Technologies, especially the smartphone, have a forming influence on our spiritual, emotional, and psychological “shape.” I stubbornly resisted getting a smartphone until about seven years ago, preferring instead my ancient (and, I was told, ridiculous) flip-phone. My oldest daughter saw such profound impact on her friendships when smartphones entered the picture that she refused to get one until her freshman year in high school. Even though my younger daughter begged for a phone when she was in middle school, we applied the same restriction with her—she got her first smartphone just before her freshman year. I’m very aware that some parents in my neighborhood suspected we’re closet Amish, or just plain weird.
We’ve quickly descended into an over-connected culture, and it’s having profound leveraging impact on our mental health, our relational skills, and ability to “be still and know that I am God.” In a just-released CDC study on adolescent well-being, “nearly three in five teenage girls felt persistent sadness in 2021, double the rate of boys, and one in three girls seriously considered attempting suicide… The rates of sadness are the highest reported in a decade, reflecting a long-brewing national tragedy only made worse by the isolation and stress of the pandemic.”
In a New York Times article spotlighting the CDC report, Dr. Victor Fornari, the vice chair of child and adolescent psychiatry for New York’s Northwell Health, says the drop in adolescent well-being coincides with the rise of smartphones. There is “no question,” he says, of an association between the use of social media and the dramatic increase in suicidal behavior and depressive mood. “Kids are now vulnerable to cyberbullying and critical comments, like ‘I hate you’, ‘Nobody likes you,’” he says. “It’s like harpoons to their heart every time.”
Our addiction to our technologies—our inability to master them, but instead be mastered by them—is a diabolical wrecking ball that has already had a far-reaching impact on our culture’s healthy future. The term “over-connected” is not, of course, a neutral statement. We haven’t yet eradicated AIDS or cancer or even leprosy, but the “smartphone generation” is well on its way to eradicating margins in their life. Perhaps the chief complaint of childhood through the modern era is boredom, and nothing is more effective than a smartphone for self-medicating boredom. It’s also powerful identity-building “crutch”—a kind of “sonar” for moving through the uncertain landscape of adolescence. We post to Instagram or Facebook or Tik-Tok or Snapchat, and get (usually) almost-instant feedback. This has changed the nature of our relationships. We’ve never met an unplanned moment that our smartphone can’t conquer.
Our starting place for engaging these realities is simple: “The truth will set you free.” Let’s look at the truth for a bit, without worrying about the ramifications…
- Neil Postman, the great media thinker and author, says: “Technological change is ecological, not additive or subtractive.” Our “ecology” forms us… So what are we (and our kids) being formed into by our technological/ecological environment? The Kingdom of God is also ecological—how are the patterns and habits and spiritual practices we introduce to adults and children both challenging and superseding the forming impact of the smartphone? Depth of relationship—with others and with Jesus—will always overshadow the influence of new technologies. The oldest technology is still the most powerful: the guiding, influencing, immersive presence of the Spirit within us.
- Our role is to reject passivity at every corner. We are to be “in the world, but not of the world.” When we live in the spirit of Jesus, we are active participants in our cultural ecology, but moving with a Kingdom of God mindset—as sojourners, not natives… Knowledge is power, so our goal is to know the truth, then act out of it. We use the tools of the culture, but we’re always conscious of their power to use us instead. We submit to God alone, not the propped-up gods of our cultural norms.
- Multi-tasking is a myth—it’s not possible for the brain to “multi-task,” in the way we commonly think of that term. Instead, we “rapid task-switch.” The result is something researchers call “dual-task interference”—our brain bottlenecks, and the efficiency and quality of our brain’s performance deteriorates. Over-connectedness to technology continuously and persistently scatters our attention—we pay partial attention, continuously. This is why our time with God needs to be away from the physical presence of our smartphone, and the same applies to most ministry settings (unless we intend to use the smartphone as a tool to discover and deepen our relationships).
- Over-connectedness to technology changes the way we relate. It’s a powerful intrusion into, and filter for, our relationships. We have become a culture that has far more “surface” connections than at any time in history, but have simultaneously become the most disconnected and isolated culture in history. Young people are thirsty for connectedness—in my experience, that’s only possible when they’re in settings that disconnect them from their smartphone.
- All technologies are powerful tools, so our challenge is to treat them like the chainsaws they are.Would we give children a chainsaw to use, then tell them to just figure out how to use it without harming themselves? Once we recognize the power of the tool, and what it can do, our response to how we prepare young people (and ourselves) for using that tool should equate with what we know.
- Technology is changing our ecological environment in sweeping ways. Researchers are discovering that our new technologies help us with efficiency, speed, creativity, and connectivity. But they are also making us shallow people. Dr. David Meyer (of the University of Michigan’s Cognition and Perception Program) says this: “We’re facing a crisis of attention that is only going to get worse.” He compares our lack of understanding the impact of technology to our lack of understanding the impact of smoking years ago.
“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). We’re called to live in freedom, for the sake of the Kingdom, and that means we must be aware of what enslaves us and resist it, by all means.
Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following Jesus. He’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution,The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.