When you woke up this morning, what was the first thing you touched? Was it your smartphone?
Between that first touch and now— perhaps even including reading this—how many times do you think you’ve looked at your phone? Five? Ten? Eighty? How many minutes do you think that represents? Fifteen? Forty-five? An hour and a half? If research is any indicator, it’s somewhere between 3 ½ hours to nine hours per day. That’s as much as half of our waking day!
However, this is not a battle-cry for us to get rid of our smartphones, abandon all screen time and become book wielding curmudgeons. In fact, I myself have ample gear to indulge my screen time. I have an iPhone, iPad and an iMac at home. To embarrass myself further, I also have Apple TV, an Apple Watch, an Apple Pencil and I just got Apple Airpods for a birthday gift. (Can you tell how I feel about Apple products?)
Our phones and using technology isn’t inherently a bad thing, and there are ways that we can make good use of our screen time. But the real question to ask ourselves is this – how are we being shaped? Is my ability to focus and relate to people being sharpened or am trading my relational literacy away, one “Like” at a time? This is the question that you and I should’ve been asked from the very beginning.
Given its pervasiveness, I’ve begun asking myself probing questions as litmus tests in understanding my heart behind the way I use my devices. If Jesus is doing a transformative work in us, there must be no part of our lives that is left on default, social media use included.
And so, I am learning to take stock of my screen time. Why? I know my own propensity to be self-absorbed. And when I pair my self-absorption with an incredibly powerful technology, like my phone, I know the potential it has to change and rewire something inside of me. It encourages me to fall into patterns of solitary behaviour and, because it’s so easy and convenient, those behaviours become habit.
If I can so easily justify my screen time, then I should also be able to ask these questions of myself honestly:
When was the last time I introduced myself to someone and then invited them to spend time with me?
When was the last time I sat down with a trusted Christian friend and confessed my sin? Do I have enough relational trust with my friends to speak of sin I see in their life?
What am I currently reading and thinking about in the Bible that helps me to see my shortcomings, confess them, and experience the love of Jesus more?
When was the last time I had a meaningful conversation—one that’s been life-giving, or even difficult, but real—that moved beyond chats about surface things like food, sports, or the latest Marvel movie?
Knowing how much of my time is spent using technology, I have to stop and consider the ways that this is inevitably going to change me.
I can pick up my phone at any time. By default it can become my distraction, my way of escape. But, how do my screen behaviours impact the way I process information, read my Bible, and relate to friends and God?
When everything is reduced to a listicle, meme, survey, photo caption or tweet, do I lose my ability to read well? What impact do my screen searches have on my ability to read and consider what’s written in the Bible? How can I work through hard issues that take more time than twenty seconds to wrestle through?
The more time I spend online, the more trivia I know; but do I lose my ability to relate to other people? When the way I relate to others is primarily through text or meme or video, do I lose my ability to start and carry out a conversation? Am I losing my ability to read social cues or body language? Am I losing my ability to navigate awkward or hard conversations?
I can easily edit my texts before sending them. I can delete unwanted photos or snapchats. What impact does my editing, deleting, and careful curating have on my ability to apologize or confess to God?
As a follower of Jesus I want to inspire all my friends to discover and experience Jesus. But I often have to pause and ask myself: how does my excessive screen time advance my walk with Jesus and help them know him?
I lose the art of genuine relationship building when I am mindlessly absorbed in my screen. I trade face-to-face human friendship for digital and surface conversations. I forfeit sharing my daily life and faith with friends who don’t yet know Jesus and compensate with overly simplistic, one-off summaries of the Gospel, or an occasional invitation to church on Easter Sunday.
I miss out on true relationships that can transform me and others. If I can’t get close enough to my friends to allow them to see my life more fully, and I theirs, how can I say I love them?
In Matthew 22, the Pharisees (whose livelihood was to check off religious duties) asked Jesus what the greatest command was. Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’
“This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
The ultimate call to love should constantly cause me to evaluate my motivations and actions related to my screen time. I want to explore three invitations he gives me here that give me hope of recovering genuine relationships:
- One, I am called to love God with all of me. He doesn’t just want me to love him with only the edited parts of my life. He doesn’t only ask me to relate what’s easy or comfortable, or what is post-worthy. God especially wants me to be honest about the parts of my heart that I don’t want to confess. Sometimes it may be my unwillingness to forgive and harbour bitterness or even my propensity to avoid people. At other times it might be confessing my anxiety about my finances, feeling depressed and overwhelmed by my life circumstance.
- Two, I am called to love my neighbor as myself. Jesus doesn’t simply ask me to love people in my own strength; that is impossible. He calls me to love people out of an overflow of his love for me, and, in turn, my love for God. If I’m being honest, there are people in my life that I choose not to love—the person who is socially awkward, those who have a different skin colour or background than me, those people who don’t think like me or believe the same things. Or maybe it’s even the person who I’ve seen around for a long time but, because I don’t know their name, I allow them to remain an anonymous stranger.
- Third, Jesus says that all the Laws and Prophets hang on these two commandments. In other words, all the tedious laws that I criticize the Pharisees for being so wrapped up in, can easily be a parallel for the way I approach all the good Christian activities that I schedule (Bible studies, prayer times, evangelism, mission trips). They can so easily become a checklist for me to work through, rather than an expression of my love for God and people.
Perhaps the question that I need to ask myself most often is this: for all the good and busy things I fill my time with, do my motives and actions actually reflect that I love God with all of me? Do I love people, as I would love myself?
I want my friends to know Jesus as much as ever. For me, I am realizing that the first step is to make more time to relate to God and other humans more deeply. Out of God’s love for me, spilling over, I hope that my relationships will be more informed and transformed by his love.
In answering the question “What do you hope to see happen in the next four years?” the predominant answer from Christian students by far is “I want to grow in my walk with God.” For me, I’m convinced that the number one way for us to grow is to experience God’s transforming love in close, face-to-face relationships. As I am learning to recapture the art of genuine relationship-building, I am learning to love God and others more fully.
When I am tempted to relate to my Christian friends solely through digital means, I need to pause, take initiative and prioritize time to get to know them face-to-face. I also can’t relate to my friends who are not yet Christians through primarily digital means.
All of us struggle to find meaningful Christian community. I need to be open and willing to go deeper in my relationships, beyond simply hanging out and having fun. I can always take initiative and trust God to help me find a trusted Christian friend to share what’s been life-giving or challenging in my relationship with God. I can also find friends who are willing to be vulnerable, share weaknesses and struggles, confess sin, and pray for each other.
For many of us, our screen time can easily become the primary way that we relate to our friends. Isn’t it ironic though? We are more connected than ever digitally, but we are also a generation characterized by profound alienation and loneliness.
God is calling me to take steps of vulnerability, meeting face-to-face with my friends, and being real with each other.
For more thought on themes of screen time, I encourage you to read a book called “12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You” by Tony Reinke.
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