Editor's note: This article is part of the Deseret News' annual Ten Today series, which explores the relevance of the Ten Commandments in modern life.
SALT LAKE CITY — For me, it’s wasn’t technology, but a cat litter box that was the impetus for change.
One Sunday afternoon, I found myself disinfecting the cat litter box and was suddenly struck by how crazy that was. I'd been raised in a faith that upheld the Fourth Commandment: Honor the Sabbath, and keep it holy. And yet there I was, mindlessly performing the grungiest of tasks on the holiest of days.
I poured in new litter, stripped off my gloves and summoned my children for an announcement: From then on, we would be honoring the Sabbath by performing no unessential work and doing only things that honor God and bring us closer together as a family.
My children, of course, were delighted. It doesn’t take a lot of urging to convince young children to abstain from chores. They wanted to not only honor the Sabbath, but the other six days of the week as well.
They were less excited when, a few years later, I realized that the Sabbath could also be improved by unplugging devices that distract us.
In expanding our Sabbath observance, we joined the ranks of those Americans who observe a digital Sabbath, also known as a tech Sabbath. Religious faith is not a requirement, just concern about the amount of time we spend in front of our screens, and the will to do something about it.
A new Deseret News poll has found that the number of people who worry they spend too much time on their phone has tripled in the last seven years, from 11 percent in 2012 to 36 percent today, and about half of us say we’ve never intentionally gone without a cellphone for more than several hours. Even Apple CEO Tim Cook has said that he uses his phone too much.
With a growing body of research showing the addictive nature of technology and the negative effects on our lives, a digital Sabbath offers temporary liberation from devices that insist we pay attention to the outside world 24-7.
It's not that the devices are evil, but that they are ubiquitous and ordinary. Three-quarters of Americans own smartphones, and studies have shown that most of us check them anywhere from 50 to 80 times a day.
A digital Sabbath says “stop" to all that. And while giving the order, it also gives us permission.
In the Deseret News poll, just 18 percent of people say they’ve intentionally gone without their cellphone for a day, about 1 in 5 said they’ve gone without it for several days, and 18 percent said they’ve been phoneless for a week.
For all its benefits, the idea of a tech Sabbath or a longer "digital detox" has become something that many people speak about wistfully, or try just a time or two before resuming old habits. “There were important things to do — deadlines, urgent communications. You know how it is,” author Mark Bittman wrote in a 2008 column that popularized the concept of a digital Sabbath.
But setting aside one day a week to observe a digital Sabbath can be a welcome, planned respite from the always-on pressure of modern life, and an escape from relentless, tailored marketing that can make us feel like what we have isn't enough.
'Space to reset'
Norman Wirzba, the Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology at Duke Divinity School and author of “Living the Sabbath,” says the idea of a Sabbath is not just about rest but about stopping the activities that lead to the restlessness "that keeps our living distracted, fragmented, and perpetually dissatisfied."
"That is why it is important to correct those forms of life that get in the way of our participation in God’s own Sabbath rest and delight in the world," Wirzba has written.
While for me, a Sabbath observance led to a digital Sabbath, for Phylicia Masonheimer, the progression was the opposite. A digital Sabbath was the start that led to a richer observance.
A businesswoman and blogger in Petoskey, Michigan, Masonheimer has two daughters, ages 3 and 1, and was increasingly aware of how her phone and computer were beginning to control her. "I was on some sort of screen all the time," she said. Worse, Masonheimer realized, "I always feel gross when I've been on (my laptop and phone) too much."
About 15 months ago, she began turning off her phone and laptop on Saturday evening and not turning them on again until Sunday evening when she sits down to plan her week. "Doing that gave me a space to reset before the week and give my full attention to my family and to give my best to my work," Masonheimer said.
"It started as a practical discipline, but as I made that space, it made me focus more on making our Sabbath more important. I began to study it more. We focus on making Sunday a day when we invite people over, and we eat together, and we share our faith with people. It's become a bigger thing than just turning off my phone."
For some people, a digital Sabbath means no engagement with any screen, including a television. But because I rarely watch TV anyway, I don't include that in my observation, and a movie is a nice option to have when it's cold or raining outside.
Look for trouble
Judaism, from which the digital Sabbath draws its name, observes the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sunset Saturday. Many Christians have observed Sunday as the God-ordained day of rest since the end of first century. But religious faith is not a prerequisite for a digital Sabbath; many people who say they aren't religious practice some form of it.
Just as there are no set rules on when to observe a digital Sabbath, people set their own parameters as to what technology should be off-limits. Phones are usually the first to go, but some people also eschew email, laptops, television, movies in theaters and any means of accessing the internet.
Wirzba says people should start by taking inventory of their time and how they spend it, including their media habits. This exercise identifies problem areas, which a digital Sabbath can help address.
“When you do that, then it becomes really clear that, at the end of the year, you may (have spent) a month of your life on media,” Wirzba said.
One man’s distraction, however, might be another man’s family time. Matt Vaudrey, a father of three who lives in Fontana, California, believes that observing a tech Sabbath doesn’t preclude playing a video game with his children.
Vaudrey, a technology coach for a school district, doesn’t have a set day of the week for a digital Sabbath, but instead will announce one when he notices everyone has been spending a lot of time on their devices.
“I’ll say, ‘OK, we’re going to put our phones (away), no more screens the rest of the day; we’re going to be present for each other.’ Because it’s so easy, when you feel the buzz in your pocket, to want to respond right away.”
Vaudrey, who is 34, will also observe a longer tech Sabbath himself when he’s had an extended period of time away from his family, as at a conference. (He and his wife also turn off their devices at 9 every night, partly because of concern about blue light's effect on sleep and health.)
For me, talking with my mother, who lives 900 miles away, is a necessary breach in an otherwise phone-free day. The Sabbath, properly observed, is about connecting with people, Wirzba says, and for some people, that may involve FaceTime.
“Sabbath is an invitation to have deep presence with each other,” Wirzba said. “It’s really hard to be present to other people if you’re in a mode of constantly scanning for other possibilities.”
What’s important is to identify technological trouble spots and remove them. And doing so slowly is fine, says Nicole Castillo, a nonprofit director in Boston who recently resumed observing a digital Sabbath after a lapse.
“Try to reduce what you can. Come off what you can, one thing at a time,” is Castillo's advice to people who find it difficult to cut the cords and keep them cut. For now, she's cut all work and personal email on the weekend and is working on reducing social media. "For me, that is the big temptation because I’m not too into TV or movies," she said.
Differences by age
Castillo, who works for the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry, is 35 and part of the demographic that is most concerned about their phone use, according to a national Deseret News poll conducted online by YouGov April 4-5 among 1,000 Americans.
The Deseret News poll found that half of millennials worry they spend too much time on their phones. And people ages 30 to 44 are the least likely to say they have intentionally gone more than a day without their phones.
Between the ages of 45 and 64, 26 percent say they worry about their phone use, and the figure drops to 10 percent among people who didn’t have access to cellphones until midlife, those 65 and older.
While the majority of respondents are not overly concerned about their phone use, there's been a significant increase in those who say they are.
In 2012, when Pew Research Center asked Americans if they were worried that they spent too much time on their phone, 11 percent said yes, compared to 36 percent who said that this year. In 2012, 89 percent said no, compared to 64 percent this year.
There's ample reason to be concerned. The nonprofit Center for Humane Technology, co-founded by a former Google engineer, has created a "Ledger of Harms" caused by overuse of technology. Among them: increasing inability to focus, depression, isolation, loneliness and reduced empathy.
"Even the mere presence of a smartphone can disrupt the connection between two people, having negative effects on closeness, connection and conversation quality," the ledger says, citing a 2012 study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Moreover, parents' management of devices is likely to influence how their children will manage technology later in life. In addition to setting a good example, Vaudrey asks his 6-year-old daughter to turn off her devices herself, rather than a parent doing it, and he talks to her about how she feels after having been in front of a screen for a long time.
"I wanted my oldest daughter to know, from a young age, the effects of prolonged screen time so when she's in high school, she can better regulate herself," he said.
Today's young Americans are the first to have grown up with smartphones, and it will be decades before we know how that will affect them. According to a 2017 report by Common Sense Media, children 8 and younger spend about 2 hours and 20 minutes a day consuming media, and the percentage of time spent looking at phones is rising. In 2011, children spent about five minutes a day looking at phone screens; by 2017, the time on phones had increased to 48 minutes a day.
'We can do a lot more'
On Twitter recently, Castillo shared that she'd committed to a tech Sabbath a year ago, but after starting a new job as program director for the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry, gradually fell back into a pattern of checking email seven days a week.
Not checking work email for three days on a recent long weekend recently reminded her of the importance of disconnecting. "I feel dramatically better," she wrote, and she resolved to resume the practice of disconnecting and also to encourage her staff to do the same. "It's not just about me, but for the example I set for my staff. We can do a lot more without being hyperconnected."
Although Castillo isn’t Jewish, she observes a digital Sabbath beginning on Friday night, and she believes it’s important for those who embrace the practice to be an ambassador for it. Some people will even incorporate it into their automated email responses, advising people that they won’t be able to respond until their Sabbath ends, and even linking to an article or a website that celebrates the practice, such as The Digital Sabbath Experiment.
“It’s a fallacy that if we work seven days a week we’re more effective,” Castillo said. “It’s really important to have the down time.” And she said she notices the difference in her coworkers, too. After a break from technology, “People are more patient with each other; people are less fried. It’s really important to have the down time.”
That said, there are plenty of leaders who say their jobs are so demanding that they can't ever be completely out of touch. For them, the answer may be to carve out an afternoon here, or a morning there, like the CEO of Chartbeat, who told The Atlantic that he takes a tech Sabbath on Sunday mornings — a half-Sabbath, as it were. Another businessman trades his smartphone for an old flip-phone on the weekend, which enables the most important calls to get through while disabling the temptation to check what's happening in the news or on social media.
And if you no longer have an old phone, most smartphones allow you to disable the smartphone features in the settings, allowing calls to come through (and let voicemail take over) while suspending internet capability.
"This is the nuclear option, but trust me, it’s worth a try. With only a few clicks, you can turn off both Wi-Fi and 3G from your phone, turning it into a call-and-text-only device of yore," wrote Alex Cavoulacos, a business consultant and author of "The New Rules of Work."
Wirzba believes that observing a true Sabbath — one built on face-to-face connection that involves slowing down in every face of life, not just technology — is beneficial to everyone. But he acknowledges that people may have to approach this differently in different stages of life.
When his children were young, Wirzba said he and his wife would unplug the television from Memorial Day to Labor Day. For a time, they also had “No Electricity Sundays.”
“At least for Sunday, we would not use stoves, watch TV or use laptops. What does it do when you say I’m not going to use electrical lighting? What we found is that it had the effect of people facing each other more, rather than facing a screen.
“There are seasons in your life where life is going to be busy. You have to hunker down and do the job. But other times, you have to stop and ask the question, what’s the striving for? What can we do that is better?”
Strategies to try
Catherine Price, the author of "Break Up With Your Phone," said that to help navigate the first digital Sabbaths, it helps to have pleasurable activities planned.
"Make a coffee date with a friend. Put a book you’ve been meaning to read on your coffee table. Print out a recipe you want to try. Dust off a musical instrument. If your whole family is observing a digital Sabbath, pull out a board game or plan a hike," Price advises.
Also, when she and her husband first began the practice, they lit candles at the start of their digital Sabbath, as is the practice of many Jews.
For Masonheimer, the 28-year-old mom and blogger in Michigan, the Sabbath begins when she powers off her phone on Saturday evening. She doesn't turn it on again until Sunday night, which she says is an act of faith.
"There has never been an emergency. There has never been an urgent need for me to be reached. And I trust if there were, God would make a way. Because this statement of rest and trust is part of my rhythm with Him," she wrote on Facebook, urging her friends to join her in the practice.
For me, the Sabbath begins when I turn off my laptop on Saturday evening.
I don't turn off the phone like Masonheimer does, but I also don't carry it around, and I don't make calls except to my flown-nest children and parents. I make time to check in with friends on Saturday, before the Sabbath begins.
And people adjust.
Now, I often get a call from my best friend on Saturday afternoon that begins, "I just wanted to touch base before you disconnect."
The practice draws a bright, protective line around Sunday, which seems important in a culture that increasingly regards it as just another day. It also heads off the temptation to just check the forecast or my email for "just a minute," which too easily can turn into 10 or 20. It enables me to focus on the here and now.10 comments on this story
That said, I remain cognizant of what Jesus said: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." Which is why I am open to watching a TV show with my children, or letting them show me a YouTube video that is all the rage in their world. The point is, technology can enhance our family life, or it can erode it. The important thing is that we control it, not it control us, which is what happens too often when we're not paying attention.
By the way, I've been doing this for three years now and can attest that the more you stay away from tech, the easier it gets. In fact, sometimes it's too easy. Stick with it, and you may find that one digital Sabbath a week isn't enough.