I wanted to talk to you about your presentation,” a young woman said, fidgeting with the edges of her phone. I smiled and nodded, expecting a question about missions. Instead she said, “I really identified with what you said about your phone. How did you get rid of it?”
It was 2018, and I had recently traded my smartphone for a “dumb” one. Although I mentioned the trade in passing, people often wanted to talk about it. Adventists, non-Adventist Christians, and people just beginning their walk with Jesus were wrestling with the same question: Data from 2012 reveal that more than 400 million people were addicted to the Internet.1 I wondered how we as followers of Christ should relate to technology.
Dr. Neil Nedley, who has done extensive research on the causes of depression, lists entertainment Internet and chat addiction as two ways we can damage the frontal lobe of our brains.2 Frontal-lobe damage not only is a major contributing factor to depression, but also affects our spiritual sensitivity because we use this area of the brain to communicate with God.3
That’s a problem for any human, but especially for someone whose entire vocation is to share Jesus with others. How can you share Jesus if you can’t hear Him?
As a young missionary 12 years ago, I felt disturbed by how frequently I ran to technology for the comfort, guidance, and connection I should seek from the Lord. The time I spent vegging on my phone cost me opportunities to connect with unreached people in the mission field. And it drained me of the emotional energy I needed to choose unselfish service.
I’d been in India six months when I deleted my Facebook account. Some years later, as a new mother, I made another drastic change.
I was taking a video of something cute my kids were doing—the obvious choice when one is far from grandmas and grandpas. As I looked at my precious little ones through my smartphone screen, I noticed them trying to get around the phone to interact with me. They wanted to look into my eyes! My view through my phone screen was of their adorable antics. Their view was not the smiling face of their mother, but the cold, black eye of my phone camera. I put the phone down.
That night I did some research. What I found was a psychological study conducted by Edward Tronick called the still-face experiment. In it mothers were instructed to keep their faces completely neutral, regardless of their child’s behavior. After just three minutes an infant “rapidly sobers and grows wary. . . . [He] withdraws [and] orients his face and body away from his mother with a withdrawn, hopeless facial expression.”4
Watching videos of similar experiments left me uncomfortable. Why? Because I saw myself in them. How often did I stare at my phone, expressionless, while my children played? And if they saw me use my phone to check out, why wouldn’t they do the same as adults? I had to do something.
For a year I lived without a smartphone. I used our computer to connect with family back in the United States and a flip phone for local calls. Instead of feeling deprived, I enjoyed the freedom and headspace this experiment gave me.
After a year, however, an upcoming trip entailed my traveling alone in South Asia. I wanted maps and a GPS for my safety, so I bought a smartphone again. After I returned “home” to North Africa, I continued using the phone for language-learning support, but I prayed about what to do. I knew my children would probably have smartphones someday. How could I model responsible technology use?
Since my children are 8 and 10, I have less than a precious decade left with them. It’s my job to teach them everything I can, from brushing teeth to having personal devotions. And the most important thing when teaching is to model the desired behavior. That means I must continue learning and growing in my own Christian maturity. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 6:12: “ ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything” (RSV).5
Do you feel the need to place boundaries around your technology use? My husband, Joshua, and I recently took the following eight steps to protect our time, our ministry, and our children, not from technology itself, but from technology addiction.
1. Prayerfully analyze the needs technology meets. Find possible alternatives.
People use technology for anxiety relief, relaxation, to get a dopamine hit, to connect socially, and for practical or business purposes. Try meeting some needs in other ways. Wear a watch to see the time; call instead of text; write your to-do list on a piece of paper.
2. Schedule a regular technology fast.
Fasting from technology gives us time to breathe and helps us reevaluate our relationship with technology and with God. If doing a technology fast is very stressful, it could mean that technology is being used to regulate mood—one sign of addiction. Besides doing longer technology fasts, we often set aside the Sabbath as a low-tech day.
3. Have places that are off-limits to phones.
The areas we’ve placed off-limits include the bathrooms, kitchen table, and bedrooms.
4. Get inspired.
How would being free from addictive or compulsive technology use benefit you? Why do you want to be free? Try writing out your “why” and taping it up in a prominent place. You could also post your technology rules, favorite Bible promises, and/or a piece of artwork that expresses how God is calling you to live your life.
5. Put your phone away at night.
We try to leave our phones unused until after having personal devotions in the morning. This helps us prioritize connecting with God and each other.
6. Have a daily technology hour limit.
Even though Adventists tend to be careful about consuming only uplifting media, we still need limits. We limit our kids’ listening to stories, and our own listening to audiobooks and sermons. Our goal is to create some quiet headspace where we can think our own thoughts or hear from God.
7. Turn off notifications.
Catherine Price in How to Break Up With Your Phone writes, “[Smartphones] nag us. . . . [They] demand our attention and reward us when we give it to them. [They] engage in disruptive behaviors that have traditionally been performed only by extremely annoying people.”6 To limit my phone’s access to me, I’ve turned off all notifications, so the only sound it makes is a ringtone.
8. Be accountable.
Lifestyle changes take time to implement. Failure is not a sign that you’re doomed; it’s a sign you’re trying! Schedule a family meeting or phone call with a friend to reevaluate how your plan is working. Keep praying and adjusting your approach.
What if God asks you to do something impossible?
Most of us would say we’re willing to do great things for God if He empowers us. But what about when God asks us to give up or regulate small things we’re extremely attached to? Could it be that we, like Naaman, are willing to do great things, but struggle to do the small things God calls us to?
When I was in my 20s, God made it very clear that I shouldn’t watch movies.
Maybe you’ve been there: something resounds in your heart, louder than your own thoughts and desires. You know God is impressing you to do something. Or to stop doing something.
If you’re like me, your initial reaction is to whine, while trying not to panic.
Lord, why me? Why not them? You’re going to make me seem strange! As I prayed this, I had the disturbing thought that God might not care what other people think of me as much as I do.
I finally obeyed and gave up watching movies. But what seemed like a huge sacrifice turned into a powerful blessing. Giving up movies gave me more peace of mind, better sleep, more stamina to examine doubts, and a more vivid devotional life.
As it turns out, that small thing was about as small as washing in the Jordan seven times.
As you examine your relationship with technology, don’t forget to ask God for His eternal perspective. And don’t be afraid to give up anything He asks you to. If Jesus wants to set you free from something, don’t let anything keep you from that freedom.
Not even your phone.
1 https://www.businessinsider. com/420-million-people-are-addicted-to-the-internet-study-2014-12
5 Bible texts credited to RSV are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, 1971, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
6 Catherine Price, How to Break Up With Your Phone (New York: Penguin Random House, 2018).