How screen time affects our lives and what we can do about it
Yes. Our phones can distract us from the things that are most important to us – our families, our relationships, our salvation. While this world has always been full of things designed to distract us – as children, my generation had to deal with television, the telephone, comic books, the radio – our distractions today feel very different, and there is a reason behind it. If you own a device, you have probably found yourself attached to your phone. They are specially designed to get us hooked. My desire and prayer is that reading this information will empower you and help you understand which forces are impacting you.
Ten years ago, right before my oldest child was born, I acquired my first smartphone. I remember taking pictures of my newborn and sending them to my mom across the ocean, and within seconds she was able to view the pictures. What a miracle to be able to share the joy of a new life in an instant even though there were thousands of miles separating us. Today, I use my phone for nearly everything. Starting with my phone alarm waking me up in the morning, it accompanies me throughout my entire day. My to-do list is on my phone, my calendar, and my daily routine. Scheduling appointments, ordering groceries, paying bills, listening to audio books and music, tracking my spending, ordering school supplies – literally, almost every aspect of my life involves my phone, and I would be stumped without it. These phones are nothing short of a minor miracle, and, yet, I have to say, I was pretty oblivious to the impact and influence it would have on me when I first started using my phone. As it turns out, these phones are also one of the most dangerous things we own. Wait, what?
Tech companies know that in order to make money, they need consumers who keep coming back, over and over. That’s the business model that their success depends on. So they use the latest research on human behavior and psychology – the way you and I function – and design their products based on these findings. Our devices and apps are user-friendly, easy to navigate, and, most importantly, habit-forming. While this in itself could be called progress, we have to understand that there is also a negative side to this development. The very thing that makes our phones so easy to use also makes them irresistible and distracting. The bottom line is: if you are not aware and equipped to handle these distractions, and you’re the owner of a smartphone, your brain will be manipulated and taken advantage of by time-wasting diversions. According to N. Eyal (author of “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life”), our tech devices can gain unauthorized access to our brains by prompting us to distraction. Facebook’s first president Sean Parker described how their social network was specifically designed to manipulate our behavior: “It’s a social validation feedback loop. A like or a comment on a post sends users a little dopamine hit, encouraging them to post again. The social network was built to exploit vulnerabilities in human psychology. The inventors understood this consciously.”
Tech giants have been extremely successful with their strategies. Is it very surprising to hear that today the typical smartphone owner spends an average of three hours daily on his device? Forty percent of us spend close to seven hours a day on their devices. If you do the math, you will realize that we are dedicating a quarter of our day to our phones. Each month, almost one hundred hours are lost to checking social media, texting, playing games, reading articles, checking bank balances, and so on. But the question to be asked here is: Does the time we are spending on our phones line up with the values we have as Christians? What are we sacrificing and giving up for this time spent on electronics? Our days only have 24 hours, and something has to give. Is it a deep conversation with your spouse? Your family night? Pondering on God’s Word? Your prayer time? Time spent reading to our children or playing with them?
The consequences can be very harmful. As adults, we are less productive at our workplace, we become bad listeners and don’t stay focused during a conversation, we make more mistakes when we are distracted, and we are more likely to respond to our children in a short and impatient manner. Children report feeling lonely, ignored, and unheard by parents who are physically in the same room as them but mentally far away. “It is becoming clear that heavy digital technology use puts a strain on family relationships. When parents and children are interrupted by technology – when, say, a call or text comes in and the adult’s attention gets diverted – children resent it” (Meghan Cox Gurdon in “The Enchanted Hour”). Children are likelier to act out after tech-based interruptions that happen during conversations, meal time, or play. We all perceive an intrusion when the person in front of us interacts with digital technology during time together.
As a Christian, I can’t help but wonder what this does to my relationship with God. To be able to hear God’s voice, I have to get quiet first and find stillness. Yet, have you ever tried having your devotions with your phone by your side? I remember sitting down to read my Bible one morning only to – BING – get interrupted by a text message. I tried to ignore it first, but then my phone buzzed again, and I began to wonder if it was an emergency of some sort. So I checked it only to find an unimportant advertisement text. I tried to focus again on my Scripture reading, but somehow I had lost my thought. Just like it is hard to fully engage in a conversation with a person when I am constantly pulled away by notifications on my phone, it is hard to reach depth, to feel God’s presence, to really listen to what His quiet voice is trying to tell me when I am only half present in my mind.
So what are we to do then? We know it is not in our best interest to do the things that can harm our children, hurt our relationships, and keep us disconnected from God. But yet, it has become such a habit that we don’t even realize how often we reach for our phone without really needing to do anything on it. I have caught myself unlocking my device just because I could feel it buzz in my pocket or because it was sitting there on the nightstand within my reach. I have seen people glance at their phones mid-sentence just because it was there and their hands mindlessly unlocking the home-screen without even knowing WHY they were doing it. It was nothing but a reflex! That is where we need to start waking up and becoming aware of our habits as people, as parents, and especially as Christians. Please know: you don’t have to be a powerless user of your electronic device. As thinking human beings and by the grace of God, we can be much more powerful than any tech giant. I am not trying to suggest ditching all devices from now on, and tech shaming and blaming is not the goal of this article, but let’s take responsibility and understand that our human nature is vulnerable. Our curiosity; the desire for entertainment; the need for distraction when we are bored, in pain, or experience some type of discomfort; along with the way our devices are set up are the reasons why we have become such a “distracted” society, and God’s people are not exempt.
My challenge for myself and all of us is this: let’s set an example. Let’s master the internal and external triggers that cause us to constantly reach for our devices. What are your internal triggers that make you reach for your phone? Observe yourself and become aware. Is it when you are bored in the waiting room? When you are sitting at the stop light? When you are having a bad day and need some distraction? Maybe you reflexively reach for your phone first thing when you wake up? Don’t be mindless about it. Here are some tools that have worked well for me: Keep track of your screen time (you can easily look it up under “Settings” on your phone). Decide how much time you want to spend on a screen. Create a block schedule that makes room for the activities that line up with your values, including your screen time, and then stick to it. If you use social media, it may require special attention. Before you open the app, decide when and how much time you will allow yourself to scroll – or you will easily spend much more time on it than ever intended. You can pre-set your phone to allow a limited time to use the platform, and then the app will shut off by itself. You may also want to try turning off notifications for certain apps on your phone to control the external triggers. Set rules for yourself where and when you don’t want to use any devices in order to be fully present with the people in front of you. For example, during meal time or meetings, at church, when gathered as a family in the living room, in your bedroom, etc. Then turn your phone off or put it away so you won’t be lured into checking it every little bit. Have a designated time to answer emails and messages. Do not answer messages automatically as they come in, especially if your phone is also a business phone, but control when you reply to them. Overall, I want you to feel empowered. Control your phone so IT won’t control you. You can absolutely resist these distractions, the little pings, dings, and buzzes. We can take measures right now to retrain and regain our brains – because we really don’t have a choice. We are either going to suffer by allowing our lives to be controlled and manipulated by others, or we can take control of our attention and choose how to live.
Note for parents: If we constantly use our phones in the presence of our children, they will do the same and follow in our footsteps. Set a positive example and model responsible screen usage. Before ever getting your child a device, check if your child is ready to be using electronics on their own. If they are not able to set limits, control their screen time, and stick to it as they may not be ready for it. Think of this analogy that N. Eyal suggests in his book “Indistractible:” if your child does not know how to swim, you wouldn’t let them jump into a deep pool, no matter how many kids are swimming in it and making it look like fun. It is similar in this case. Technological devices can be very dangerous if your child is not equipped and trained to handle them correctly. Be careful and very sure before you ever hand a device over to a child.