There have been a rash of recent articles revealing what smartphones are doing to our cognitive ability.
Studies by psychologists have found that using a smartphone, “or even hearing one ring or vibrate, produces a welter of distractions that makes it harder to concentrate on a difficult problem or job,” writes Nicholas Carr in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “How Smartphones Hijack our Minds.”
This same research found that “the more heavily students relied on their phones in their everyday lives, the greater the cognitive penalty they suffered,” Carr writes. The mere presence of a phone while taking a test significantly impacted a person’s score.
Meanwhile, tech insiders, those who created the very pings and notifications we find so appealing, are now coming out with warnings of their addictive nature. This is according to an Oct. 6 article in The Guardian, “Our Minds Can be Hijacked” by Paul Lewis.
“It is very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences,” says Justin Rosenstein in the article.
Rosenstein, who developed both the “like” feature for Facebook posts and Gchat for Google, is one of a growing body of tech developers who are worried that the features they designed are reshaping our thoughts, choices and even our very democracy, according to The Guardian article.
“There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called 'continuous partial attention,' severely limiting people’s ability to focus,” Lewis writes.
These articles brought to my mind a concern I’ve had for a few years: that smartphones aren’t just changing the way we think. They’re also impairing our spirituality.
Secularism has grown exponentially in the last two decades. A 2015 study by Pew Research found that the percentage of adults who identify as Christian had dropped 8 percent in just seven years. The shift is most significant among young adults but is universal in touching all races and demographics.
At the same time, the percentage of Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated, atheist or agnostic, has grown by 6 percentage points, according to the Pew study.
America may still be the most Christian country in the world, but things are changing.
And my theory is that smartphones are a culprit.
I know because I feel it in myself, the spiritual deadening that comes with always being tied to a device. We have become completely reliant on our phones — they’re the ultimate multipurpose tool: Flashlight! Cookbook! GPS! Email! Camera! Text message! Games!
I haven’t even mentioned social media yet.
Much of what draws us to our phones is passive: videos, scrolling feeds and games. Even email and Facebook comments are designed to give us a “hit,” much like a slot machine at a casino.
But faith and spirituality operate on a different plane. Religious practice cannot effectively take place in memes and tweets. Our connection to God must be broader than a 3-by-6-inch screen and deeper than a data pool.
For one, faith requires action. It doesn’t wash over us like the latest Taylor Swift single. It requires movement: a bent knee, a bent head, a conversation with God. Spirituality takes time and quiet — it doesn’t speak in pings and likes. We have become, not to be overly dramatic, a bit like Voldemort from Harry Potter, with our attentions split in seven directions.
And it is changing us.
My greatest time of spiritual reckoning came in college. In those pre-smartphone days, I took drives up into the mountains where I sat for hours, thinking, praying and writing. I was utterly alone with my thoughts. I didn’t pull out my phone to Google “proof that God lives.” I sat on the grass and saw it in the trees above my head. I felt it to my very core.
I am hard-pressed to find or invite that kind of solitude nowadays. Most of us aren’t doctors on call, but we live as if the world may end if we’re not reachable every minute of every day. We’ve lost the ability to invite mental downtime.
Smartphones have even changed the way we study scripture. According to an article, "How smartphones and social media are changing Christianity," published earlier this year by the BBC, “studies suggest that text read on screens is generally taken more literally than text read in books. Aesthetic features of a text, such as its broader themes and emotional content, are also more likely to be drawn out when it is read as a book,” writes Chris Stokel-Walker.
This has changed the way we both internalize and interpret scripture.
“When you’re on a screen, you tend to miss out all the feeling stuff and go straight for the information,” says the Reverend Pete Phillips in the article. “It’s a flat kind of reading, which the Bible wasn’t written for. You end up reading the text as though it was Wikipedia, rather than it being a sacred text in itself."
Before ditching smartphones completely, there are steps we can take. For one, we don’t have to treat our phones like appendages, attached to our bodies. We can leave them in a designated docking spot in our homes. We can turn off notifications. I’ve deleted the most addictive apps from my phone. When I write, I turn on airplane mode or leave my phone in a different room.
To avoid the mindless checking of our phones, we can choose a specific time for active work on the phone: answering email or returning phone calls. We can choose a time of day when we power down for the evening. In our master bedroom, we’ve reverted back to an old-fashioned alarm clock and taken to putting our phones in the office.
We can take a day of rest not just from work, but from technology. We can reacquaint ourselves with paper scriptures.
Whether it’s affecting our relationship with others or with God, we don’t need to be entirely altered by our modern technologies. There are some things in life that aren’t worth compromising.
Our spirituality is one of them.