Screening Your Life Away

“Redeem the time, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:16)

In an op-ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger writes to warn anyone who will listen of the deep dangers of life on line: 

“The online forum 8chan is better known than it was last week because the El Paso shooter, Patrick Crusius, uploaded his “manifesto” to the site before he murdered 22 people. 8chan has also been linked to the mass murder in Christchurch, New Zealand, and to a killing in April at a synagogue in California… 8chan describes itself a forum for unimpeded, uncensored “free speech.” That is wrong. 8chan is a nut house. But don’t blame 8chan, Gab.comor Twitter. Blame the internet. More specifically, blame the inevitable deterioration of lives lived online. It is conventional wisdom that the internet has become a toxic force. Possibly the past year’s most astonishing news was that parents in Silicon Valley, where life online was created, are trying to keep their children  away from screens. As far as I know, none of this was predicted.”

Read that line again: the inevitable deterioration of lives lived online. Compare that with the words of Jesus: “I have come that you might have life and have it in abundance.”

We created the internet in the 1960’s in an effort to build a decentralized communication system that could survive a nuclear attack. This structure became the template for the World Wide Web that appeared in the early 90’s when I was at medical school. Then came the mobile phone, and the rest, as they say, is history. Now we have the world and everything in it at our finger tips—and worse still, at our children’s finger tips. “Now,” Henninger continues, “like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we are discovering that the magic can turn uncontrollably malignant.”

Among college students, anxiety (50%) and depression (33%) are rife, and it is surely hard not to see at least some connection to the depersonalized, self-centered, navel-gazing, often vindictive, voyeuristic culture created by the internet.

For a start, the internet bombards the soul with a seemingly endless smorgasbord of information. At first glance, what could possibly be wrong with that? It certainly makes writing term papers easier, and boredom, well, that’s a thing of the past—Just pick up the phone and flick your way through the eternal Facebook postings. If that get’s old, turn to instagram, and then Twitter, and then whatever else is your favorite waste of time. But all this easy access comes with a cost: the moment we feel even a twinge of I-don’t-know-what-to-do-next-boredom, out comes the phone and the feeling is medicated away in the carousel of glossy, inviting images. For the ancients, devoid of such technology, such moments of boredom were very often invitations to think deeply, to read a book, to dream about the future, to reflect on our own character strengths, weaknesses, opportunities for growth and change, and any threats facing us, to be productive. But technology robs us of such moments, and we are very much the poorer for it. Wasted days (and weeks and years) take their toll upon the soul.

So there you have a bored soul looking for something to fill the empty moment. She turns to instagram where she is bombarded by pictures of friends running around on some beach somewhere exotic (and let’s face it, anywhere is usually more exotic than where we are in those moments where we are bored enough to waste 30 minutes on social media), or playing with their dog, or walking in the hills, or hugging their handsome boyfriend. And it’s not just one friend, it’s all of them, they all seem to be living life so much better, bigger, brighter than we are. There is no end to the next tantalizing image on the carousel. Such images remind us of the very thing they can’t give to the observer: LIFE!

In response, we add our own pictures in a vain effort to prove to others that our life is not nearly as mundane as we know it is. Then we go back and check to see how many likes we got. There is a perversely accurate arithmetic going on here. We “like” the images of friends and influencers we respect. But when someone treads on our toes just a little, when we begin to feel just a little non-plussed by someone, it becomes just too much trouble to move the cursor three inches and click “Like!” So these buttons create a deceptively plausible, real-time index of our fragile self-worth. And it doesn’t stop there, does it? Not only do we check to see how many people “liked” (or loved) our image, we also scroll through the names to see “who” our admirers are. Then we take roll call to see who is missing! How could this not make a person anxious and depressed? Some take this whole business to the next level and try to guesstimate who was online and could or should have liked their images. This becomes especially painful if it turns out their friend liked everybody else’s photos but theirs!

All these are just the injuries we inflict on ourselves. I’ve said nothing about the trolls who go around spewing the kind of vitriol nobody would dare to utter in the real world—People would punch them in the nose. But the internet gives an illusory sense of anonymity and privacy. After all, we are typing in the privacy of our bedroom, so we feel we can let the demons out—all of them. I have watched many ministers of the Gospel (sometimes in the mirror) diminish themselves by engaging in petty theological conflict in the comments section of facebook. They think it’s just them and their three interlocutors. But the world is watching. I remember watching in disbelief as one pastor posted a film of himself arguing with his neighbor about a vicious dog. He sounded positively unhinged, and he posted it on facebook! Every time, I see that pastor on line, I think of that video. Who can estimate the psychological fallout experienced by young people who have much more embarrassing and compromising images and videos of themselves strewn across the internet?

One of the most costly, and most silent casualties of this conflict is the ability to do deep work (see Cal Newport’s book by the same title). As a culture, I fear we have lost this ability. I have lost count of the number of times I have sat in Starbucks watching college students attempt to study amidst the constant din of dinging phones. Scarcely ten seconds go by from one ding to the next. Ten seconds: Hardly enough time to string together a sentence worth of consecutive thoughts. These kinds of interruptions happen 24/7. These poor souls might flatter themselves that they are writing a term paper, but in reality they are taking three steps forward and five back every time their phone alarms with a “Read me NOW!” message.

These activities are slowly washing away the topsoil of our humanity, and we haven’t even mentioned the dark underbelly of the internet and its more seedy and sordid environs.

What to do? We must surely start by remembering Paul’s s instructions to the Ephesians, “Redeem the time for the days are evil.” I remember reading Jonathan Edwards reflect on that verse. He said: God has entrusted to each human being an allotted period of time alive on this earth. How we spend our time determines in large measure how we will spend eternity. None of us knows how much time they have left. Once time is past, it cannot be recovered.

Read those lines again and think about them. Time is a serious business; it leads to eternity.

Concrete practical application?

At the very least we need to limit our (and especially our children’s) time on screens. I am trying to put this genie back in the lamp, and it is not easy. Goals we are working towards in our house (These are some of our ideas, I do not mean them to bind your consciences. You are under no law but the law of Christ):

  1. Schedule and limit the time you spend on line in social media, reading online news, or political commentary. Do it on purpose not by accident, and never when you are just bored. Carry a book around with you for those occasions.

  2. Install some kind of filtering software on your devices. This is almost essential if you have young children. We use Covenant Eyes. Nothing is foolproof, to be sure, but something is better than nothing.

  3. When it comes to children: No phones in the bedroom after bedtime.

  4. No phones at the dinner table (Period), and no open phones on dates with my wife.

  5. No phones or internet when I am doing deep work. I just turn it off. If I need to look something up on Wikipedia, I write it down and look it up later (Cal Newport’s book, “Deep Work” has a lot to say along these lines. Read it! Okay, I am prepared to bind your conscience here…)

  6. I really want to get to the place where all the phones in our home go in a basket in the kitchen, and if we want to check our text messages or social media, we go to the basket, retrieve the phone, stand by the basket, do our business, and then put the phone back. But we are not there yet as a family. We have bought the basket though, and it is very pretty.

  7. Allow yourself to experience boredom, and let that feeling draw you to something eternally productive. Read a book, spend a few minutes in prayer, memorize a verse of Scripture, look for something quick on your task list and do it. Most importantly of all, use your time to draw near to God, for when we do, He has promised to return the favor.

Christ Covenant Church