Formed by Our Phones

(This is part three of a four part rant / lament / explanation / provocative essay on why I don’t own a smartphone. I’m using Dr. Keith Stanglin’s recent Austin Grad blog post on the same topic as a conversation partner.)

The main reason I don’t own a smartphone is that I don’t want to become like the kind of people who own smartphones. Now, before you get all tuned up, hear me out. Don’t get offended by that; there’s much more offensive stuff coming later. The purpose of today’s post is to consider whether these phones are making us better people or worse people, whether smartphones make us more like Christ or less like Christ.

First, our brains are being formed by our phones and the evidence is mounting. Smartphones change the way we process information. Those who study these kinds of things are concluding that smartphones are making us slower and less capable of knowing the difference between important pieces of information and information that is insignificant. One such study, recently conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, shows that heavy media multitaskers, when faced with making a decision, are less able to distinguish irrelevant information from relevant. The study also concludes that smartphone users show diminished abilities to remember or memorize. They pay more attention to irrelevant stimuli — they’re more easily distracted — than non smartphone users. Overall, media multitaskers are “associated with a distinct approach to fundamental information processing.” And it’s not good. This form of technology shuts down memorization, hinders concentration and learning, and hampers comprehension and retention.

I don’t need that. The natural ravages that come with being fifty years old, enhanced by a steady flow of Diet Dr Pepper, are causing me enough troubles already.

Second, our relationships are being formed by our phones. We are more and more connected to fewer and fewer “real” friends and, thus, becoming lonelier and lonelier. Our text and Facebook and Instagram conversations are not real conversations. Experts tell us it takes a full seven minutes to just start a serious conversation. This article in The Atlantic reviews several studies that show smartphones and social media have turned us into the loneliest people in the history of the world. The studies reveal a link between online interactions and loneliness. And it’s getting worse.

Third, well… the list is too long. This post shouldn’t just be a long litany of the bad behaviors and personality shifts influenced by smartphones. Hofstra University’s Kara Alaimo has started a pretty good list in this article, “Seven Ways the iPhone has Made Life Worse.” It seems to me the research is telling us what we have already known for a while.

The main question of today’s post is whether our smartphones make us more like Christ or less like Christ. For this, I turn to the main part of Keith’s article:

“My problems with cellphones, and smartphones in particular, can be boiled down to the fact that, given the way most people use them, there is virtually nothing virtuous about them…

Think of the four cardinal virtues — justice, temperance, courage, prudence. Someone more creative than I can perhaps articulate how smartphones enhance those classic virtues; I don’t see it.

Take the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. I can say with even more confidence that smartphones do nothing to increase those. Conduct the same exercise with the fruit of the Spirit (joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control, and so on), or the two greatest love commands. Smartphones do not help, but almost always hinder us from cultivating these virtues and disciplines.

And most observant people recognize this. There is a growing consensus that smartphones have altered human behavior. Christians usually acknowledge that the alteration has been for the worse. On at least three separate occasions in the last couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to ask large groups of Christians an open-ended question about what our idols are and what things distract us from what should be the chief goals in life. Invariably, they hold up their phones (yes, they have them in Sunday school).

No one seriously hazards that these phones are helping us be better people. No one thinks that a smartphone in every hand has increased true human flourishing or the imitation of Christ. If becoming like God is the goal of moral life, then — and this really is my main point — the use of smartphones is an ethical issue, but one that is seldom discussed or even considered in this light.”

I don’t want to trade real, personal, face-to-face conversations for brief texts and Facebook posts. I don’t want to interrupt or shut down a stimulating conversation by fact-checking with Google. I don’t want to break eye contact with someone I love in order to check my phone for the 40th time to see if the Rangers have scored or if someone’s commented on my blog. I don’t want to be talking to my wife on the phone and notice in my peripheral vision that I’ve received an email from a church elder. I don’t want to be the kind of person who has his phone with him, in his pocket, on the table, in his hand, on the pew, at the restaurant, in the meeting — during every waking and most sleeping moments.

Much more than that, I know I can be a better person and a better disciple of Jesus and a better minister to you if I don’t have a smartphone.

One of the reasons I got out of the sports radio industry is that the culture of that business was turning me into a negative person. I was becoming more critical, more negative, more “right,” more obnoxious, more cynical. It’s the nature of the industry and it was changing me into something I didn’t like.

Smartphones are not neutral. They are intentionally built and programmed for distraction. By their very nature, smartphones are meant to keep our eyes glued to them, designed to keep our brains preoccupied with unimportant matters that continually scroll through or pop up, keeping us from the people and things in life that mean the most.

It’s a legitimate question, but nobody in the Christian community seems to want to tackle it. Do our smartphones make us better or worse people? Do they make us more like Christ or less like Christ?




  1. Howard

    There seems to be more than enough information about the effects of smart phones to create stress over what people are doing. Your pictures alone are stressful. I got to thinking about that and other things like TV (we watch it over five hours a day) and all the effects that definitely has. I was starting to feel real stressed.

    Then I remembered it is not my business what decisions people make about their lives and I got over the stress very quickly. However, it is your job to have that concern. I don’t know how you do it. You once talked about sermon prep being a beating. Worrying about people must be one as well.

  2. Allan

    I co-teach a Sunday morning class here in which we take current events — ripped from the headlines! — and consider together the Christian view and the Christian response. How should we feel about this news? How should we respond to this event or development? I tell these 40-or so people every week, “I don’t expect you all to agree with me; there’s no way all of us will come to the same conclusions. What I want is for the Word of God and the teachings of Jesus to be at the forefront of determining how we think and behave. What God wants for us and his world, how the life and death of Jesus reveals that will — that should at least be at the table as a conversation partner in these kinds of discussions.

    My concern — I like “concern” instead of “worry” — is that people think. It seems like we don’t think anymore. We just drift along with everybody else, being informed and formed by the culture, by Mardel, by Fox News, by our smartphones, whatever. To paraphrase the apostle: Test everything, hold to what is good, reject what is bad.

    My concern is that we don’t test anything anymore.

  3. Matt Richardson

    OK, I agree. With everything you said. No question, there is room and cause for concern.

    However, such an exposition requires the coin flip. The other side, the clear necessity of a yin/yang response. As believers, we need examples. We need ways to practically bring the Gospel to the world. Smartphones can do that. In fact, we should be exploiting their ubiquitous nature to spread the Good News, yes? Posting and Instagramming and Pinterestinginging inspiration. Facebook informed us about a loss of good, good man. We were able to pray, immediately, for our brothers and sisters. Twitter can communicate a quick verse, instant reaction to a really good, really bad situation. A link to a story that impacts someone else. To do that, instantaneously, can be powerful. And timely. And effective.

    Yes, temptations exist. Alcohol affects many lives, sex is misused, power can corrupt, money can lead to destruction, smartphones can distract and numb our faith. But Jesus has been discussed in many bars, with people who might not listen to a 3-point sermon. You don’t drink, but if you did, you might reach a previously unreachable sister. God works through us, and our stuff. And you have to, you must, you cannot deny–the risk of NOT using a smartphone is that you miss some of those opportunities. You are electing out of the most powerful tool in 2017 to communicate with a vulnerable generation. We all have to avoid a piety that unnecessarily alienates others (dancing, gambling, mixed “bathing”???) We need to embrace the relevance of Jesus in 2017 context–and make Him available to the people in the pictures consumed by media. Paul is a great example–be it Jew, Gentile or other, he used what he could. Smartphones ARE neutral–but we can’t be.

  4. Allan

    Dear Brother Matt, I appreciate your enthusiasm and your genuine concern for our Lord and his people. You know I do. I also appreciate your sincere pushback.

    I’ll respond with two counterpoints.

    One, as I’ve stated in this conversation already, the technology that drives our iPhones has effectively flattened all information. Your Bible verse or prayer request carries no more weight than a dunk video or a weather forecast. One reads your Gospel truth or your timely story on the same screen, with the same clicks and swipes, in the same context, and at the same time as the Amber Alert and the Lucky Whitehead story. Generally speaking, nothing anybody reads on a handheld device causes anybody to change their thinking or their behavior. With all due respect, none of it is powerful or effective.

    Two, the very nature of the smartphone makes it ill-suited for doing much of anything good. Alcohol was made to be celebrated with friends and family, sex is made to enhance the holy husband-wife relationship, power is meant to do good for others, money is… OK, my thinking just broke down there. Meanwhile, the smartphone is designed to distract and distance us from others. It’s built to keep us clicking and scrolling, it’s made to keep our heads down and our eyes glued to screens and our ears plugged with buds. It’s programmed to get us hooked and keep us addicted. No one would deny that iPhones are not accomplishing those things — the things they are designed to do — very well. Regardless of how much sex is readily available on one’s smartphone, sex and the smartphone are not the same thing.

    I’m unclear as to how you can describe these things as neutral. You can argue for making something good out of something intended for bad — God does that and as his children we are called to do that, too. But it’s certainly not neutral. The designers of the technology and the phones have goals in mind, right? There’s a purpose to what they’re rolling out for us, right?

    I don’t think you’re implying that deciding to not own a smartphone makes one neutral to the Gospel and to evangelism. I know people who don’t have cable (Greg Dowell) or air-conditioning (Tim McMenamy) but I don’t question their commitment to Christ. Why is the smartphone so different?

    And I don’t want to imply that Christians shouldn’t own smartphones, only that they should think through the ways they use them and be aware of their power to change us.

  5. Beverly Stanglin

    Allan, I agree with you and with Keith. You know that we have the very oldest kind of cell phones. Almost everyone I know has a Smartphone and I am constantly amazed at how much they are attached to them. It is hard to even have a conversation in the aisle at church without being interrupted by someone’s phone…and, of course, that is more important than anything that was being said. If you look around at a restaurant or even at a “church social”, there are more people looking at their phones than talking to the person across from them.
    We have also had some to judge us by the phones that we carry. Dad always leaves his phone in the car before worship and I just turn mine off and take it in. It seems that no one calls us during church services because they know that we won’t answer.
    love, mom

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