So, How Much of Your Brain is Controlled by Your Phone? Discussion Group Resources

(For a full list of topics and resources, go here).

by Anna Mussmann
Topic Introduction
I was just thinking about 2020—it felt crazy not to go to church for Easter last year. I’m so glad we don’t have to livestream services this year.  
Speaking of streaming, let’s talk about smartphones and the internet! So useful, so ubiquitous, so easily all-consuming.
Personally, I like to think that I’m reasonably balanced in my use of technology, but maybe I’m not. It’s hard to know what’s really healthy and normal when society considers it “normal” for ordinary people to be at least mildly addicted to their phones. It’s hard to know what’s balanced when it’s so easy to allow technology to shape my habits.
Am I wasting too much of my life online? Am I shortening my attention span? Am I allowing my phone to feed the habit of doing whatever is easiest in the moment—a habit that could make it harder to resist bigger temptations later?
The big question for this month is, “How do we assess and control the role of phones and the internet in our lives so that we can use them as tools instead of letting them become distractions, crutches, addictions, or overlords?”
Three Other Questions to Consider:
1.      What is the biggest way the internet/technology helps you live as a Christian? What is the biggest way it makes it harder to live as a Christian?
2.      James Clear (author of Atomic Habits) says that when we have bad habits, it’s for a reason. Bad habits are a response to a need in our life. Simply planning to NOT do the bad habit doesn’t work: we need to replace it with a good habit that fulfills the same need. What “need” prompts most of us to go online/engage with technology even when we shouldn’t? What are small, practical things we can plan to do instead?
3.      How much do you, personally, use your phone/the internet? If you feel like it, pick a day to make a tally mark each time you touch your phone or go online. See if it’s more than you expected.


In “Your smartphone📱is making you👈 stupid, antisocial 🙅 and unhealthy 😷. So why can't you put it down⁉️” Eric Andrew-Gee writes about negative effects of phone use as observed by various studies. You’ve probably heard about some of these, but seeing them all together is sobering. I was struck by the Texas study that concluded the mere presence of a face-down smartphone makes it harder for people to focus. Do you see any of these negative effects in your life?
Most critiques of phone use focus on utilitarian measurements of attention span and intelligence. In “OurAddiction to Technology: Resistance Must Begin in the Home” Christopher Tollefsen offers a different framework by discussing internet use in terms of Christian virtues. How would you apply this article to your own life as an adult? Are there ways to use the internet that would give us practice in these virtues instead of undermining them?
Alternative Readings (in case you want to add or substitute)
If you’re looking for a shorter alternative to the Eric Andrew-Gee piece listed above, you could try this one.
Michael Davis suggests we simply dump technology to save our souls. Would you be willing to do any of the things he suggests? I liked this article both because the humorous tone made me laugh, but also because it’s a reminder that sometimes we actually can pick and choose what technologies to use, at least in our own lives.
In Would St. Benedict Zoom? The Rule of St. Benedict as an Antidote to Technopoly Peter Ramey and Jon Schaff discuss the danger of “acedia,” saying, “While the concept of acedia became embedded in the vice of sloth, it does not mean listlessness or laziness. One of our finest modern commentators on this vice, Jean-Charles Nault, argues that acedia is an ‘uneasiness,’ ‘restlessness,’ ‘curiosity,’ or ‘instability’ that drives us not to care about fulfilling our duties, spiritual and otherwise.” They point out that technology nurtures this vice.
This piece, How smartphones and social media are changing Christianity, is a bit alarming. I was especially struck by the comments about how people read the Bible differently when they do it on a screen.
James Clear’s blogpost, How to Break a Bad Habit and Replace It With a Good One, offers helpful ideas that can be applied to phone use.
Discussion Questions
1.      (Ask everyone to take a turn briefly answering the following question): What’s your two-minute summary of your relationship with your phone/the internet? Do you use these tools too much, or have you found a good balance? Do they mostly make your life better or worse?

2.      The article by Eric Andrew-Gee says that “Average users look at their phones about 150 times a day, according to some estimates, and about twice as often as they think they do. . . . Add it all up and North American users spend somewhere between three and five hours a day looking at their smartphones. . . . [O]ver the course of an average lifetime, most of us will spend about seven years immersed in our portable computers.” What’s your reaction to this?
3.       The Andrew-Gee article refers to a lot of negative effects of phone use. Many of these come from individual studies that haven’t been replicated. This is true, for instance, of the Texas study concluding that the presence of a facedown phone on a table made it harder for people to focus. Do you think it says anything that most folks find the study plausible anyway? Do you “buy” all of the other ill-effects mentioned in the article? Do you see any in your own life?
4.       What do you think of the quote, “People tend to treat attention span like some discrete mental faculty, such as skill at arithmetic, that is nice to have but that plenty of folks manage fine without?”
5.       In “Our Addiction to Technology: Resistance Must Begin in the Home” Christopher O. Tollefsen suggests thinking about our phone and internet use in terms of Christian virtues and vice.
Recently I came across another article arguing that the negative effects of phone use sound a lot like “the vice of acedia, a condition noted by early monastic fathers such as Evagrius of Pontus. While the concept of acedia became embedded in the vice of sloth, it does not mean listlessness or laziness. One of our finest modern commentators on this vice, Jean-Charles Nault, argues that acedia is an ‘uneasiness,’ ‘restlessness,’ ‘curiosity,’ or ‘instability’ that drives us not to care about fulfilling our duties, spiritual and otherwise.” Do you think time online dulls our desire to fulfill our duties?
6.      Christopher Tollefsen says, “The development of temperance, or moderation, is the only solution here.” Does our modern lifestyle make temperance harder to develop? What are ways we can try to practice it? Could we see our phones as helpful in the sense that they give us a huge opportunity to practice moderation?
7.      What are “nudges” you have used in your own life to help you use your phone less? (Examples I've used or heard of: making your phone function in grey scale instead of color, turning the phone off at certain times, leaving it in a drawer). 
8.      Books on forming habits suggest that instead of focusing on the choice we are struggling with in the moment, we think about the kind of person we want to be, and then act like that person would. What kind of person do you want to be? What “disciplines” can help us be the kind of people who aren’t addicted to our phones? What is one small change you would like to make to your own technology habits? 
9.      Do you think we are in danger of living in fear of phones and the internet and treating them as more powerful than they really are?
10.  As Christians, we live in grace, not under the law. How does that impact the way we think about phone use?

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