In the past, I’ve joked that we should be weary of smartphones since the symbol for their most famous manufacturer is a bitten apple – the emblem of the Fall. But jokes aside, I have always felt uneasy about the amount of time I can find myself spending on my phone, and my suspicion that my phone constituted an occasion of sin has grown steadily.
Recently, my phone broke and I replaced with a basic phone that only makes phone calls and sends SMS texts. After a month of this, I am convinced that using a smartphone prevents me from developing certain virtues.
I am not saying that smartphones represent occasion of sin for everyone – I’m not advocating everyone gets rid of theirs. But I think Denzel Washington made a good point when he said that instead of self-assessing whether or not we are addicted, based on how in control we feel, we should all try to give our smartphone up for a week, and see how we feel. For me, the results have been eye-opening.
Not Having a Smartphone is Uncomfortable
Not having my phone is uncomfortable. I find myself unable to escape boredom, or having to resort to annoying things like having to ask passers-by for directions instead of searching for them on a maps app. It forces me to slow down, which is annoying and feels like a waste of my all too limited time. It limits my engagement with current affairs, as well as my connectivity with friends and family. I’m more unreachable, as are others to me. All the fears I had about what giving up my smartphone would constitute where accurate – I am more isolated and spend a greater amount of time not taking in new information, and as a result, feel ignorant too.
But something strange has also happened. My relationships with strangers have improved. I am more open to the occasional chat on public transport with the old lady who’s interested in learning my children’s names, or the woman also seeking shelter from the downpour, who ended up telling me all about her’s. I don’t wish to romanticise this – I’ve not become best friends with these people, nor have I stopped finding others irritating or rude or loud, I’ve not, in other words, become a saint just by way of getting rid of my smartphone. But I have become marginally more patient and open than when I could stare at a screen instead.
I am also keeping in touch with people more intentionally. I am more comfortable doing mundane, slow things like preparing supper. Crucially, I’m far more aware of just how impatient I’m being when I am, just how uneasy boredom makes me, how uncomfortable I am without a semi-constant intake of information and all-encompassing connectivity. So it’s not so much that I’m a better or different person now, but more that I’m aware of my dependency, and of where there’s room for me to improve.
Most importantly, it’s shown me how incapable I am of what Cal Newport calls ‘deep work’ in his eponymous book. This phrase refers to focused work, done without distractions, where one is immersed in the task at hand. This kind of work is necessary for ‘learning how to do hard things’ – in other words, for developing valuable, useful, in-demand skills. My ability to do this has, no doubt, deteriorated since my late teens and early twenties, a decade ago when I was not in possession of a smartphone.
And, unsurprisingly, mindfulness has increased in popularity during the same decade. But as a Christian, I wonder if that what the Lord wants of us? Fifteen minutes of silent meditation followed by a day of compulsive inter-connectivity?
Many advocates for phone-free zones or hours in the house: no phones at the dinner table, no screens past 10 pm, no screens in the bedroom, and so on and so forth. But for myself, that didn’t work. Because, in my experience, it’s an addiction – so imagine saying to a drug addict: no cocaine after 10 pm. It doesn’t get rid of the addiction, it just makes you crave the end of the ban.
By the grace of God, I didn’t have to impose a fast on myself, because my phone broke by itself. So now I spend all day without it – people can text me or call me if they need to, and the rest I do at a computer. If I’m going somewhere, I look up the directions beforehand. I’ll print a map if I need to. To keep in touch with family and friends abroad, I email. The amount of time I spend on social media has significantly decreased without the convenience of accessing it from my phone.
The Synod on young people released a document identifying the evils of technology, saying reliance upon it can lead to ‘the development of certain vices’. The Pope himself said in Laudato Si that ‘today’s media… shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears, and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences’.
Of course, it has also been recognised that social media, in particular, can be an instrument for good – the online resources provided by Bishop Barron and Fr Mike Schmidt among others are contemporary forms of evangelisation. I have learned a lot from Catholic social media. But that doesn’t change the essentially manipulative nature of the platforms on which I find them. Platforms like Youtube or Facebook are powered by advertisers, and as such, they are intentionally designed to conduce to an addictive user experience. Perhaps one of the most off-putting aspects of these algorithms for a Christian, is that the kind of content suggested to a user is based on what people similar to them have also liked – which creates a kind of echo chamber of content where you will see more and more of what you enjoy being advertised to you, and less and less of what you’re unlikely to spend very long on. I could easily spend hours watching Catholic interest videos, certainly learning a lot – but at what cost?