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Digital Distraction

I saw the movie U23D at Ontario Place’s Cinesphere, the second time I’d watched the movie. The film features footage of 14 songs from U2’s Vertigo Tour, recorded in 2006.

Unlike the first time I watched the movie a decade ago, I walked away amazed by something I’d never noticed before: nobody in the audience held a cell phone. People took pictures with handheld cameras, but 2006 was the era of the Blackberry and the flip phone. Nobody could have pictured what Steve Jobs unleashed on January 9, 2007 when he announced the iPhone.

Life With Smartphones

It’s hard now to imagine what it was like to live before the smartphone.

I forgot my iPhone at home one night while attending a concert. The announcer asked us to put away our phones so we could enjoy the music without distraction. I looked around the audience a while later and saw glowing rectangles everywhere. I remember feeling sanctimonious, but I would have probably been among their number if I had remembered to bring my own phone.

Later I waited by the exit for my wife. Instinctively I reached for my pocket to pull out my phone to pass the time. I felt frustrated that I had to kill two or three minutes without being able to check social media and email.

The typical cellphone user touches his or her phone 2,617 times every day, according to a recent study. Heavy users touch their phones more than 5,400 times daily. Average users spend almost two and a half hours on their phones over 76 phone sessions per day. “So no matter your smartphone preference, the facts make a clear point: We are addicted to our mobile devices,” reports Business Insider.

This kind of addiction — or compulsion, if you prefer — wasn’t even possible just a few years ago, but it’s prevalent today, and it’s shaping our spiritual lives more than we think.

The Danger

Tony Reinke describes the effects of our smartphone use in his book 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You. “The more addicted you become to your phone, the more prone you are to depression and anxiety, and the less able you are to concentrate at work and sleep at night,” he writes. “The more distracted we are digitally, the more displaced we become spiritually.”

I’m haunted by John Ortberg’s words: “For many of us the great danger is not that we will renounce our faith. It is that we will become so distracted and rushed and preoccupied that we will settle for a mediocre version of it. We will just skim our lives instead of actually living them.”

I’m no Luddite. I love podcasts, my GPS app, and my Dwell Bible reading plan. But my weekly Screen Time report makes me wonder what kind of effect my use of technology has on my soul. So I’m again going through the process of silencing notifications, deleting apps, taking digital Sabbaths, and putting limits on my smartphone usage.

I want to become a Psalm 1 kind of person: delighting in and meditating on God’s law day and night. I don’t want to live a life of digital distraction.

In 2006, few of us faced this danger. Now all of us do.

When they recorded U23D in 2006, few of us faced this danger. Now all of us do, and we must find a way to respond. We must learn how to curate our attention in an age of endless scrolling and infinite distraction.

We can’t go back to 2006, so we’d better learn how to live with our smartphones in a way that doesn’t endanger our souls, and teach others how to do the same.