Self-criticism in the digital age is a necessary discipline. The way we live, the way we interact, our personal habits, and our desire for distraction have all experienced a radical shift since the emergence of mobile Internet, the smart phone, and the built-in camera. The results are that often the smart phone has become our instantly accessible non-pharmaceutical antidepressant; providing instant gratification, escape, or the temporary high of acceptance that briefly lifts us out of our mundane. While our smart phones can be a God-send, in many ways pulling the lever on the slot machine of random distractions is the devil. In his 2017 book 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, Tony Reinke reveals how smart phones have created a new set of struggles, and why it’s so important for us to not simply identify the changes in our behaviour, but actually respond with wisdom, setting boundaries for ourselves and our families, for their good and for ours.
Have our phones really re-wired our brains? Have we been reprogrammed by these same devices that boost our productivity, increase our ministry reach, and connect us to treasured loved ones in a way that (if left unchecked) can cause significant damage to our relationship with God and with others? Reinke poignantly observes
Whether it’s a “breaking-news” alert, a direct-message prompt, a text message, or a news app, our phones make our lives vulnerable to the immediacy of the moment in a way unknown to every earlier generation and culture. Social media and mobile web access on our phones all drive the immediacy of events around the world into our lives. As a result, we suffer from neomania, an addiction to anything new within the last five minutes.
Reinke also points to the way our lives have now been totally transformed, often lived with the aim of being “Instagram-able”. Through social media our lives have become moments of shareable stageplays—he pleads with us to consider the motives behind our constant self-promotion (either as a parent sharing every moment of their child’s growth: a behaviour he called “sharenting”, or that person who can’t possibly go on a ‘missions trip’ without stopping to take that selfie with all the kids outside the orphanage) in light of the gospel of the humble and self-sacrificing Saviour.
A neat feature of the way Reinke seeks to address these issues is that the book is organized into a chiasm. So, while each chapter contributes something valuable to the overall discussion, the chiasm means that chapter one is thematically paired to chapter twelve, chapter two is paired with chapter eleven, and so on. As an example, our phones feed our craving for immediate approval (chapter three) which promises to hedge against our fear of missing out (chapter ten). Here’s the full twelve chapters so you can see for yourself where he’s going:
1. We Are Addicted to Distraction
2. We Ignore Our Flesh and Blood
3. We Crave Immediate Approval
4. We Lose Our Literacy
5. We Feed on the Produced
6. We Become Like What We “Like”
7. We Get Lonely
8. We Get Comfortable in Secret Vices
9. We Lose Meaning
10. We Fear Missing Out
11. We Become Harsh to One Another
12. We Lose Our Place in Time
The central chapters are six and seven, where Reinke explains how “our phones overtake and distort our identity (6) and tempt us toward unhealthy isolation and loneliness (7)”. But it isn’t just about warnings, for within each of the chapters are life-giving disciplines to flip the chapter title into something aimed at helping us protect and preserve our spiritual health in the digital age. These include minimizing unnecessary distractions in order to hear from God (chapter one) by embracing our place in God’s unfolding history (chapter twelve), and seeking God’s ultimate approval (chapter three) to find that in Christ we have no ultimate regrets to fear (chapter ten).
12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You is a book that all of us need, and some of us need desperately. Reinke writes with great humility, including himself in the narrative to help us see him not only as a teacher but also as a fellow struggler. I completely relate to (and am very guilty of) Reinke’s lament that some days he feels like his phone is a digital vampire, sucking away his life and time; while other days he feels like a cybernetic centaur as body and phone blend seamlessly into something more powerful and productive than either could be on their own. Reinke’s observations are simultaneously sage and stinging; and I can’t avoid walking away with new awareness of just how reliant I am on this small rounded rectangle. I’m challenged to enter a new era of engagement with my phone; recognising that often the dings and rings can wait, that I need not be so concerned about the scrubbed-up version of my digital self, and that in my relationships my phone habits will help or hinder me in pointing people to the all-satisfying Saviour.