My friend Nate is a doctor (a real doctor) and sometimes has to spend several days in a row on call. He’ll work a 12-hour shift at the hospital and then spend the next 12 hours with his phone nearby in case of an emergency. Being on alert like that, expecting to be interrupted at any moment, puts a damper on his time off. He can’t leave town because he has to be within a few minutes of the hospital. He can’t turn his phone off, not even when he sleeps, in case he is needed. Turning off his phone or leaving it out of earshot for even a minute when he’s on call could put someone’s life at risk. During his time off between shifts he’s not really able to rest and let his guard down. And his sleep is fitful, knowing that his phone could buzz at any moment with an emergency. His fight-or-flight system is on a sort of pre-alert, knowing that he has to be on guard at all times, like sitting in your sleeping bag waiting for the bear you just chased off to return to your campsite.
But our brains desperately need that down time. They need time off from thinking and reacting and processing. We need time to press the reset button between rounds of stress and mental effort. And sleep is one of the most important things our bodies need to rest and heal and reset between bouts of busyness. Without good sleep – and some of you can attest to this – our nerves never fully reset, buzzing like we’ve had too much coffee, but without the alertness benefits caffeine brings us. We’ll talk more about the biology and psychology of sleep later, but for now, take my word for it that you need good sleep almost as much as you need food and water.
Dr. Nate would rather not have to be on call. He’d gladly give that responsibility to someone else and be able to enjoy the hours between his long shifts. You and I, however, willingly subject ourselves to being on call 24 hours a day by keeping our phones in our pockets at all times, or by the bedside table when we sleep. Some of you – you know who you are – will even wake up to check text messages in the middle of the night, “just in case.” By volunteering to be on call all day, every day, we rob ourselves of rest and calm and peace and the much-needed time to reset between bouts of busyness and stress. The result is that our nerves never fully heal from the day’s demands before we start another round of busyness. We are willingly on call, sacrificing the peace we so dearly need and God has made so clear that He wants for us.
Why do we do it to ourselves? Why can’t we put our phones away during dinner or leave them at home when we go to the movies? Why must we insist on sleeping next to our phones at night and even letting them interrupt our sleep with buzzing and blue light anytime a text comes in or we receive some alert?
One reason is that we have convinced ourselves that we don’t have a choice. We tell ourselves that it’s necessary to be constantly plugged in. “What if it’s an emergency?” “What if that job offer comes in?” “What if one of the kids needs me?” The first real smart phone, smart phones as we now know them, was introduced only 10 years ago by Apple. For all of human history prior to June 29, 2007, mankind has found ways to deal with these kinds of questions without bringing the apocalypse upon ourselves. If these are the excuses we are using, we are kidding ourselves.
Why else, then? It turns out that receiving notifications and text messages pings a part of our brains that needs affirmation and validation. We are designed for connection, and the electronic connections we can receive every few minutes from a smart phone tickle a part of our brains that God designed to push us towards real live human connection. We get a little chemical reward for seeing that message, and we can actually become addicted. Ever wonder why so many people can be so socially connected online but have no friends and no people skills to speak of in person? Some of us have traded the God-ordained human connections and the chemical rewards they bring for a fake, an imposter that comes with a digital device we can carry around in our pockets. In the same way pornography can be an easy and risk-free substitute for actual sexual relations with a spouse, smart phones can provide an easy way of meeting a real need for human connection without the risks and effort that are inherent in such connection.
Let me clarify by saying that I love my iPhone. My wife and kids love their iPhones. Our house is littered with smart phones, tablets, laptops, and smart TVs. Technology is so cool and can really make life a lot easier in many ways. I am not arguing for a tech-free life, but instead I am trying to make the case for what Andy Crouch calls a “tech-wise” life, one that sees the potential for both good and evil in our technology and chooses to guide and direct our use of it for good. Believe it or not, that smart phone of yours can be used in ways that build character in you and those around you, character like patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. My father-in-law John likes to joke that his Bible is ringing when someone calls his cell phone, reminding himself that for him it is a Bible first and a phone second. Our “easy everywhere” technology (as Crouch calls it) doesn’t have to be a bad influence on us or even remain a morally neutral influence. It has the potential to be a great influence for developing character and a force for good in the world. But it won’t happen spontaneously. You and I are going to have to choose to set boundaries around it with specific goals in mind.
Maybe one place to begin is with Crouch’s sixth commitment of a tech-wise family:
“We use screens for a purpose, and we use them together, rather than using them aimlessly and alone.”
Re-read that principle a couple of times. Consider how you use your easy everywhere devices. Take an inventory throughout the day of when and how and why you unlock your screen, and ask yourself if there is purpose to it or if you are using it aimlessly. More than just avoiding negative consequences of aimless screen time, you and I have an opportunity to re-envision our mobile technology as an agent for good in our lives. How are you going to let your smart phone change yourself and the world?