How Should the Believer Relate to Smart Phones and Social Media? (Part 1)

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The influence of social media and smart phones in our lives is top of mind for all of us.  Scott Bangert walks us through this relevant and concerning topic in 3 successive articles, commencing with today’s introduction.

You’ll want to read and reflect on this helpful and thorough approach and then tune into articles 2 and 3 coming up in the following weeks.  Scott provides some in-depth thinking on the subject and covers areas such as addiction, concentration, sleep, predators, etc. for your consideration.

Part 1 of 3:  The Mind and Heart Ensnared

Solomon says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” While I believe he is correct, I have to admit to some wavering doubts when I think about how much life has changed since the first iPhone was released in 2007.

I have friends who frequently talk about throwing their phone in a lake, and while I can understand their perspective, I can’t say that I can personally relate. I love my phone. I would part from it only for an upgrade. I definitely did not associate phones with anxiety and fear. That completely changed when my children started asking for phones of their own.

When I was a kid, one of the biggest dangers I was warned about was guns, and my parents made me take a gun safety class before being allowed to handle one. Today, our kids face a different danger: we have to decide when to give our kids smart phones or allow them on social media. This certainly seems like a much less consequential decision, but despite their innocent appearance, I think smart phones are actually more dangerous than guns. Like guns, they have the power to take life (consider teen suicide and distracted driving if you think I am exaggerating), but unlike guns, smart phones have the added danger of luring a person’s soul to hell. As disciples of Christ, we do well to give careful thought to how to avoid these dangers, both for our kids and for ourselves.

Like guns, smart phones and social media are morally neutral. Romans 14 teaches that the believer is free to do what the Bible does not prohibit. The Bible certainly does not address the issues of smart phones and social media directly. This means that we as believers are obligated to form our own convictions on the issues. My purpose in discussing this topic is a bit like that gun safety class I took as a kid. I intend to discuss the dangers of smartphones and social media that scientists have identified so that we can form our own convictions from there, using the Bible as our filter system.

Shaping the mind

Proverbs 23:7a – “For as he thinks within himself, so he is.”

Solomon teaches us that we are the sum total of our thoughts. This biblical truth is supported by modern neuroscience. Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of the brain to change shape in response to inputs from the outside world. In essence, experience literally shapes the brain.

We are born with most of the brain cells we will need throughout a lifetime, but they are constantly making and breaking connections with each other based on what we think, do, hear, and see. Some connections are strengthened, while others are trimmed away. Neurons that fire together, wire together, which means that as we use pathways in our brain for a specific task, they strengthen. When we fail to use them, they are removed.

This happens throughout a lifetime, but the largest peaks in shaping our brains occur in early childhood, early adolescence, and our early 20s.

If this is true, where we focus our attention, particularly as young people, becomes extremely important. Malcom Gladwell famously described highly successful people, from Bill Gates to the Beatles, as those who put 10,000 hours of practice into their area of expertise. That equates to 10,000 hours of strengthening certain neural pathways, which as a result become extremely efficient. That also means neglecting other pathways, which are trimmed away.

In the United States, the average adult spends 4 hours a day on their phone, and the average teenager spends over 7 hours a day on screens. If you have the stomach for it, check your screen time report on your own phone to see where you are. For these teens, in less than four years, they have accumulated the 10,000 hours required to become phone “experts,” and in so doing, they have significantly changed the shape of their brains.

In those same four years, these teens have also spent 10,000 hours not giving their attention to other skills, opportunities, and abilities. For better or for worse, screen time changes the shape and wiring of our brains.

As followers of Christ, when we compare these findings of neuroscience to the Bible, we find that the stakes are higher than we thought. Romans 12:2 says, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”

  2 Timothy 2:15 calls us to be diligent workmen, “accurately handling the word of truth.” This may entail spending well over 10,000 hours, and though we dare not call ourselves experts, to the degree that we do this (through the work of the Holy Spirit), Paul says we will be “transformed.”

This transformation is not one of the mind or body, but rather of the soul. Romans 8:5-6 tells us, “For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.”

The way we spend our time and what we think about has the ability to not only shape our minds but also our souls. With stakes this high, we do well to give careful consideration to how we direct that time and attention.


Psalms 101:3 – “I will set no worthless thing before my eyes; I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not fasten its grip on me.”

The psalmist warns us against those worthless things in life which would fasten a grip on us. While none of us wants to fall into this trap, that is exactly what smartphones and social media are designed to do. While smartphone addiction is not a formally recognized diagnosis, a growing number of experts are beginning to suggest that it should be. Like other forms of addiction, smartphone “addicts” lose interest in face-to-face relationships, continue using their phone despite knowing about the negative consequences, are unable to control themselves around their device and are preoccupied with it, and suffer from anxiety when their device is not around. These are classic symptoms seen in substance abuse and other addictive behaviors.

Such addiction patterns turn our neurochemistry against us. Our brains use two complementary chemical messaging systems to govern reward seeking behavior: the dopamine and opioid systems. Dopamine drives us to seek rewards, whether it is food or sex or new information that fulfills our curiosity. It is closely linked to motor activity, so dopamine drives us to action. The opioid system gives us satisfaction once the goal is achieved. This is the pleasure we feel that rewards our brains for a job well done. Interestingly, the dopamine system is stronger than the opioid system. We seek more than we are satisfied.

While this is a good thing (if we sat around in a satisfied stupor all day we would starve), it can also be exploited to drive us towards continual seeking behavior that becomes a never-ending loop.

Smartphones excel at driving this system. They deliver short pieces of information in the form of texts, tweets, or emails. They are often accompanied by audio or visual cues that train us to expect more input. These stimuli don’t fully satisfy us. Instead, they condition us to seek, get rewarded a little, and then seek some more. We need to know who texted us. What did they say? When will the next message come?

The more we repeat these behaviors, the more deeply they become ingrained. This pattern of irregular, unpredictable rewards is similar to what drives gambling addiction. I never know which pull of the slot machine will result in the jackpot. Social media is engineered in a similar manner and to a greater degree. Former Google product manager Tristan Harris states, “There are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have.”

Social media commands attention because of this same irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback (“I wonder how many people liked my post?”), and it is coupled with exploitation of our desire for social connection. Former Facebook President Sean Parker described his platform as a “social validation feedback loop.” He also stated that the purpose of the “like” button was to produce a dopamine hit and drive continued use of Facebook. This technology is now backed by artificial intelligence that knows how to target each specific user for maximal addiction. AI does its job extremely well because it knows its audience and it has no moral constraints in giving users what they want. All that matters is that they keep using the platform.

This pattern of never-ending, self-reinforced seeking behavior is addiction, and it is enslavement to a cruel master indeed: our own appetites.

Man is destined to forever be a slave. The only choice he makes is who his master will be. Romans 6:16 says, “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?” When I chose to serve my appetites, I undertake an impossible task, for my appetites can never be satisfied (Proverbs 27:20).

Worse still, some of the appetites I seek to satisfy may be evil (1 Corinthians 10:6). As a result, we become “enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite…who set their mind on earthly things,” (Phil 3:18-19). To serve any master other than Jesus Christ, including my own satisfaction, is in the end idolatry, and I do so to the peril of my soul.

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