Keeping Smartphones in Their Place

By Jim Tune

The New York Times reports people spend close to three hours a day looking at a mobile screen, and that excludes the time they spend actually talking on the phones. In a 2015 survey of smartphone use by Bank of America, about one-third of respondents said they were “constantly” checking their smartphones, and a little more than two-thirds said they went to bed with a smartphone by their side.

One teenager reports, “I bring my [iPhone] everywhere. I have to be holding it. It’s like OCD—I have to have it with me. And I check it a lot.”

It’s hard to believe it’s been just over a decade since the iPhone came out. Our lives are now consumed with small, rectangular, glowing screens. We feel phantom vibrations even when our phones aren’t with us. We feel panicked when we forget our phones, hit a dead zone, or when our batteries die.

We should, I believe, respond to our smartphones in two ways.

First, we should give thanks. Our smartphones are a gift. The smartphone in your pocket or purse is many times more powerful than all of NASA’s combined computing in 1969, the year man first landed on the Moon. You have instant access to more resources than history’s greatest thinkers had in their libraries. Our smartphones are a gift.

Second, we should put limits on how we use this gift. When smartphones threaten our ability to concentrate, disrupt our conversations, rob us of moments of boredom, and leave us with signs of addiction, it’s time to draw the line. Smartphones have their place, but it’s important to keep them in their place. Don’t let them take over your life.

In This Is Our Time, Trevin Wax contends smartphones communicate false messages to us. They tell us we are the center of the universe. They flatter us. They make us feel in control, knowledgeable, and powerful. They give us access to the information that agrees with what we already think, and allow us to ignore the rest. Smartphones produce “double thirst”—they temporarily satisfy our thirst, but also create greater thirstiness. They keep promising more, but they never quite satisfy.

Christianity Today Senior Editor Andy Crouch decided to turn off his screens for Lent in 2015. He practiced the piano for the first time in 20 years. He worked on rowing and pull-ups, read real books, and tackled neglected projects around the house. He regained “a small measure of attention. . . . I was more free to pay attention to the world I am called to love.”

I give thanks for our smartphones. At the same time, I want to develop habits that keep the phones in their place. Let’s turn off our phones and pay attention to the world and people around us. Don’t believe the lies our phones tell us; let’s relearn boredom and smallness. Our smartphones are great tools when we learn how to live well without them.

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