This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 2 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Over the past decade, the Apple slogan “There’s an app for that” has gone from catch phrase to a commonly accepted fact. Want to wake up at a certain time every morning? Use an alarm app, and even preprogram your snoozes. Can’t decide to wear a sweater or T-shirt? Check the forecast on your choice of weather apps. Pull up apps to check the day’s appointments, read important emails, browse headlines on your curated newsfeeds, see what your friends are doing for their morning workouts, time your electric toothbrush, and preorder a coffee from Starbucks so it’s ready at the counter. And this is all before breakfast, on a device that fits neatly in your pocket.
In preparation for this article, I counted all the apps on my iPhone, and was surprised to find sixty-one apps, and only twenty of those came with the phone. I have no answer as to why I chose to download forty-one apps on my phone. I certainly don’t use all of them. It seems the question being asked most often when it comes to adopting digital media isn’t why but why not?
But, for the follower of Christ, what are the spiritual effects of this technological wonderland? Today’s world is a laboratory for experimenting with all types of new media, and we are all creating our own ways of adopting technologies as they develop. Summed up in the simple word “apps,” these tools are changing what it means to function as humans. Because we are still learning how these apps are changing our culture for better and worse, it’s up to us to evaluate our own interactions with new technologies and examine what is helping us to live, as Paul would say, “set apart,” or what is pulling us away from this eternal calling.
Tool or Tether? In the book The App Generation, the authors discuss two potential outcomes of the new digital lifestyles: app enabled and app dependent. “Apps that allow us or encourage us to pursue new possibilities are app-enabling. In contrast, when we allow apps to restrict or determine our procedures, choices, and goals, we become app-dependent.”1 In short, the question is, Do you control your apps, or do your apps control you?2
While there are ways my smartphone is a valuable tool, I’ve also caught my use bordering on compulsion; sometimes I’m scrolling feeds without reading or really processing the images I see. I’ve sent texts to avoid the interpersonal conversation of a phone call. I’ve worried over things I’ve posted on social media and gotten annoyed by things I’ve seen on a stranger’s feed. As another quirk of my social media usage, I realized when I’m alone at home, I post and interact a lot more online compared to when I’m out with friends or busy in the community. Perhaps Facebook was just a way to combat the loneliness and boredom I faced as a stay-at-home mom bombarded by kids all day. There were days my digital media habits, especially social media, seemed akin to a smoker’s fixation on cigarettes; I didn’t have any specific purpose for scrolling my phone, but every few hours (or minutes, on a bad day), it provided a way to wind down and step back from “the real world” similar to the smoker who values a cigarette break.
Eventually, I began to question the spiritual effect of this little computer in my hand. If I put the phone away, what then? My first “media fast” happened several years ago when I felt the need to confront this hard question. I resolved to give up Facebook during Lent. I deleted all social media apps off my phone and bookmarks off my computers and quit cold turkey.
During that break, and others I’ve taken since, I was surprised how little I missed my social media “fixes.” After a few days of detox, I worried very little about what was going on in the social media world and thought less and less about it. If I didn’t post and interact with others, the notification bubble didn’t appear when I got likes and comments. Rather than checking back often to see if I had any reactions or replies, if I didn’t “feed the need,” I felt no reason to log on. To my surprise, after a couple weeks, I began to get texts from out-of-town friends asking if I was OK because I disappeared off social media. Had Facebook really become the primary way I interacted with these friends?
A sick day triggered my most recent social media break. After a very stressful season of life, I was back to taking social media “smoke breaks” much too frequently. One winter day, a nasty head cold coupled with exhaustion banished me to the couch. By afternoon, I had spent six hours scanning social media. Even though I was sick, it weighed on me that I wasted so much time reading random posts and articles and thoughtlessly commenting on them. How else could I have spent six hours desperately needed for rest and rejuvenation in a way that would have made me feel refreshed and healthier? Even binge watching a TV show would be an improvement, because my brain would have focused on a continuous narrative rather than wading in so many shallow pools of unrelated information. Or I could have taken a nap. I closed my laptop and resolved to stay off social media for a week to reevaluate how I was coping with stress.
#lolcats. One adage describes the Millennial generation and Generation Z as having the miraculous ability to carry all the knowledge mankind has accumulated on a pocket-sized device that we use to look at videos of cats (or, to acknowledge one of the larger internet markets, pornography3). In Ephesians, the apostle Paul reminds us to “be careful then, how you live — not as the unwise but as the wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15–16 NIV). Other translations say “redeeming the time” (NKJV) or “making the most of your time” (CSB). Rather than using digital media to drive ourselves to distraction, how can we redeem the time we spend on our devices? Or is it a matter of redeeming our time by using it differently?
Although I’ve benefited from social media detoxes, I can’t deny ways these platforms have enabled me to enrich my relationships or enhance my knowledge or opportunities. My smartphone has provided me a fantastic way to keep in touch with friends who live far away, but on reflection, Facebook and texting, although convenient, aren’t always the best default ways to keep in contact with those who I consider my closest friends. Recently, I was texting one of my best friends who lives in another state and she replied with surprise to my comment about a very important event in my family. We texted often; had I really forgotten to mention it to her? I started to text details, but deleted it and replaced it with, “Are you free to Facetime?” She called me, and we talked. After a lot of laughter (not just “LOL”s or emojis), we hung up and she texted, “Good to hear your voice.” I replied, “I’ve decided the phone is an amazing invention I’ve been neglecting.” Interacting primarily with text or images can make it difficult to see what’s really happening in a person’s life, or allow others in on what’s truly happening in yours. How carefully are we crafting our lives through digital media?
The Illusion of Control. In the growing world of smartphone apps, social media is just one area that causes pause. The App Generation also discusses “the app mentality,” described as supporting “the belief that just as information, goods, and services are always and immediately available, so to, are people.”4 Their research focuses mainly on teenagers, but anyone can reflect on what level of control we expect over our lives — from our relationships to mundane daily tasks. How irritated do we get when the apps on our phone don’t work like we hoped? If we need urgently to transfer money but our banking app is down, how frustrated would we feel if we had to go physically to the bank? If we text someone and they do not reply immediately, do we take it as a personal affront? If we plan our day according to our calendar app, how willing are we to be flexible with our plans? If we allow this app-centered illusion of control to creep too deeply into our lives, we can forget the wisdom of Scripture reminding us, “You do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:16 NIV).
A balanced life requires planning and purpose, but it also requires resiliency and flexibility. We must be careful not to allow our expectations of what comes from the world we curate in our phones to leak into our worldview and relationships. The level of control we take in the world of apps can enrich our lives and allow us to become more fully immersed in some of our passions and pursuits, but that level of immersion can become suffocating. If you’re not sure where your soul stands with your digital media, then you might benefit from setting it aside for a little bit and seeing where “real life” takes you.—Rachel Ollivant
Rachel Ollivant is a graduate student studying Public Relations at Montana State University, Billings.
- Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World (New Haven: Yale, 2014), 10.
- See Gardner and Davis, The App Generation, 25.
- While the statistics on how much of the internet consists of pornography are hard to come by, one study suggested that 20 percent of internet searches on mobile devices search for adult content. See Katharina Buchholz, “How Much of the Internet Consists of Porn?” Statistica, last modified February 11, 2019, https://www.statista.com/chart/16959/share-of-the-internet-that-is-porn/.
- Gardner and Davis, The App Generation, 94.