A Biblical Approach to Smartphones

CBS aired a 60 Minutes interview titled “Brain Hacking” a couple of years ago. The discussion was centered around the effect that smartphones are having on individuals, while also exploring why it is that smartphones appear to be so addicting. I was giving a second look into this study, realizing that this kind of discussion remains more relevant than ever. So, I decided to approach this issue biblically, and to explore it a bit further.

I’m going to address these two questions:

  1. What is “brain hacking”?
  2. How should a Christian use their smartphone?

What is “brain hacking”?

Brain hacking is a slang term that smartphone programmers have created in order to describe the art of programming smartphones in such a strategic way that it makes users want to constantly return to their phones. In other words, programmers are intentionally producing smartphones to become addicting.

Sounds rather crazy right? So, where is the proof?

Tristan Harris, a former Google product manager, revealed several methods that programmers are using to keep customers hooked to their screens.

In the interview, Harris actually compares the phone to a slot machine since “checking your phone or tablet is the equivalent of yanking the slot machine arm, because your mind is eager to see what is going to come next.” [1]

He admits that Snapchat has invented what is called “streaks” to keep people returning to their phones. There is no real reward in maintaining a streak but your mind perceives it otherwise. Whenever you maintain a Snapchat “streak” or receive a like on Instagram or Facebook, your brain can’t help but perceive this as a reward, and as a result produces dopamine (often referred to as “the feel-good drug”). The dopamine release is what keeps you returning to check your phone.

The same minds that are programming our social media platforms are the same minds that devise algorithms for slot machines in Vegas.

Have you ever wondered why sites like Facebook and Instagram are free?

It’s because Facebook and Instagram are not the product. We are. All of these methods are being used to keep us on the phone longer, because “the longer we look at our screens, the more data companies collect about us, and the more ads we see.” [1]

All of these social media platforms are also using a “continuous scroll, because it’s a proven way to keep you searching longer.” [2] They use relentless notifications to buzz your phone so you will return to it, and then they introduce you to a continuously scrolling screen to keep you looking for more. Thus, exposing you to ads for longer in the hope that they will make money off you. The crazy thing is, it’s working.

You need to know that social media platforms are not inherently neutral. They are being programmed to program us to form addictive habits in our smartphone usage. This should be a wake-up call.

The full interview can be found here.

How should a Christian use their smartphone?

As Christians, we are called to have self-control and to abstain from idolatry. Smartphones pose the threat of us becoming addicted, as well as holding our smartphones as an idol. To fall into one category would mean to fall into both.

The reality is that “our advances in technology have a way of rendering God more and more irrelevant to our world and in our lives – the very definition of worldliness.” [3] Scripture says that “friendship with the world is enmity with God. . .Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (Jas. 4:4). To seek self-assurance through digital “likes” is to put trust in the world, and to devote more time to social media than to God may suggest an addicting form of idolatry.

Fortunately, smartphones are now being developed with phone usage monitors. These apps allow users to track how much time they are actually spending on their phones, as well as which apps they are devoting the most time to (a gift from God if you ask me).

We should approach the issue of smartphone usage in the same manner that we would approach any other form of consumption. Whether it be the time we spend at the gym, playing sports, playing video games, watching television or movies, eating, drinking, or even at work. Nothing that we consume or devote our time to should ever take the place of God. To love anything more than God is idolatry.

The fruit of the spirit is self-control, and we have been given the spirit of self-control (2 Tim. 1:7). We should always exercise caution towards anything that we devote our time to.

If screen time is taking time away from reading Scripture or worship or prayer, then it might be time to reevaluate your screen time devotion. If using technology is moving you away from God instead of towards Him, then it may also be time to reevaluate how you spend your time on the internet.

To exercise self-control is to be diligent. Therefore, we should always use our smartphones, tablets, or laptops diligently.

So, next time you catch yourself reaching for your smartphone, make the decision to ask yourself “Why am I looking at my phone right now?” If you don’t know the answer, then don’t pick it up. If you do know the answer (maybe you’re hopping on to check your email), then be diligent in completing that one task.

My advice is that every time you go to access the internet, first tell yourself exactly what it is that you are planning on doing, and then be intentional with completing that one task. This simple practice will safeguard you from wasting time and/or wandering off to other websites or apps.

We only have one life to live. Do we really want to live it through a phone?

[1] Lusko, Levi. I Declare War: 4 Keys to Winning the Battle with Yourself. (Nashville, TN.: Thomas Nelson, 2018), 126.

[2] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/brain-hacking-tech-insiders-60-minutes/

[3] Reinke, Tony. 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You. (Wheaton, IL.; Crossway, 2017), 192.