Screen time and the decay of the soul

As a general rule of thumb, I have discovered that the more time I spend on my iPhone the more unhappy I feel. It seems to underscore a number of key failings that, I suspect, many will identify with: a loss of self-control and increase of impulsiveness; a failure to pay attention to those I love; time squandered that should have been used to more productive (or simply more relaxing) ends.

Perhaps the real eye-opener has been the ability to monitor my own phone use with the new Screen Time feature. I’m reluctant to divulge the results because, unlike some people at Salt I am not an oversharer, but I can at least point to some sobering statistics. Those aged 15 to 24 spend four hours a day on their phones. That amounts to a quarter of waking hours, or 3 months a year (without any meals or toilet breaks). If you consider that a workday is typically about 8 hours, this is equivalent to spending thirty-four years of your working life on your phone. [1]

Now, I could be wrong, but I suspect that none of us choose to spend our lives in such a fruitless and compulsive way. It’s not as though anyone begins their new year with a resolution to commit more time to their screen.

I’m guessing that most of us feel very uncomfortable about all of this. We know that being on our phones this much makes us worse at relating to people in real life. We’re aware that our phones seem to be fuelling and intensifying the anxiety epidemic that has gripped society. And we also have this nagging feeling that we’re missing out on the best of real-world experiences: serendipitous encounters with strangers that never took place because we don’t make eye-contact; concerts sullied by a compulsive need to video what we’re supposed to be enjoying; meals forgotten because we took some photos of the plate and then spent far too long selecting the perfect filter whilst mindlessly spooning the stuff into our mouths.

All of these worries (and more) are valid. But I would suggest that at the root of our concern about screen time is a more important and profound issue: our mortality. Life is already too short, and this is not how we ought to spend it, especially as staring at a screen seems to have the odd effect of making time move even faster still.

There’s a line in a psalm in the Bible that says, ‘Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom’. In other words, it is a prayer that assumes you will live a smarter, more enlightened and intentional life if you meditate on how quickly time passes, and how little there is to waste of this finite resource.

A consideration of the shortness of life does not immediately answer the question of how best to use our time. We can at least agree that nobody is going to lie on their deathbed and express a regret such as, Too little time spent tapping and scrolling. We know that screens are stealing far too much time, but what should we be doing instead?

Besides the typical suggestions (pay attention to your kids, read more books, be in-the-moment) I believe that the part of us that suffers the most from this chronic inattention and zero tolerance to boredom is our souls. Throughout history, men and women have been very deliberate in seeking out opportunities for perfect solitude in order to deepen their capacity to know God. So, while we worry about our general psychological health as we behave more and more like impulsive addicts, I believe it is the soul that suffers most in this digital age.

This is not because technology is somehow inherently opposed to spirituality – a myth I wholeheartedly refute – but simply because the soul is slow and technology has the effect of making life move fast. There are very few moments for true contemplation any more, and especially when that contemplation throws up genuine existential questions and emotions. It is simply too easy to seek out distraction that is really a form of escapism, giving brief shots of dopamine to mask the deeper issues of life.

Perhaps this is one reason many in the West have turned to a form of pseudo-spirituality in mindfulness meditation. Besides the promise of reducing anxiety, the fact that meditation has roots in Eastern spirituality may explain some of its appeal. Yet somehow we’ve ended up with a reduced and acceptable version for secular people. While I’m not an advocate of simply trying out whatever religious worldview or spirituality seems attractive to you in the moment (after all, the question of what is true must come into it at some point), I also find it dismaying that we have been duped by consumerism to such an extent that even spiritual practices are cut off at the roots, and then repackaged as products to improve your life.

What then is the solution to this neglect of the soul? To begin, there is the obvious need to tame your phone addiction (and I highly recommend reading Jaron Lanier and Cal Newport for inspiration). But it is not sufficient to merely carve out more space and time for boredom.

Why not? Because the deepest need of the soul is to find peace through truth. The discomforting sense of existential angst that many are familiar with (the very sensation you may seek to escape by finding distraction in your screen) emerges out of uncertainty about life, its purpose, and its end. Those feelings need to be confronted, but the secular world we inhabit has proved woefully inadequate at answering these deep questions and longings.

Therefore, if I’m right in arguing that our phones are the latest iteration in our human quest to seek distraction by entertaining ourselves to death, then the real solution is to face up to the hardest questions and look for answers. That is where the Christian faith has a remedy that perfectly matches the soul sickness I’m describing, since it offers both a rational and persuasive account of reality, along with a satisfying and joy-giving way of life.

[1] If a person works from age 21 to 65, they might spend a total of 82,720 hours at the workplace. But since screen time runs over the weekend, that is 28 hours a week, or 3.5 workdays per week. That adds up to 64,064 hours between the ages of 21 and 65, which is the same as thirty-four working years (and no, I didn’t bother factoring in leap years in any of these calculations).

Andrew Haslam

Andrew Haslam
Andrew is a church leader with a wife and three kids. He is a walking cliché in his enthusiasm for coffee and craft beer.

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