We all know there are countless benefits to smartphones, yet even the secular world is becoming increasingly alarmed by how our phones are changing us for the worse.
Like many of us, I really appreciated Tony Reinke’s 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, published in 2017 but still as relevant as ever. Reinke insightfully highlights 12 corresponding ways that our phones are changing us and undermining our spiritual health.
They overtake and distort our identity, for example, and tempt us towards unhealthy isolation and loneliness. They amplify our addiction to distractions and thereby splinter our perception of place in time. They push us to evade the limits of embodiment and cause us to treat one another harshly.
In Reinke’s conclusion, he leaves us with a chilling warning. He has come to see that “the impulse to pull the lever of a random slot machine of viral content is the age-old tactic of Satan”. It’s the strategy that CS Lewis describes as the ‘Nothing’ strategy in his Screwtape Letters:
“It’s the strategy that eventually leaves a man at the end of his life looking back in lament: ‘I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.’
This ‘Nothing’ strategy is very strong: Strong enough to steal away a man’s best years, not in sweet sins, but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them.
Routines of nothingness. Habits unnecessary to our calling. A hamster wheel of what will never satisfy our souls.”
As Reinke highlights, this warning is a prophetic alarm to the digital age where we are always busy, but always distracted – “diabolically lured away from what is truly essential and truly gratifying”.
Few of us could say we have a truly (spiritually) healthy relationship with our phones. More often than not, I suspect they really do distract us from enjoying God and loving our neighbour.
Alongside his warnings, Reinke suggests corresponding life disciplines to counteract the negative impacts of our phones – disciplines such as minimising unnecessary distractions to hear from God, embracing our flesh and blood embodiment, and handling each other with grace and love.
I am so convicted by the need to embrace these life-giving disciplines! Yet the battle against such a powerful, persuasive, persistent tool often seems insurmountable.
And that’s where another book came in so helpfully for me – one that fewer of us might have read and one that is not written specifically for Christians. (In fact, one review said it should be available from the UK’s National Health Service.) Yet despite its broad target readership, I found it an invaluable tool in the spiritual fight for my attention.
The book, by journalist Catherine Price, is tellingly titled How to Break Up With Your Phone. In it, she presents “a practical, hands-on 30-day plan to break up – and then make up – with your phone”.
The goal isn’t to get rid of your phone, because clearly it has an immense capacity for usefulness in our lives. Rather, it’s to create a long-term relationship that, in the words of the author, “feels good”.
The end goal of simply ‘feeling good’ might not sit well with us as Christians – because we rightly want to satisfy more than our feelings – but the plan actually allows you to set your own goals of what you want to get out of your relationship with your phone.
The key starting question is: What do you want to pay attention to? Because, as Price says, we are what we pay attention to.
I found the book incredibly motivating and practical.
There isn’t much substitute for getting hold of a copy of the book and following the daily steps, but to give you a sense of what’s involved – and maybe just a few tricks to implement today – the first stage in the plan is to take stock of current phone habits (there are apps available to help you do this, e.g. ‘Moment: Cut Screen Time’), before starting to create what Price calls ‘speed bumps’. These are “small obstacles that force us to slow down. By creating a pause between our impulses and our actions, speed bumps give us the chance to change course if we decide we want to take a different route.”
One example of how to do this is to delete all social media apps from your phone. This is not so that we go cold turkey with social media and never use it again, but that when we do use it, we go through our phone’s web browser. This creates another speed bump and gives us time to ask ourselves if it’s really what we want to do with our time right now.
Another suggestion is to sort apps and put them into folders – not just for the sake of being tidy but because it makes them less attention-grabbing. This creates another speed bump and promotes the helpful habit of launching apps by typing their names into the search bar rather than scrolling.
On Day 7 Price gives a heads-up for a future habit change: get an alarm clock – because if you use your phone as an alarm clock, you’re guaranteeing your phone will be the first thing you check when you wake up. This is something that was important for me in instituting the phone-free bedside table.
The climax of the plan is a trial separation – a recommended 24-hour period without any internet-enabled devices with screens. Price helps readers prepare for this and then gives questions to reflect on and learn from the experience. These ‘digital sabbaths’ are not the functional end point of all phone usage – but I did find the experience instructive when I tried it myself. I identified that time away from my phone made me realise how unnecessary it is at points in the day. I felt like I’d in fact been cheating myself out of fully experiencing things by being constantly connected to my phone.
And in light of that, one of the most persuasive thoughts for me came in the epilogue:
“Like a former smoker who’s now repulsed by the idea of smoking, I associate spending time on my phone with feeling bad – which makes me want to spend as little time on it as possible”.
Perhaps the book’s stated goal of ‘feeling good’ is actually a helpful one after all. We are creatures of habit and it’s hard to break bad ones, especially when there are thousands of engineers working to keep us glued to our screens. I am sure that being distracted by my phone has lost me countless opportunities to enjoy God more and show love to others. But perhaps – at least in this millennial age – I need to be convinced that it actually feels good not to be on my phone. And I am now far more conscious that being on my phone usually doesn’t make me feel good or productive.
Conversely, this has sadly sometimes led me to be unloving to others: when I have precious moments of downtime when my toddler naps, for example, often the last thing I now want to do is catch up on messages or phone calls and so I rudely leave people hanging. But when I consider the bigger battle for my attention, and the call to be present with my family in the here and now, I still feel like it’s ultimately a move in the right direction to want to be away from my phone, rather than attached to it.
I don’t write this as someone who has overcome the battle against smartphone addiction. Price rightly warns that we need to constantly be on guard, especially once the plan is finished. She suggests creating a monthly reminder to check in with yourself and ask some reflection questions. I failed to do this, and I only recently realised how many bad habits had crept in during the months that had elapsed since my own 30-day plan had ended last year. My toddler is now more aware of my habits than ever – I don’t want her to have to compete with a device, and to see me with it always in my hand. So I went back to the book (which is what has prompted this article!) and reinstated some helpful practices, but it is still a conscious battle each day.
The battle for our attention is fierce – even for those
who don’t follow Jesus. How much more does the devil delight in seeing God’s
people distracted. In God’s kindness, one tool in our box is How to Break Up
With Your Phone.
 Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2017, ebook version, conclusion.
 Reinke, conclusion.
 Quoted in Reinke, conclusion.
 Reinke, conclusion.
 Catherine Price, ‘Do You Want A Healthier Relationship With Your Phone?’, phonebreakup.com (accessed 4 March 2021).
 Catherine Price, How to Break Up With Your Phone, Trapeze, London, 2018, p. 82.
 Price, p. 92.
 Price, p. 112.
 Price, p. 113.
 Price, p. 167.