Smartphones are ruining our relationships. With every moment we spend glued to our screens, we threaten to extinguish authentic forms of communication. The ubiquity of plugging in is robbing us of the ability to have reflective, thoughtful, personal interactions with those we are closest to. Instead, we are drawn to superficial interactions that demand immediate responses with all the gracelessness that anonymity provides.
As we continue to plug in, we are left with shallow relationships, forgetting how to be alone with our thoughts and communicating to those who stand on the outside of our digital world that they are less important than our on-screen agendas. My hope is that, by disconnecting from technology, we can reconnect with the more important immediate relationships around us.
Being 33 years old, the first cell phone I saw was my dad’s car phone—the kind you carried in what looked like a giant purse. Besides the weird car phone, my family was not very technology-minded. We shared one computer, and when all my friends began getting pagers and then cell phones, my brother and I were far behind.
I got my first cell phone when I headed off to college, and I think I spent as much time playing Snake on it as I did making phone calls. Even as I acquired my first laptop and upgraded my phone, my relationship with technology did not really seem to change—until it did.
The catalyst for that change was the iPhone, which revolutionized how we, as consumers, interact with technology. I stood in line to buy the first model of the iPhone in 2007, and since that time, my addiction to technology has rapidly increased. Sure, we all owned TVs before smartphones, but now the TV is basically following you around, making it much more difficult to limit its use.
Fast-forward to just a few months ago. My wife and I were looking through some family pictures—many of which were, ironically, taken on her smartphone—and to my shame, I noticed a horrifying theme: In a large portion of the pictures, I was in the background, ignoring my kids, glued to my iPhone. Immediately, my heart sank. I knew something needed to change, and making that change wouldn’t be easy.
As the weeks went by, I intentionally watched others interact with their devices, quickly discovering that I was not alone in my struggle. Everywhere I went, people were glued to their phones. I noticed people checking their phones in the middle of conversations, during meetings and even over dinner with friends.
Around that same time, I was introduced to a book called The Big Disconnect by Catherine Steiner-Adair. The book walks through the effects of screen time on children as they develop and explores the damage done to families as they disengage from one another and instead engage with their devices. Steiner-Adair writes, “Studies show that children of parents who are chronically distracted by their phones and devices develop disorders that mimic or look similar to children who grow up with neglectful or narcissistic parents.” These children are withdrawn, emotionally starved, not well-adjusted, lack social awareness or social IQ, and the list goes on.
The wider impacts on communication in society are just as damaging. We live in an age where anonymous, or near anonymous, short blurbs of pithy, surface-level banter rule the day.
According to Steiner-Adair, “Tech culture values quantity over quality, breadth over depth, and image over substance.” In other words, shallow, unreflective, immediate, short, sarcastic, caustic, troll-worthy commentary is commonplace, and in many cases is now seen as the standard to which communication should rise. Twitter is the new medium for the public intellectual (or should I say, anti-intellectual). Cat videos fill our time; they are the new sitcom.
Digital communication also takes place at a frenetic pace. Everyone must be heard—and they must be heard now. Everyone must be responded to—and the time to respond is yesterday. But for thousands of years, people wrote to each other with a pen and paper (or quill and ink). It required thought and revision. It took time, both to compose and to deliver. Yet empires were built, the Industrial Revolution took place, wars were fought, cities grew, architects designed buildings that touched the sky, Star Wars was created and brought to the screen, the personal computer was developed, and millions upon millions of people were saved by the gospel. Though our current forms of communication provide wonderful benefits, we should not evaluate them ahistorically, or we will fail to see the burdens that come along with them.
Technology’s Spiritual Impact
Communicating in this shallow, other-negating way is anti-gospel. Tim Keller, drawing on the work of C.S. Lewis and Alvin Plantinga, described the backdrop of reality as a dance of other-centered love emanating from a triune God that has been in perfect relationship with Himself from all time. Our purpose in life is to join in that dance and, in some sense, mimic it in our horizontal relationships. That means our relationships will be other-centered. We will defer to others and revolve around their interests in a way that encourages and builds them up in the Lord.
C.S. Lewis described it this way: “When a man comes under the divine meridian, he loses his consciousness of self, and in the end becomes a creature which fills other people’s lives, while they in turn help fill our lives.”
Does a preoccupation with our digital devices evidence this reality? No. It expresses an anxiety about our own worlds—“I have to be able to read my texts, I have to be able to see who liked my photos and responded to my tweets, I have to stay up with the news.” We are catechizing ourselves for self-love, not other-centered love.
It is the height of self-centeredness to be distracted by your phone during a conversation with another person. Our tech-obsessed age is finding new, dangerous ways to allow us to sit in the center of our own self-love. When you distract yourself with your phone, whether it is from deep communion with the Lord, time spent alone with your thoughts, with family and friends, or even in meetings at work, you communicate to those around you that they are less valuable than the digital world accessible through your device.
What to Do?
So where do we go from here? What do you do if you find yourself or your family interacting with devices this way?
- Engage your own heart. I discovered that the reason I run to my phone is bound up with my idolatry of comfort. I don’t want to be vulnerable to others, so I isolate myself emotionally, using my smartphone as a shield. Others may idolize approval or have a fear-of-man issue. Consider whose approval you are looking for when you’re constantly checking social media, and determine what is driving you to your device.
- Catch yourself in the act of ignoring those who are in front of you. This awareness comes by God’s grace and is the beginning of repentance. Ask yourself, “What am I trying to gain in this moment? Is this something that only God can actually give?”
- Place some boundaries on how and when you use your digital devices. That may mean putting your phone and laptop away when you get home, and having your kids do the same. The benefits will outweigh the temporary suffering of being disconnected.
I would love for you to be in this fight with me. We can reclaim authentic, deep relationships with those we love most if we unplug from our phones and see the other human beings sitting right in front of us. So next time you find yourself sitting in front of your kids, your spouse or your friends, and you feel the urge to check your email or respond to a text or open Snapchat—don’t. I challenge you to instead ask your friend how they are, laugh with your wife or sit down on the floor with your kids and play. Chances are, you will not remember what occupied your time on the phone five minutes after you get done looking at it. You will, however, benefit from communing with your loved ones in ways that are deep and lasting.