In a bare, windowless room, you are told to sit down in a chair hooked up to a strange device. Moments before entering the room, one of the researchers confiscated your phone and handed you a remote control.
You are given a simple instruction: Stay seated for fifteen minutes and think.
However, at any time, you can push a button on the remote control and give yourself a mild electric shock via the device hooked up to the chair. After fifteen minutes alone, you are free to go.
In 2014, psychologists from the University of Virginia wanted to test whether or not people preferred negative stimulation (the electric shock) to no stimulation (alone with your thoughts). In their study, 67% of male participants and 25% of female participants opted to give themselves periodic electric shocks during the thinking period.
Their conclusion? “Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.”
On average, millennials (those of us who reached young adulthood around the year 2000) check their phones 74 times a day. Each day, 52 millions pictures are uploaded to Instagram by the app’s 500 million users. As of spring 2016, Facebook averages 1.71 billion unique users. Worldwide, 16 million text messages are sent per minute – or 23 billion per day.
A recent Nielson Company report found that adults in America spend on average 10 hours and 39 minutes per day in front of a screen – be it on smartphones, TVs, tablets, personal computers, or video games.
In his masterwork The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer wrote “A generation of Christians reared among push buttons and automatic machines is impatient of slower and less direct methods of reaching their goals.”
Tozer published The Pursuit of God in 1948.
It makes you wonder what he would write about the millennials, doesn’t it?
This Is Your Brain On The Internet
In 2008, author Nicholas Carr wrote an article for The Atlantic that created quite a stir among sociologists and tech gurus alike. Titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“, Carr suggests that increased internet exposure creates an expectation within our brain to absorb information in quick, short bursts of data and images.
When the internet displays a piece of content – like an article or a video – the internet “surrounds the content with the content of all other media it has absorbed.” This presentation scatters our attention by diffusing our concentration – there’s always something else to click on.
We become shallow – bouncing between YouTube videos, Buzzfeed articles, podcasts, Instagram posts, SnapChat stories, and Facebook albums with wild hyperlinked abandon.
According to a research study by Microsoft, our attention spans have fallen from twelve seconds in 2000 – around the time the mobile revolution began – to eight seconds in 2013.
We literally have the breadth of the world’s knowledge at our fingertips but our attention only lasts as long as it takes to read a couple of tweets. It is as if we’re swimming in a sea of knowledge but instead of packing our SCUBA gear, we only brought a snorkel.
Unfortunately, the detrimental effect the internet is having on our attention spans isn’t just limited to the time we spend on our computers or phones.
Multiple research studies have shown a positive correlation between frequent social media use and depression/anxiety. Researchers have speculated this could be a result of our natural inclination to compare our personal failures to other people’s public successes, political coverage burnout, and the echo-chamber effect.
Do you find yourself frequently forgetting names, directions, and the locations of objects? According to a study conducted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), when people expect to have future access to information they have lower rates of information recall.
The study goes on to describe the Internet as “the primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside of ourselves.” Or, in layman’s terms, it operates like a massive, external hard drive for our brains.
Therefore, the Internet subtly suppresses our brains’ ability to archive short-term memories because we’re developing an expectation that any meaningful bit of information is only a Google search away.
If You Didn’t Post It, Did It Even Happen?
In our never-ending quest to portray our lives as interesting as possible, we often pause or remove ourselves from meaningful or fun moments in order to share it to the world via a social media post. According to a recent survey, 58% of respondents say posting a perfect picture has “prevented them from enjoying life experiences.”
We find ourselves basing our enjoyment of an experience not solely on the personal significance it has in our own lives, but on the reactions of other people after we’ve posted about it.
Social media’s Like/Favorite approval system is a strange beast. It is a quantifiable form of social endorsement that in some cases may mean very little to those doling them out, but could mean very much to those receiving them.
The neurological circuitry of our brains may be to blame our symbiotic relationship with social media. Each time we receive a notification – a ‘like,’ email, text message, comment, or ‘favorite’ – our brains release a small amount of dopamine – the organic chemical that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.
While a formal research study has never been conducted, when asked most social media users have admitted to deleting posts when they didn’t get enough ‘likes’ within a specific amount of time.
And I’ll be the first to admit – I’m guilty of all these things.
I’ve deleted unpopular posts, visited locales to get that one picture, agonized over writing the perfect caption to accompany an image and compared the quality of my life to other people within my social circle.
The New Normal
However, the news isn’t all doom and gloom. Different interpretations of the same data suggest that our brains may simply be evolving to accommodate the digital age – and, according to several researchers, that’s a good thing.
The benefits of our interconnected lives are almost too numerous to mention. Through the Internet, disparate groups of people can come together in supportive online communities. People can stay connected with friends from every stage of their life. Education is now more readily available than ever before, and new innovative ideas can leap across the world with a single keystroke.
Whenever a new wave of technology becomes mainstream, our brains – as well as our culture – learn to adapt to the new medium.
And as long as technology continues to evolve, there will always be alarmist sounding off against potential social catastrophe. In the past, people feared the printing press, home radio, and the television.
British author Douglas Adams famously wrote out a list of three rules “that describe our reactions to technologies:”
Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
However, the ubiquity of technology in our daily routine and the unfounded hysteria of generations past shouldn’t prevent us from reflecting on the current state of the culture in the present.
When was the last time you went to class early or boarded a bus and didn’t see a majority of the people staring at their phones?
When was the last time you visited a national park or well-known landmark, and you weren’t swamped by a swarm of selfie-taking tourists?
When was the last time you went to a concert and the person in front of you didn’t watch the entire performance through their phone’s camera?
When was the last time checking your phone wasn’t one of the very first things you did after waking up?
When was the last time your phone wasn’t at least an arm’s reach away?
Where We Are
In John 15:4, Jesus says to His disciples, “Abide in me, and I in you.” The word abide comes from the Greek word meno, which means “to stay, remain, or continue.” From this root, we get the word abode, or home. To abide in something means more than just to give a passing acknowledgement. The word resonates with a more permanent implication.
When our “social validation” mentality infects our spiritual lives, our relationship with God becomes less about pleasing Him and more about participating in socially acceptable behaviors carefully constructed to portray the appearance of godliness.
Too often, I find it difficult to be “present” even in social situations – especially if conversation stills or silence begins to invade my personal space – when I know a quick glance at my phone can take me somewhere more interesting. In another Pew Research Study, 89% of cellphone users admitted to using their phones during their last social gathering, and 82% of adults felt their phone usage hurt the conversation.
In his now-infamous monologue on Conan, comedian Louis C.K. said, “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there.”
Louis C.K.’s observation is corroborated by sociologist Sherry Turkle in an article for The New York Times: “In solitude we find ourselves. If we can’t gather ourselves, we can’t recognize other people for who they are. If we don’t know how to be alone, we’ll only know how to be lonely.”
We are a generation rapidly losing the capacity the sit still and self-reflect. We no longer abide. For Christians, we have to accept the reality that our nosediving attention spans is affecting our relationship with God and each other.
During my prayer and quiet time, my mind actively rebels against the very idea of personal introspection and holy contemplation. Because I’m so accustomed to exerting the least amount of effort in order to obtain the best results, I find it difficult to communicate with the Creator of universe
And I don’t think I’m alone.
One year ago, I quit Twitter. Not because I believe there’s anything inherently wrong with Twitter, but because I increasingly found myself thinking in snarky, cynical sound bites. When those thought patterns began to manifest themselves within my personal conversations, I knew I had to make some changes in my life.
This is just one example from my own life. I know of other people who turn their phones off at 9 p.m., leave their phones in the car during date night, or have “phone baskets” for guests when they visit their homes.
Maybe the next time you meet a friend for coffee, you leave the phone in your purse. Or when you’re at a concert, you snap one photo and put the camera away for the rest of the show. Or set aside a few hours at home as a “no screens allowed” zone. Or – at the very least – the next time you start feeling bored or distract, try to resist going for your phone as long as possible. Just see what happens.
And, as far as our relationship with God goes, A.W. Tozer has words for that as well: “Any man who by repentance and sincere return to God will break himself out of the mold in which he has been held, and will go to the Bible itself for his spiritual standards, will be delighted with what he finds there.”
In the book of 1 Kings, God leads the prophet Elijah to the top of a mountain in order to speak with him. While Elijah is waiting, a large storm, earthquake, and fire occur in rapid succession. After each natural disaster, the text reads, “But the Lord was not in the wind/earthquake/fire.”
Instead, the Lord spoke to Elijah in a gentle whisper.
It’s difficult to hear a whisper when we willfully surround ourselves with constant noise. God often speaks to us in the stillness, during the moments when we pause to self-reflect. When we lose that ability, how are able to discern the voice of God amid the babble of thousand digital voices?
God will always find a way to get our attention.
And a gentle whisper will always be preferable to an electric shock.
Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age by Sherry Turkle
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
The Circle by Dave Eggers
“Nose Dive” – Black Mirror: Season 3, Episode 1 – Netflix
The Innovation of Loneliness – YouTube
Note: An edited version of this article appeared on RELEVANT Magazine website as “Social Media Could Be Killing Your Spiritual Life.”