“You don’t realize it,” states a former Facebook executive, “but you are being programmed.” And the programming is making us more scattered, shallow, angry, and anxious.
That’s from Nicholas Carr’s bestselling book: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. I’ve been reading it. The updated edition offers a cache of new data on how exactly our smartphones are transforming us.
Spoiler: it’s mostly bad.
And it raises a question Jesus never answered: Can a person serve two (competing) algorithms? Must he or she love one and hate the other? (Matt 6:24)
INVISIBLE “FORCE FIELDS”
Since I’m a teacher, I found the following studies fascinating.
A 2017 experiment from the University of Arkansas showed that college students who brought their phones to class scored a full letter grade lower on exams. Surprisingly, it didn’t matter whether they looked at the device or not. The mere presence of a smartphone correlated to lower scores.
Another 2017 study, entitled “Brain Drain,” showed similar results.
As the phone’s proximity increased, brainpower decreased. It was as if the smartphones had force fields that sapped their owners’ intelligence.
I’ve sensed this in my own life.
Several years ago, I completed a research PhD in theology, which entailed hours of dense reading. I’m good at it—unlike my abysmal aptitude for math, science, and mechanical tasks.
But even I have noticed how the smartphone has changed my ability to focus. If my iPhone is within reach, it is just too tempting to set down the book every few minutes to scan Facebook or Instagram. It’s like placing a drink in front of an alcoholic.
Studies bear this out. When the elderly are taken out of the statistics, daily reading time (outside of one’s smartphone) has plummeted to an average of six minutes. In Carr’s words,
Curling up with a book is losing its place in the general culture. It’s becoming a quaint pursuit, like ballroom dancing or darts.
The claim reminded me of a troubling observation of the English Professor Alan Jacobs. A colleague asked him, “What are the most influential Christian books of the past decade?” Jacobs responded this way:
the answer to that question is: There aren’t any. In our moment, Christians are not influenced by books at all.
REWIRING OUR BRAINS
The problem is deeper than habit.
Neurologists suggest that our brains are being rewired by technology. The troubling effects are evidenced by the high percentage of Silicon Valley designers who keep their own children FAR away from the very products they create.
Carr’s research shows how complex algorithms have zeroed in on what grabs our attention (a neural system called the “salience network”) in order to bombard us with “supernormal stimuli” that hijack attention.
Sadly, we are far more likely to be “hijacked” by things that aren’t true or good or noble. A 2018 MIT study of Twitter showed that fake or grossly misleading stories were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than factual ones.
Of course, technology has upsides.
My research time—say, when looking up a quotation—has been reduced dramatically. My “memories” feed sends daily reasons to be grateful as I look back at pictures of my children. And platforms like blogging have allowed me to connect with larger groups than I could have otherwise.
“[O]nly a curmudgeon would refuse to see the riches,” Carr writes.
But. But. But.
We need some guardrails. Here are three of mine:
1. Set “App limits”
Under “Settings” and “Screen Time” I’ve been progressively lowering the amount of time my phone will allow me to use Facebook and Instagram (I’m not on Twitter). I’m down to a combined total of thirty minutes per day—but the catch is I have to actually hit “Okay” when it tells me my time is up in the evening.
2. Quarantine the iPhone (periodically)
For awhile, I kept my iPhone nearby in the evenings so I could see the time. (I am on a very strict schedule, like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rainman.) But I’ve found that this is just too tempting.
Now I’ve started leaving the phone in another room and simply wearing my traditional watch.
3. Give extra credit
Since carrots beat sticks (no pun intended), I’ve started offering extra credit to any students willing to part with their smartphones during class.
(I was going to make a fancy box to put them in, but, you know… coronavirus.)
Rather than rant about how “narcissistic millennials” are addicted to their devices, it seems best to present the research and give them a chance to score some easy points. (Besides, some of the worst phone addicts I’ve known are older Americans, who use their devices to rant narcissistically about “narcissistic millennials.”)
If you’re interested in the research, or in making meaningful changes, check out the updated edition of The Shallows (here).
Here’s to rediscovering the deep end.
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Want to support this blog? Here are some other things I’ve written:
- Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements (Seedbed, 2018)
- The Mosaic of Atonement: An Integrated Approach to Christ’s Work (Zondervan Academic, 2019)
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