Conservative Christians are overdue for some hopeful predictions about the future of American culture, so here’s one: I believe that my children’s generation will be significantly less addicted to and immersed in digital environments than my own. Call me crazy, but it seems to me that the astonishing amount of research about the horrific effects of social media and smartphones on mental health and well-being is simply the tip of the iceberg. The case against these technologies will only get stronger as we learn more about them and the kids who have never known a world without them.
Perhaps I’m overestimating my own moral will as a parent, or underestimating the shrewdness of Big Tech. Yet this prediction is based on a plausible vision of the future, one in which individuals and families make conscious decisions to control the influence of these technologies on their spiritual, emotional, and intellectual lives. Such a movement is afoot even among secular thinkers, such as the tech critic Cal Newport, who urges us to test whether digital technologies are “serving our values” rather than simply accept Silicon Valley’s latest novelties because of what they are. This isn’t about turning the cultural clock back to 1995. It’s about sustained flourishing in a digital age, which is only possible if we both test the spirits of the age (1 John 4:1) and guard our hearts (Prov. 4:23).
With that in mind, I want to commend five practices that will help us live faithfully in a screen-addled society.
1. Practice Resistance
Behind the current teen and preteen mental health crisis is a crisis of parents who did not want their kids to be the only ones at school or in the neighborhood without phones and iPads. We may flatter ourselves that we’ve outgrown the adolescent fear of being uncool, but in many cases, we simply choose to live out this fear through our children. While I believe a tech backlash is coming, it will not come quickly, and it will only come at all if we choose the true, good, and beautiful, even when it’s socially costly. We need to embrace that navigating these times with our minds and hearts intact will mean painful moments of being made fun of and excluded for the stuff we don’t have, the apps we don’t use, and the entertainment we can’t converse about.
2. Practice Conversation
The epidemic of loneliness and isolation among the most “connected” generation of Americans gives away the fact that these technologies inhibit relationship rather than cultivate it. What humans need is embodied conversation. Our voices and facial expressions—even the dreaded “awkward silences”—connect us to each other in a way that texting, DMs, and a “Like” cannot. One way to make social media technology serve your analog values would be to call instead of comment when you see a friend’s post about significant news in her life. Build time in your week for lunches with other people rather than succumbing to the temptation of scrolling endlessly through your phone while you eat. Again, we should expect that such practices cause confusion or awkwardness at first. A friend who serves at a local college recently told me that the younger students at his school can barely look people in the eye, so habituated are they to the digital tics of e-communication. Press through the initial discomfort for the sake of love.
3. Practice Contentment
C. S. Lewis once observed that a “man with an addiction is a man with very little sales-resistance.” This point works backward as well: Those with little sales-resistance tend to turn into those with addictions. The sheer novelty value of the latest technology is seductive in its promises to optimize our lives and remove inconvenience and discomfort. Yet these novelties often make their consumers exchange freedom for comfort. Streaming, for example, eliminates the “discomfort” of owning physical discs, making sure they work, and getting up to put them into a player. But you do not own what you stream. Even a streaming “purchase” is merely a license that can be revoked or changed at any time. Owning physical copies of books, movies, and music both connects us to them in a more meaningful way and puts natural limits on our consumption. (It also preserves these works from being subtly edited by gatekeepers of RightThink.) The contentment to own and enjoy what you own contrasts against the tasteless maximalism of digital entertainment. What is binged cannot be savored.
4. Practice Intentionality
In his very helpful book The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch describes how his family organizes the layout of their home to make conversation and analog leisure easier, and internet use harder. The TV, for example, is located not in the heart of the living room (where the family spends most of their together time) but in another, smaller area, where it doesn’t loom so large in imaginations. He also commends regular patterns of screen-free rest: one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year totally without digital media. Intentionality is a hopeful concept for families who fear that their only choice is between either tech worship or tech avoidance. Regular breaks put technology in its place and remind us that life is sweet and meaningful even without the abilities it offers.
Another example of intentionality would be revisiting the “family computer” lifestyle. Instead of laptops in every bedroom, one computer could serve the family in a common space, thus divorcing digital technology from the secrecy and isolation that quickly turns it toxic. In the same way that social media apps teach us through their very nature how we should think and feel about them, our physical environments can teach us about the right use and limits of the Web.
5. Practice Love
Call it cliché or blasé if you want, but Christian love is the practice that will best enable us to be faithful to God and each other in a digital age. The shallows of internet existence are calibrated to make us collapse further on ourselves, to isolate us from sacrifice, to trap us in our own head and heart. Social media is not inhumane because it’s so angry—it’s so angry because it’s inhumane. Love, however, is the cure. In a wonderful scene from the film Lady Bird, the main character is discussing her college essay with an elderly nun who remarks that her essay’s description of Sacramento was brimming with love for her hometown. “I guess I pay attention,” the young girl says. The wise nun responds, “Don’t you think they are maybe the same thing: love and attention?” As the gospel draws us out of ourselves, we will become the kind of people who can’t be satisfied with therapeutic distraction. The results will not only be good for us, but good for the unbelieving world around us, which may even dare to ask those strangers and aliens to give a reason for the hope that lives within them.
Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books and publishes a regular newsletter called Insights.
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