Taking disciplined time away from screens may not be the only way to live in the digital world without being conformed to it, but it is one good way. Over time, the gravitational pull of our phones may grow weaker, and we may find ourselves drawn into a different, far better orbit: the bright, life-giving sun of God himself.
A few years ago, a group of cognitive and behavioral psychologists took five hundred college students, split them into three groups, and gave them two tests. The groups were alike in every way except one: the placement of their phones. The first group had their phones screen-down on the table; the second had their phones in their pockets; the third didn’t have their phones at all. You probably can see where this is going.
Though the phones of all three groups were on silent, and though few students said they felt distracted by their phones, the test scores followed an inverse relationship to the nearness of the device. On average, the closer the phone, the lower the grade. Nicholas Carr, who discusses this study in the 2020 afterword to his book The Shallows, summarizes the psychologists’ troubling conclusion:
Smartphones have become so tied up in our lives that, even when we’re not peering or pawing at them, they tug at our attention, diverting precious cognitive resources. Just suppressing the desire to check a phone, which we do routinely and subconsciously throughout the day, can debilitate our thinking. (230)
The finding — corroborated by similar studies — gives clear expression to the vague sense many feel: our phones shape us not only, perhaps not even mainly, by the content they deliver to us, but also by the mere presence of something so pleasing, so undemanding, so endlessly interesting. Smartphones, though small, exert a (subconscious) gravitational pull on our attention, drawing our thoughts and feelings into their orbit, even when their screens are dark.
Which means, if Christians are going to heed the summons of Romans 12:2 in a smartphone age — “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” — we will need to do more than resist the false content on our phones. We will need to resist the false gravitational presence our phones so subtly exert upon us.
And to that end, we might find help from an ancient practice: Sabbath.
Our Intimate Companion
Before considering what the Sabbath might mean for our screens, take fresh stock of where we are. The smartphone entered the world in 2007; by 2011, most of us had one. Now, just over a decade later, most of us have a hard time remembering life without one. Screens have become ubiquitous, seemingly inescapable — digital Alexanders who conquered our consciousness overnight.
For many, our phones are the first face we see in the morning, the last at night, and by far the most frequent in between. We have become a sea of bent heads and sore thumbs, adept at navigating sidewalks and store aisles with our peripheral vision. Phones have become so thoroughly embedded with mind and body that many feel phantom vibrations and find their hand repeatedly twitching, unbidden, toward the pocket. As of two years ago, the average American spends at least half his waking hours on a screen (The Shallows, 227).
Where shall we go from this digital spirit? Or where shall we flee from its presence? If we ascend to heaven, airplanes offer WiFi. If we make our bed in darkness, something buzzes on the nightstand. If we take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there 5G coverage will keep us within reach.
The stupendous prevalence of our phones may not be a problem if we knew a screen-saturated existence improved our quality of life and helped us follow Jesus more faithfully. Unfortunately, we have many reasons to think it doesn’t.
The irony has not escaped me that I am currently staring at a screen, and so (most likely) are you. Lest I saw off the branch I’m sitting on, let it be said: Our phones and other screens are gifts to thank God for. So much good can be done by them and through them. The need of the hour is not to shoot these wild stallions dead, but to tame them and harness their power.
But oh how they need taming. Jean Twenge, in her carefully researched book iGen, includes a graph that shows how much certain screen activities (like gaming, texting, and social networking) and certain nonscreen activities (like exercising, reading, and spending time with friends) contribute to teens’ happiness. She writes,
The results could not be clearer: teens who spend more time on screen activities…are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time on nonscreen activities . . . are more likely to be happy. There’s not a single exception: all screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness. (77–78)
And as with happiness, so with other categories of mental health: “More screen time causes more anxiety, depression, loneliness, and less emotional connection” (112).