The dawn of the iPhone ten years ago, in the words of its chief inventor Steve Jobs, was a revolutionary event. It created a whole new category of personal technology that would, by itself, establish an entire industry within the global marketplace. The iPad, introduced two-and-a-half years later, would also prove transformative to the personal technology industry, again creating a new category broadly known as the tablet. Immediately after their respective unveilings, the iPhone and iPad prompted companies worldwide to produce similar products in order to gain a share in this new market. Presently there are approximately 2.6 billion smartphone users and 1 billion tablet users in the world.
For individuals, these products have not only changed the way we communicate and learn and seek entertainment; these touch-screen devices have changed the way we think about each of these areas of life. After a decade, we can say that in a very real way, the smartphone and tablet are not merely changing the things around us; they are changing us.
The Gift of Smartphones and Tablets
Smartphones and tablets are excellent tools. They enable us to communicate quickly and efficiently with our friends, family, and work colleagues through text messages, email, and face-to-face video. They allow us to be more productive by providing organizational resources and a multitude of industry-specific applications that enhance and streamline our work. Smartphones and tablets can be used for educational purposes by supplying books, videos, and programs that enrich, teach, and edify. We can track our exercise and food consumption for the sake of our health. We can catalog our home library, learn Spanish, store and retrieve notes, and maintain a blog. We can take pictures and record videos. We can listen to music and Podcasts and sermons. And we can do each of these things with the ease of simply touching a few buttons on a screen. Amazing.
Christians should be thankful to God for these good gifts. I don’t believe God intends us to use our smartphones and tablets begrudgingly or hesitatingly, as though they were evil but helpful tools that allow us to navigate life in this world. In His good providence, God has enabled men and women to develop technology that can be used to help us grow spiritually, serve others, be productive in good works, and, in many ways, just make life a whole lot easier. For each of these things we can be thankful to our gracious Creator.
Thinking Carefully About This Kind of Technology
Yet, because of our own sin and our residence in a fallen world where man’s bent is to misuse and abuse God’s good gifts, we must give careful thought to these clever devices. First, we must think rigorously over our use of this kind of technology because of its great potential for good and for evil. I’ve already mentioned many of the positive uses we can find for our smartphones and tablets, but there are a host of negative uses for these devices as well. These devices can distract us from our responsibilities, open doors to pornography, and drown us in frivolous entertainment.
Second, we need to pay attention to how we use our smartphones and tablets because this technology has become utterly pervasive in our lives. It is likely that nearly every person reading this article is in possession of a smartphone or a tablet, or both. It is no longer possible to avoid thinking about how we, as Christians, should use this kind of technology because it is now firmly embedded in our lives, and it’s here to stay.
Beyond “Screen Time”
There is much debate about the effects that personal technology like smartphones and tablets have on children and adults. Much of this debate has been framed around the issue of “screen time” and how much of it should be allowed for people based on their age. What is becoming clear, however, is that the category of “screen time” is no longer helpful in determining how we should think about and use our personal technology. In fact, “screen time” may never have been a useful category because limiting our discussion to a formula (e.g., a three-year-old can handle one hour of screen time, a seven-year-old can handle more) tends to circumvent the discernment process. The issue is not so much with how much time we are on the screen but what we are doing with it.
Using the Screen for Good
For example, much of our work requires that we spend a significant time each day looking at a computer screen. In my case, editing and writing articles and books, working on teaching and preaching material, writing and responding to emails, maintaining and updating our church’s online presence, conducting research, and recording notes from personal study for later retrieval all require screen time. In each area, however, I am using the screen for productive and creative purposes that will immediately or eventually benefit others. I can also use my laptop or my iPad for edificatory and educational purposes. Because I am a pastor, these enrichment uses often intersect with the productive purposes.
Similarly, a child can use an iPad to learn how to read, how to solve fractions, how whales use sonar, or how Paul escaped the angry Jewish leaders in Acts 9:22-25. But the tablet can also be used for creative purposes like drawing and writing, and, for older children, music development and video editing.
Personal technology also provides us with opportunity for wholesome entertainment. We can watch an NBA basketball game, an interesting documentary, a wholesome television program, or a BBC mini-series. We can play fun games like Angry Birds. We can even watch that funny YouTube video about Charlie biting his brother’s finger and laugh with delight.
Our devices also allow us to interact with our friends and family. We can text, send emails, or talk to each other over video. We can engage each other on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
In each of these areas, it is not enough to simply restrict or expand the quantity of our screen time. We must ask if we are using our personal technology for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). Using our iPhones and iPads for wholesome educational and enrichment purposes is good. We are consuming media rather than producing something, but if the content is spiritually and intellectually nutritious, then our minds and hearts will benefit. But we can also use these devices to reflect our Creator by crafting poems, drawings, short stories, videos, and music. And in moderation, we can enjoy some wholesome entertainment.
Beware of Avoidance
It is possible, however, to yield to our technology in a way that does not bring glory to God or serve our neighbor (Matt 22:37-39). One way we do this is by using technology to avoid our responsibilities. When faced with a difficult chore or project or conversation, we all know how easy it is to turn to our smartphone or tablet to carry us away from our tasks and troubles. But this is a form of unhealthy escapism, and it only harms our souls and keeps us from loving our neighbor. It is also a sign of spiritual sloth (see Prov 22:13). We must be aware of our tendency to use technology to avoid what God has given us to do.
Beware of Addiction
Similarly, we can become addicted to our technology. This addiction usually expresses itself in our inability to go more than a few minutes before we check our phone—whether we are looking at email, social media, or the latest basketball score—and it often coincides with our desire to escape from a particular situation or emotion (see above).
By constantly yielding to the urge to look at our phones, we have trained our minds and hearts to “need” these digital “fixes” in order to feel as though we can function properly (whether we are aware of this need or not). What’s most devastating about these habits is that they are ultimately an expression of idolatry. We are looking to our phones to provide the mental comfort and strength that only Christ can provide (see Jer 2:12-13). If you are unable to keep yourself from looking at your phone every few minutes, or if you find yourself checking your phone first thing every morning, you are probably in the throes of smartphone addiction. Over time, this addiction will fragment your mind, numb your heart, and render you insensitive to spiritual realities because you have replaced God with an idol (see Is 44:17-20).
Beware of Abdication
Finally, it is possible for parents to use their personal technology in order to evade their responsibility to love, teach, and disciple their children. In this case, the tablet or smartphone can distract the parent from their parenting tasks, or these devices can be given to a child so that the parent can have some undistracted time to focus on other things. In this latter case, it is all too easy to allow our kids to be merely entertained by the screen rather than learning from or producing something with it.
Again, the problem is not with screen time per se, but with the kind of screen time and the motives behind setting the screen in front of our children. If we find ourselves regularly looking at our phones while in the presence of our children or in order to provide temporary relief from the pressures of parenting, we are in danger of neglecting our children. The same holds true if we are constantly placing the tablet in front of our kids so that we can escape to some form of entertainment (on another device). Satan is prowling around looking to devour our children, so we must be watchful (1 Pet 5:8). And it is impossible to be watching for Satan when we are watching replays of last night’s game or scrolling through Facebook for an hour.
Smartphones and tablets are a gift from the Lord to be used for His glory and our good. But using these devices for God’s glory and our benefit requires that we think carefully, constantly, and biblically about how and why we are using them. This is hard work, but it will pay off. We will grow spiritually, produce good works, and guard our children against the wiles of our great enemy.