The Gospel Coalition

The first time I really became aware of the full intensity of the problem was in a conversation with a couple students training for the ministry.

I was speaking at one of our top seminaries when after the class two men came up to me in private to ask a question. I could tell by the way they were speaking quietly and shifting their eyes that they had something awkward to say. I was sure they were going to talk about pornography. And sure enough, they wanted to talk about their struggles with the internet. But it wasn't porn they were addicted to. It was social media. They told me they couldn't stop looking at Facebook; they were spending hours on blogs and mindlessly surfing the web.

This was several years ago, and I didn't know how to help them. I hadn't encountered this struggle before, and I wasn't immersed in it myself. Five years later: I have, and I am.

I used to make fun of bloggers. I used to lampoon Facebook. I used to laugh at Twitter. In my life I've never been an early adopter with technology. I've never cared what Steve Jobs was up to. I used to roll my eyes at technophiles.

Until I became one.

Now I have a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter handle, a Bluetooth headset, an iPhone, an iPad, wifi at work and at home, cable t.v., a Wii, a Blu-ray player, multiple email accounts, and unlimited texting. Pride comes before a fall.

I was born in 1977 so I can remember life before the digital revolution. In college we had to go to a computer lab to get on the internet, which wasn't a big deal because nothing happened on email and I didn't see anything interesting online. By the time I was in seminary, however, things had changed. Email was a vital way to communicate and the internet was how my friends and I were getting our news (and doing Fantasy Football). But even then (in the late 90s and early 2000s) life was far less connected. I only got an internet connection in my room part way through seminary--one of those loud, lumbering ack-ack dial-up monstrosities. I didn't have a cell phone in high school, college, or graduate school. As little as four or five years ago I didn't do anything on my phone and barely accessed the internet at home. I'm not suggesting those days were purer and nobler, but my life felt less scattered and less put upon. Something has changed. A lot, actually.

What Are the Threats?

Much has been written and will be written about our insatiable appetite for the screen. I'll leave it to others to decide if Google makes us stupid and whether young people are more or less relational than ever before. Let me simply suggest three ways in which the digital revolution, for all its benefits, is also an accomplice to our experience of being hassled, frazzled, and crazy busy. For if we understand the threats, we may have some hope of finding a way forward.

First, there is the threat of addiction. That may sound like too strong a word, but that's what it is. Could you go a whole day without looking at Facebook? Could you go an afternoon without looking at your phone? What about two days away from email? Even if someone promised there would be no emergencies and no new work would come in, we'd still have a hard time staying away from screen. The truth is many of us can't not click. We can't step away, even for a few hours, let alone a few days or weeks.

In his bestselling book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr reflects on how his attitude toward the web has changed. In 2005—the year he says the "Web went 2.0"—he found the digital experience exhilarating. He loved how blogging junked the traditional publishing apparatus. He loved the speed of the internet, the ease, the hyperlinks, the search engines, the sound, the videos, everything.

But then, he recalls, "a serpent of doubt slithered into my infoparadise" (15). He realized that the Net had control over his life in a way his traditional PC never did. His habits were changing, morphing to accommodate a digital way of life. He became dependent on the internet for information and stimulation. He found his ability to pay attention declining. "At first I'd figured that the problem was a symptom of middle-age mind rot. But my brain, I realized, wasn't just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it—and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became. Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check e-mail, click links, do some Googling. I wanted to be connected" (16).

I've noticed the same thing happening to me for the past few years. Unless I'm really in a groove, I can't seem to work for more than twenty minutes without getting the urge to check my email, glance at a blog, or get caught up on Twitter. It's a terrible feeling. In a postscript to The Shallows, Carr explains that after his book came out he heard from dozens of people (usually by email) who wanted to share their own stories of how the Web had "scattered their attention, parched their memory, or turned them into compulsive nibblers of info-snacks." One college senior sent Carr a long note describing how he had struggled "with a moderate to major form of Internet addiction" since the third grade. "I am unable to focus on anything in a deep or detailed manner" the student wrote. "The only thing my mind can do, indeed the only thing it wants to do, is plug back into that distracted frenzied blitz of online information." He confessed this, even thought he was sure that "the happiest and most fulfilled times of my life have all involved a prolonged separation from the Internet" (226). Many of us are simply overcome—hour after hour, day after day—by the urge to connect online. And as Christians we know that "whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved" (2 Peter 2:19).


Comments:

Dr Julian Kennedy

January 31, 2013 at 09:20 AM

It's like any gadget, a tool, which can be used for the glory of God or become a time wasting addiction.Communication is of the essence of love and social sites are means of communication.As Paul says, 'all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.'

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Lois Westerlund

January 30, 2013 at 04:20 PM

Kevin's penetrating blog and the great comments here lead to two questions: 1) what is new about this and what is not new? and, 2) while admitting it is a cycle, what is cause and what is symptom? Acedia, one of the seven deadly sins, is not new. Luke's description of the Athenians, who "spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing" sounds like blogging minus the internet. One could always avoid being alone by heading to the public square, or, in the time of the patriarchs, the city gate, or, in the 40's, the local coffee shop. I think today's distraction differs not in kind, but in degree. It is effortless, easy, always available, and global in scope. It keeps the viewer in control, not at the mercy of other conversationalists who all want to be listened to. All of this makes it a possible drug, potentially addicting, as Kevin has described. But will going "cold turkey" increase our love for God, our desire for his presence, our passionate caring about the lost? Isn't turning to electronic devices the expression of what has always been in the human heart? What always will be, apart from God.

So how we do grow in love for our Lord? By knowing Him more deeply. By daily picking up His word (not for sermon or Bible study prep), bowing in prayer to ask God to show us the face of His Son in His Word, trusting His Holy Spirit to do just that. When we truly taste and see that the Lord is good, will it not help keep us free to use, but not be enslaved by, all that is available to us today?

yankeegospelgirl

January 30, 2013 at 03:54 PM

Quit spying on me Kevin!

Hal

January 30, 2013 at 03:12 PM

Yes, but ... reading blogs is not as mentally lazy as watching TV. Blogs are the academic journals of today (well, not quite), where cutting-edge ideas are posted every day. They stimulate the intellect and the spiritual life; that can't be said of TV. Blog reading probably does consume too much time, however (I should've been working on sermons 40 minutes ago.)

Lee Furney

January 30, 2013 at 02:39 PM

John Stott's observation seems to echo forward to our now technologically saturated generation, "lengthy exposure to television tends to produce physical laziness, intellectual flabbiness, emotional exhaustion, psychological confusion, and moral disorientation." Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (1982). Each of us will need to watch our lives as well as our doctrine closely in order to benefit ourselves and those we minister to (see 1 Tim 4:16).

Ben Duncan

January 29, 2013 at 12:36 PM

Kevin,

Thanks for sharing. Sometimes it seems we're so "plugged in" that trying to "unplug" is a traumatic experience. I've led multiple marriage retreats where as soon as we go to break many will pull out their iPhone and start playing games... even as their spouse is sitting there.

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Alisdair Smith

January 29, 2013 at 11:56 AM

Could any of us be prepared to give up wifi and smartphones? Nope? Thought not. Sometimes as a species, we're too selfish for our own good. How many of stop and ask, "What is God doing in all of this?" As knowledge is greatly increased in the information age, wisdom is more and more obscured, but what of the technology itself? What is God doing there? It's never just one thing.

I'd recommend taking the time to watch this fascinating film on the effects of Electromagnetic Radiation (cellphone, wifi, etc) on the human body, and other species. If you ignore some of the false world view presuppostions and concentrate on the science part, it provides a fascinating insight into how God is judging us with the technology itself in this digital age.

If we ask, "How does a mobile phone cause cancer?" we're asking the wrong question. Asking, "How does a mobile phone prevent the human body from curing cancer?" is a much better question indeed.

https://vimeo.com/54189727#

Jon

January 29, 2013 at 11:41 PM

Excellent post. Thanks for the transparency.

William Pugh

January 29, 2013 at 10:39 AM

And so I had to fight to keep my mind focused on this blog post, working to take in what was written and allow it to affect my soul. Such was the temptation to move on, quickly, to take in quickly small bits of information while being the least affected possible. A mile wide and an inch deep.

What a toll this takes on my spiritual life, which requires profound thinking and long, concentrated communion with God.

Will part 2 offer help? Should I read it, or would it help more to resist the urge?

Thanks Kevin for the reminder of the dangers.

Melody

January 29, 2013 at 10:15 AM

Ok thoughts.....I have always been scattered. When I was doing house work I would decide I should be doing school work and vice versa. I went to college while having kids. When I wasn't taking classes I was starved for mental stimulation. I would devour magazines in waiting rooms.

So now there are blogs. I would much rather read them and think about the real and practical way that God is in our lives. Since giving in to twitter I have discovered even more blog articles. I am more aware of what is going on in the world. When the pastor references something like sex trafficking or the anniversary of Roe vs Wade, I know what he is talking about. A lot of my friends do not. When my brain feels starved I read. If I can't remember a verse right then a google. I wish there was a bible program that didn't require exact spelling or word form before it would take a stab at what I might mean.

I suppose my behavior could look like addiction but if I'm bored I want to read. If a study is particularly hard then I want to avoid working on then ill look at Facebook - in the old days I would have called someone on a land line. The only reason I check my email as often as I do is because organizations having gotten really bad about sending out emails just hours before something. Church is one of the worst. It means sitting somewhere waiting for something to start or a child to get back from a retreat only to find out later an email was sent out with a change. The school system is just as bad. So checking email at the end of the day isn't an option

Didn't people use to rent isolated cabins to go write before there was Internet?

The real question for me is - do people really have to do those things while in the company of live people? Are we fortunate to get their attention at all?

Flyaway

January 29, 2013 at 10:02 PM

I'm still trying to overcome TV addiction. I've had many conversations with God about this. I'm a low energy person anyway and then I came down with fibromyalgia which makes me not want to do anything because of the pain. I start my day with 1/2 hour of prayer and then 1/2 hour of Bible study. Then I check my e-mail. After that I do my exercises. On Tuesdays I go to church for an hour prayer group. Wednesdays is 3 hours at Precepts Bible study. Thursday and Friday I do errands and laundry. My husband does the cooking. I start watching TV about 2 in the afternoon. When our son was in Japan for 2 years I checked my e-mail every commercial to see if he had sent me any e-mail. Now on Thursday and Fridays I read blogs. My son suggested I start writing a blog so I did. Being retired and fighting a chronic illness has slowed me down even more. I figure God wants more of my time so that is why I have more time! I got off Facebook and Twitter. I don't send forwards that much anymore except great blogs like Kevins!

Truth Unites... and Divides

January 29, 2013 at 09:52 AM

Pastor DeYoung: "... the internet was how my friends and I were getting our news (and doing Fantasy Football)."

Did you ever win your league's Fantasy Football championship, Pastor DeYoung? More importantly, ever talk polite trash to your fellow fantasy football owners?

George Westerlund

January 29, 2013 at 09:21 PM

Don't get trapped. Life has an important use for your time. Cell phones and blogs can trap us. Addressing specifically the faithful believers in the prestigious city of Ephesus, the Apostle Paul wrote, "Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time." Ephesians 5:15

Moses Park

January 29, 2013 at 09:19 AM

Dear Pastor Kevin,

I never comment on blog posts but I had to for this one. Thank you so much for addressing this issue and being honest about your own struggles. That is all.

anaquaduck

January 29, 2013 at 09:05 PM

Freeze....Step away from the computer, put it down, put the mouse (or whatever is applicable) down...

It's a good tool, but like most things, there needs to boundaries.

Chris S.

January 29, 2013 at 08:43 AM

Kevin,

In Mohler's The Conviction to Lead, he has a chapter called, "The Digital Leader: Leaders Understand that the Digital World Is a Real World--a World in Which They Are Called to Lead." In sum, Mohler seems to suggest that using Facebook, Twitter, blogging, etc. are NECESSARY for effective leadership today.

I, however, have intentionally avoided these things, not for fear of addiction, but because I think the opportunity costs of diving into the digital world would be too great for me. As a young pastor, I wonder (as just one example): Is my time really better spent blogging rather than reading? Tweeting rather than praying? I'm not suggesting that these are mutually exclusive options--only that my choice to do some things is a default choice to do less of other things--whatever they may be.

So, after reading Mohler's book, I've started to think, 'Maybe I need to dive in.' Then I read this post and think, 'Maybe not.'

I don't know what you're planning for Part II, but I would love to hear what you think about the NECESSITY of digital media for the pastor.

Thanks!

Jason B. Hood

January 29, 2013 at 07:41 AM

"Unless I'm really in a groove, I can't seem to work for more than twenty minutes without getting the urge to check my email, glance at a blog, or get caught up on Twitter."

Yep, that pretty much sums it up. You know, for a minute there I thought you misspelled "Jason's biography" in the title of this post.

Thanks for tackling this topic.

Althea LeBlanc

January 29, 2013 at 06:18 PM

http://theasideas2.blogspot.com/2011/07/blogging-versus-living.html

I'd say more but my hubby is home and it's time to give him a big hug and kiss and finish making dinner.

Ethan Larson

January 29, 2013 at 05:07 PM

@ Melody
Hun? can you please explain how this relates to the blog post?

Melody

January 29, 2013 at 04:03 PM

I think there should be a rule that if you are going to blog then you should be required to be internet savvy so that you can know what kind of impact you are having on people's hearts.

Having someone else post your blog or tweet is wrong on so many levels. Paul always knew what kind of response he got with his letters.

Erik Dawson Mallasch

January 29, 2013 at 03:49 PM

Ethan and the rest,
Same here. Since becoming a Youth Pastor and coming out of the carpentry industry (mostly outside, away from computers), I have noticed my thought processes, and ability to think/hold onto thoughts has greatly changed and diminished. I am in my office for over 30 hours a week (I spend 20 to 30 with students and leaders as well), in front of my computer. I would agree, I can't work more that 20 minutes (max), before I have to surf the web, which can eat up to 45 minutes seemingly instantly.
Kevin, as usual, you are on the cutting edge of dealing with issues that are on the front-lines of the battle surrounding the church and it's Shepherds. I appreciate your transparency, and your ability to challenge others in areas we just don't talk about much. I hope that you'll address some practical strategies we can adopt to change these dangerous, addictive, consuming habits we've developed with technology.

Erik Dawson Mallasch
Anchorage, AK

Ethan Larson

January 29, 2013 at 01:02 PM

Hi, my name is Ethan and I am an addict. ...Hi Ethan.

"scattered attention, parched memory, compulsive nibbler of info-snacks" That's me to a T.
i would add: dominates my work, impacts my family.

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