that and say, “But not really in importance because God is obviously important,” but how can I say that when my actions so otherwise. If we are to know a tree by it’s fruit, as Jesus promised, then I am mostly a cellphone tree, watching others do things that I want to be doing for the Kingdom, but stuck on my couch with the glowing rectangle in my face.
To right the ship, I’m going to introduce Sabbath time into my days and weeks. Not just from technology, but also for the purposes of this post I’ll speak on the tech part only, getting into the others in a future post.
I want to note that I already engage in some mindful behaviors with my phone such as not having notification previews pop up on my home screen, the red bubble notification is only turned on for my text messages, and I have different text tones set for different groups of people (my husband has a different one from a handful of acquaintances, for instance, so I’ll check when I hear that ding). I don’t know if I have an email unless I log into email, etc. A lot of these suggestions have come from reading and listening to podcasts in the subject area of dealing with overwhelming technology. Cal Newport and Andy Crouch, as mentioned before, are great resources, as well as Allie Casazza and Phylicia Masonheimer. Do some reading for yourself to learn some ways you can dial back technology creeping into your headspace.
Here are a few things I’m prayerfully committing to going forward:
1.Technology will not steal my morning and evening hours. I will allow one 30-minute window in the morning after dropping the kids off at school and one in the afternoon or evening (depending on the day) to check in with social media (Instagram and Facebook for me. I don’t use Twitter or anything else in that space).
2. I will keep Facebook off of my phone. In doing so, I will be forced to use my laptop to engage with this service, which will almost completely prevent the scrolling syndrome I fall into, and interact in the ways that are most meaningful to me, and allow me to reengage with some groups I love but don’t always interact with because I find it cumbersome to have long text exchanges on FB on the phone. Typing on a keyboard is much more efficient and less stressful for me.
3. Instagram will stay on my phone because using in on the desktop just doesn’t make sense (I’ve tried, believe me). But, when my time limit is up for the day (a feature one can set in their iPhone) I will remove the app from the phone, and reinstall it the next day.
4. I’ll remove social media apps from my phone while working. They’re off my phone now as I write this blog post, even though I’m writing it on my computer. For longer stretches of computer work, I’ll employ the Self Control app on my Mac, which is an invaluable tool.
5. I will take a technology sabbatical at regular intervals. I think this will look like one weekday and one weekend day, but I need to pray on this some more and get back to you.
6. I will take a full technology sabbatical through Lent, which starts a week before our town’s election, for which I am running for re-election to my current seat on the Selectboard. I state this explicitly because this will be a challenge, but one I believe God will honor. Campaigns are hard and loud and sometimes mean when taking into account all the armchair experts who voice their opinions on the Internet only. In the days leading up to the election, I’ll need God more than ever, and cannot cast my worth to the wolves of men.
In all of this, I want to make the phone and its contents seem less interesting and enticing to my children, and show them what and who my real priorities are: God, them, our family and friends, and my work in theology and our community.
I am dismantling this idol—this golden calf—in favor of a life more rich and worth living. A life with God at the center, who is far more powerful than a glowing rectangle.