In this episode of TGC Q&A, David Mathis and Joe Rigney answer the question, “How can Christians avoid smartphone addiction?”
- A pastoral predicament (:00)
- Admitting you have a problem (1:53)
- Controlling impulses (4:04)
- Gaining larger vision (6:05)
- Godliness as a value (7:13)
- The price of phone addiction (8:39)
- The joy of freedom (9:22)
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Joe Rigney: How can Christians avoid smartphone addiction? Okay, this is obviously one of the major pastoral issues I think everybody is having to face, right?
David Mathis: It is.
Joe Rigney: This is an unusual … If you would have said 15 years ago, “What’s one of the main pastoral challenges you’re going to have in your ministry?” Like if somebody when I was … You moved up here 17 years ago?
David Mathis: ’03, yeah.
Joe Rigney: Okay, I moved up here in ’05. If you had asked us then, “Hey, what do you think is one of the main, just kind of practical pastoral challenges you’re going to deal with in the course of your ministry?” there’s no way on God’s green Earth that I would have said, “Oh, smartphones.” Because they didn’t exist.
David Mathis: That’s right, that’s right.
Joe Rigney: They didn’t exist. And then now, I think anytime when we’re preaching at our church and we make an application to technology and smartphones, there’s an immediate … You can feel it palpably from our people that there’s a hunger for, “Yes, we feel like there’s something wrong here, and we just don’t know exactly what to do. Because we feel like they’re so “essential” to living. They’re so useful in so many ways, yet there feels like there’s something that’s off.”
David Mathis: Even two years ago, three years ago. I don’t know that people were sensing the need as much as they increasingly are.
Joe Rigney: Right. There’s a time lag between, “Oh, this feels fine. This feels fine,” and then all of a sudden something shifts. So, I think one of the first things is just admitting you have a problem. I think the more that we admit that it’s a problem, not just for individuals, as though, “Okay, there’s probably two or three smartphone addicts in our church.” No, there’s probably an addictive culture in your church related to smartphones. Everybody’s is different, and one of the things about smartphones that can mask it is that one person uses their smartphone for Instagram, and another person it’s Twitter, and another person it’s texting, and another person it’s pornography.
So, at one level it feels like those are very different sorts of things, and they are. There’s a different gradation depending on what form it’s taking, but the common root there matters. Because when it comes to the pornography thing, for example, when I was in college and that was a live struggle for me, it was all computer-oriented, and it was harder than it was for somebody who grew up 30 years ago where it was magazine-oriented or something like that. It’s very different though if you have a brothel in your pocket. That’s just a totally different level of struggle. So, that’s different. But then the more innocuous forms are often just as addictive. It’s just a different little dose of dopamine that’s coming your way as opposed to the sexually-charged one.
So, I think first thing is just to admit and recognize that if you’re a pastor or if you’re a layperson, you’re not the only one, and this is a more widespread problem, and you need to admit that it is a real problem. Kind of like the people who are addicted to cigarettes or something like that, have a real hard time admitting, “I’m an addict.” All of us have a sense of, “I could probably stop. It’d probably be fine.” But can we? So, admitting to how much of a problem, I think that’s probably the first thing, is just to really face it squarely that these little devices that we have have been designed by some of the smartest people on the planet to make sure that you’re on them all the time, and you’re not Superman.
So, that’d be a place to start. I think maybe the second thing that comes to mind … This is just me thinking, and me and my wife as we talk about our patterns with them, is impulse in the morning. You wake up, and you’re in that kind of semi-conscious fog. It’s an amazing thing how immediately my mind goes to, “I want to check my email. I want to check online and see what’s going on.” The phone, that’s what my alarm clock is, it’s sitting right next to the bed, so it’s real easy to do that at the beginning of the day. At the end of the day, comparatively, right? That’s the last thing that goes on the nightstand.
I’m trying my best to resist that all the time at the bookends of the day, and it’s a useful thing. I’m trying to turn it into a prompt, because it’s like, I can feel the urge and then go, “That urge, where do I want to take that?” Where I want to take that first moment is, I need to pray and I need to have some Bible. I’ve gotten to the point where it’s like, “I need to do Bible and I need to do Bible not on my phone.” So, I don’t need to pull up my app because that’s actually probably not going to work well. I need to go get a hard copy. I need to go sit in my chair with a Bible that has olive-leaf paper and I need to read it, with the phone over there.
And then having prayed, having done that, usually then it’s times where I’m getting the kids up. There’s actually a refreshing, “Oh, my phone is over there,” and all of a sudden I’m looking around for it because I’ve got to get out the door. Those are the good mornings. There’s a refreshing, “Oh, I didn’t even need the morning initial thrust towards, ‘Hey, check it.'” If I resist that and get to prayer, Bible, and then now responsibilities, all of a sudden when I’m getting out the door I’m like, “Oh, that was good. That was a good morning.” I feel different than if I had been scrolling around the house for 30 minutes before the kids woke up.
David Mathis: That’s right. I think one angle of approach on the question, “How to get over smartphone addiction?” is get a bigger vision. Get a bigger sense of what your life is for, what your life is about. So, to pray first thing, and to pray last thing, rather than check the world. Talk to God instead of check the world. And then to hear His voice, let His voice be the first one you hear in the morning.
And then just to think, is your life lacking in big, significant things that you find yourself continuing to go to the cesspool of two-dimensional apps? Not to rule out all the good things that many things do, like the map app that got me here this morning. But it does raise the question, “Is there something bigger you should be giving yourself to?” There’s better dopamine in aerobic exercise than there is in social media.
Joe Rigney: Physical training is of some value.
David Mathis: That’s right, that’s right. It’s of some value in getting over smartphone addiction, too, perhaps.
Joe Rigney: That’s right.
David Mathis: But even more so than that. Godliness is a value in every way. For guys like us who have the gift and responsibility of a wife and of kids, one of the great tragedies is to live with such gifts and count them as small things, or to count them as an annoyance, or to count them as pulling us away from these amazing and silly devices that we carry around.
Joe Rigney: To that point, my kids will sometimes comment on it.
David Mathis: Oh my, yeah, that’s the worst.
Joe Rigney: You know what I mean? They’ll make the comment, and that’s a check. You’re talking about, how do you respond when your spouse, or more often it’s your kids who are like, “Hey dad, can you not be on your phone right now while we’re doing whatever we’re doing?” It’s easy to get defensive and say, “Well, it was important. I was texting someone. It was important. I was checking an email, it was important.” It’s like, well, if it was important, is it important enough to actually set aside time where that’s the important thing I’m doing as opposed to it being just in the course of my interaction with my family? So, to receive that rebuke from a child as a gift from the Lord to reorient helps. The bigger vision is both the bigger vision of God, and then, like you said, the responsibilities that we have to love others, especially those in our care.
David Mathis: Just a little, small thing, but personal experience here. I find extended time on the smartphone is depleting. It’s draining. I come away and my eyes feel strange, emotionally I feel like I have less energy. Whereas when I do something with my body to help somebody else, like take a box down to the basement for my wife, or go outside and play with the kids, or do something where I expend energy in the company and service of others, I feel better. There’s brain chemistry behind that, too, not just spiritual significance. So, one thing about these phones is also how inactive they make us, and God didn’t make us to be inactive. That’s one thing to fight in the process.
Joe Rigney: Yeah. Maybe the accidental times where we have this experience where you leave your phone at home and you go for a walk, and all of a sudden you realize it, and there’s that initial moment of panic … Like fear, “Oh no, what am I going to do?” Which fairly quickly will give way to a kind of refreshing freedom. Those often happen accidentally. So, one way to resist smartphone addiction, a very practical way, would be to don’t make those accidents, make those intentional. Make those, “I’m going to put it over there. I’m going to put it up, and if that means my phone blows up because of a bunch of texts, fine. If that means that I miss a few emails, great. If that means I miss Twitter, even better. I’m putting it over there because I want to deliberately remove this shackle, not accidentally remove the shackle.
David Mathis: I found out recently, I was having trouble with my phone for some reason … Oh, it was how it was picking up the reception, the SIM card or whatever. So, to get it to reset I had to turn the thing off. You know what I found out? It’s so easy to turn off. Those things turn off. You just hold the button for a minute. It’s off. It comes back on when you need to turn it on. Learn how to turn your phone off. It’s really simple.