It is easier to see the digital speck in the eyes of others than to see the digital log in my own eye! Serving in student ministry offers a front row seat to the possibilities and dangers of the digital age. I picked up 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You by Tony Reinke because I want to shepherd families and teenagers through these digital waters. However, I know I can only lead others where I myself have gone—an important word for pastors and parents in the digital age. I need to change my own digital habits to lead others to do the same. Parenting and pastoral ministry in the digital age will require both deeper reflection and interaction on these digital habits.
Our digital habits are more ingrained in our lives than we often realize. Changing them will not happen overnight or simply after reading one book. However, if you are looking for a great place to start, look no further than Tony Reinke’s 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You. Reinke skillfully asks questions I have not thought to ask and exposes habits and temptations that I am only beginning to see as problems. Reinke’s approach neither dismisses the dangers of the digital age nor succumbs to the fear often incited by them. Rather, he asks a simple question, “What is the best use of my smartphone in the flourishing of my life?” He offers neither a prosmartphone nor a antismartphone message. Rather, he promotes self-reflection on the good and bad digital habits that are likely evident in all of our lives. “What we need,” Reinke argues, “are new life disciplines birthed from a new set of life priorities and empowered by our new life freedom in Jesus Christ.” (21)
“[L]ife in the digital age is an open invitation for clear, biblical thinking about the impact of our phones on ourselves, on our creation, on our neighbors, and on our relationship to God.” (37)
Reinke highlights and interacts with the most recent research on smartphone technology, but his primary desire is to show how both seeing and treasuring the glory of God in Jesus Christ transforms our digital habits and how our digital habits are either pushing us toward or away from seeing and treasuring God’s glory. He presses us to apply the Scriptures to the way we view and use our smartphones. We cannot afford to disconnect our phone use from our spiritual health.
“Scripture makes life focus possible in the digital age, and it does so when Jesus boils down the purpose and aim of our lives into two goals: treasure God with your whole being and then pour out your God-centered joy in love for others. On these two commands all other smart phone laws depend.” (190)
After providing a helpful theology of technology, Rienke highlights twelve ways our phones are changing us—physically, socially, mentally, and spiritually. Some of these changes may seem more obvious than others. For example, our smartphones amplify distractions (ch. 1), feed our craving for approval (ch. 3), and tempt us towards visual vices (ch. 8). He also presses into areas that are not so obvious. For example, our smartphones tempt us to underestimate our embodied limitations (ch. 2), undermine our literary skills (ch. 4), complicate our ability to identifying ultimate meaning and find our place in time (chs. 4, 12), distort our identity (ch. 6), and drive us towards isolation and loneliness (ch. 7). In each chapter, Reinke goes beyond just identifying the problem. He provides a deeper awareness of how our phones are changing us and points us to necessary disciplines that foster spiritual health in our digital habits.
One of the greatest strengths of 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You is the clear call to evaluate ourselves and our digital habits. Reinke argues, “Self-criticism in the digital age is a necessary discipline—an act of courage. ‘It is by being able to criticize that we show our freedom. This is the only freedom that we still have, if we have at least the courage to grasp it.’” (194) 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You does not aim to give you all the answers, but helps you ask and answer the right questions to pursue spiritual health in the digital age.
Ask yourself these questions. If you answer yes to any of them, then you will want to pick up a copy of 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You:
- Have you felt trapped by instinctual checking your phone first thing in the morning, throughout your day (in a crowded room, in a conversation, in a moment of boredom), or as the last thing you do at night?
- Have you favored the ease and comfort of online friendships over the real life but awkward relationships with those in your local church?
- Have you refreshed your feed with hopes of finding more likes—that measurable indicator approval and affirmation?
- Have you been driven to post something in light of the approval you think it will bring?
- Have you noticed your tendency to skim content online but retain so little?
- Have you observed your conversations marked by breaking news on your Twitter feed or stories of what others are doing per their most recent Instagram or Facebook post?
- Have you felt the difficulty of engaging in the hard work of sustained study or Bible reading?
- Do you find it easier to check your phone than to stay in prayer?
- Have you used your phone to shield yourself from uncomfortable or difficult situations?
- Do you instinctually fill your silence and boredom with the noise and distraction of social media?
- Have you listened to lie of digital anonymity and allure of cheap digital thrills?
- Have felt the fear of missing out on your most recent like or comment?
- Have you been on the giving or receiving end digital slander?
- Have you felt disconnected and displaced from too much time on your phone?
Reinke not only provides a framework for understanding why we struggle in these areas, he also points to a way forward. Remember his leading question: “What is the best use of my smartphone in the flourishing of my life?” His answer to this question suggests that the best use of our smartphones is when we are aware of their dangers, limit their reach into our lives, and use them as a means to glorify God and serve others. This means we must minimize distractions in order to hear from God, embrace flesh-and-blood embodiment, aim at God’s approval, treasure the gift of literacy, listen to God’s voice in creation, treasure Christ and be conformed to his image, serve and love our neighbors, delight in the unseen Christ, prioritize God’s Word, live without fear of eternal regret, show grace and gentleness toward one another, and find our place in God’s unfolding history.
Recently, on a popular TV show, I heard a parent lament, “I am afraid teenagers these days cannot live without their devices.” I know many parents who have expressed the same fear, and not without good reason. Our phones are changing us. While some many indeed need or chose to live free from a smartphone, most will not. Perhaps a more pressing question to ask would be: Can we truly live (i.e. flourish) with our devices? To answer that question, I recommend you grab a copy or a few copies of 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You. Read it with your family or with some friends. Reflect on a chapter at a time both personally and, preferably, in dialogue with others. I will close with Reinke’s own invitation in the preface:
“If we are honest enough to face our smartphone habits, and use the pages ahead as an invitation to commune with God, we can expect to find grace for our digital failures and for our digital futures. God loves us deeply, and he is eager to give us everything we need in the digital age. The spilled blood of his Son proves it. We need his grace as we evaluate the place of smartphones—the pros and cons—in the trajectory of eternal lives. If we fluff it, not only will we suffer now, but generations after us will pay the price.” (27)