As phones get smarter, people are getting dumber—so it seems.
There may be some hyperbole in such a statement, but Cal Newport shared some valuable thoughts on a 2017 study discussing the impact of smartphones on our memory and overall mental capacity. In his short article, one section really captured my attention:
"The mere presence of the device... sapped cognitive resources. The effect was particularly pronounced in those who self-reported to be heavy phone users."
Who Wants Brain Fog?
This is alarming on many levels. I am concerned with mental clarity and reducing the brain fog I have often felt over the years. Most of us don't want to lose our ability to learn and retain our fondest memories and new information. We hate the hazy afternoon brain fog that overcomes us. We desire to watch and pray without falling asleep (Matthew 26:41). The process of sanctification involves learning and applying wisdom from God's Word, and I desire to think as clearly and deeply as possible. Don't you want to memorize more Scripture, retain more of God's Word, and be more present with God and His people?
Let us not forget that distractions—like our smartphones—hinder us from the focus needed to meditate on God's Word and pray. J.C. Ryle famously stated in A Call To Prayer:
"Faith is to the soul what life is to the body. Prayer is to faith what breath is to life. How a man can live and not breathe is past my comprehension, and how a man can believe and not pray is past my comprehension too."
In other words, we are not bodiless souls going about our spiritual disciplines for the next 20 or 30 years. Rather, our bodies impact our spiritual lives and vice versa. This is important because we need to be good stewards of the bodies God has given us.
On countless mornings I have peeled open my eyes with a desire to spend time with the Lord before getting wrapped in the chaos of everyday life. Before I slid our of the sheets and placed my feet on the cold hardwood floor, I reached for the nightstand to grab my iPhone. Five minutes became fifteen. Fifteen minutes became thirty. Then, I'd hop out of bed in an adrenaline-packed flurry to get ready for work, leaving my Bible on the shelf.
No time was left for my Lord. The Savior of my soul is on the backburner as I go about real life and leave my spiritual life behind for the day. I'm not saying I wasn't saved or didn't care about God the rest of the day. That's not the case. It's just much harder to get my mind and soul focused on Christ if I don't meet with Him early in the day. If I don't speak to my Father in the morning, it's much more challenging to walk by His Spirit in the afternoon.
"The mere presence" of my device has kept my mind from taking in God's Word. You've been there before. You try to focus, but you find yourself going back over a verse 5 or 10 times because you can't seem to stop your wandering mind from drifting to the tasks awaiting you later that day. As a "heavy user", I've seen that forbidden fruit light up and grab my attention away from prayer only to never return. I told myself, "This might be important. I better take a quick glance". Soon after that quick glance, my already "sapped cognitive resources" didn't improve. I got up from prayer feeling like a dried leaf on a brisk afternoon in late autumn.
What should we do about our phones?
We're spiritual people, but God has also given us bodies with our souls. Cognitive impairment matters. We are called to be "sober-minded and alert". We have a real enemy who "prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8). Our minds and thoughts are inseparable from our souls. Our thoughts reflect the heart beneath the surface (Matthew 15:19).
1. Recognize the importance of your mind. The greatest commandment is to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37). This points to more than just the brain and its cognitive abilities, but it doesn't call for less. Remember this and live in light of it every day of your life. Many people lament the loss of their brains, and we should make the most of ours while we are still able.
2. Evaluate your phone usage. Is your phone a tool or a toy? Do you use it for education or entertainment? Does it aid your devotion or add to your distraction? When do you pick it up for the first time? When do you put it down for the night? Are you enslaved to your phone (1 Cor. 6:12)? How you use your phone says more about your relationship with God and others than you could ever realize.
3. Confess or celebrate. For most of us, excessive phone use will be a catalyst to confession. Whether it's escaping to your phone to cope with a rough day or furiously tapping out your angry thoughts and emotions in the comments of Facebook and Twitter, confess the sin in your heart. God is faithful and just to forgive His children because He poured out His just wrath on His innocent and righteous Son instead of you and I—the ones who deserved it (1 John 1:9).
4. Pray and plan. Pray for God's grace and make a plan on how to use your phone more cautiously. Caution may seem to be an excessive word, but our spiritual health can be endangered by our uncontrolled phone use. Smartphone addiction and overuse are symptoms of a grander problem of distractedness from our souls and the God who can transform them (Romans 12:1-2). The present world is passing away, so what sort of people ought we to be in lives of holiness and godliness (2 Peter 3:11)? We need to be diligent to pursue godliness in every area of life—especially our smartphones.
Who's In Control?
We don't have to be enslaved to our smartphones. Nor do we have to fear that we can never get past our smartphone addictions. The key is not simply to use your phone less. Anyone with a little bit of self-discipline can do that. As a Christian, our desires come from a much deeper motive than just wanting better brain health. You are a child of God, and God calls you to consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:11). You are more than a shiny piece of metal glued to your palm. Remind yourself of this every day.