How Should the Believer Relate to Smart Phones and Social Media? (Part 2)

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Part 2 of 3:  The Mind and Heart Influenced

Delayed Gratification

James 5:7-8

“Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.”

James commends an unnatural habit to us: waiting for what we want. This is an example of what psychologists call delayed gratification. Delayed gratification is the ability to resist an impulse for immediate reward to receive a more favorable reward later. This is very difficult for most of us. This is the reason why my kids have a hard time waiting until Christmas morning to open their presents (ok, I have a hard time waiting too). Given a choice, we would rather have a reward now rather than later. Psychologists call this delay discounting. The farther away a reward is, the less value it has to us. Hence, the saying, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” It is better to take what you can get now than to risk trying for more in the uncertain future.

Psychologists almost universally agree that delayed gratification is a key characteristic of successful people. As the English proverb says, “good things come to those who wait.” Psychologists also believe that while there are some innate differences in our tendencies toward delayed gratification, our ability to practice delayed gratification can be heavily shaped by our environment. It is a skill that can and should be learned. What is concerning is that smart phones and social media seem to stunt that development by reducing impulse control and increasing delay discounting.

This makes sense when I recall what life was like thirty years ago. Back then, I had to be prepared to wait for a letter to arrive or at least for my friend to come home and check his answering machine before I could find out how he was doing. Now, I expect a text back within seconds, and I am conditioned to check my phone whenever it dings, even if I am in the middle of a conversation or driving my car.

Researchers believe that the more time a person spends on their smartphone, the more likely they are to choose smaller, immediate rewards over larger, delayed rewards. This has to do with our seek and reward behavior discussed in the previous section. This effect seems to be the largest with social media and game apps, where quick gratification in the form of likes or immediate entertainment causes users to have less self-control.

This means that the more screen time a person builds up, the more likely they are to make an impulsive decision rather than taking into account future consequences.

Much like psychologists, the Bible also views the ability to delay gratification as an essential characteristic of successful people. Hebrews 11:25-26 calls attention to the greatness of Moses’ faith for “choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward.”

Just as delayed gratification leads to success, if we fail to adopt such a perspective, the results can be catastrophic. Hebrews 12:16-17 warns us “that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears.” Esau fell into the trap of delay discounting. He was hungry, and his birthright was intangible and in the distant future. He took the easy payoff and regretted it forever.

The thesis of the scripture is that the future payoff in eternity is well worth it. Romans 8:18 says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” This is an unnatural perspective, and we do well to struggle to cultivate it. Anything that detracts from our ability to delay gratification should be undertaken with caution.

Concentration

Colossians 3:2

“Set your mind on things above, not on the things that are on earth.”

The ability of our brains to focus on one set of stimuli to the exclusion of others is a difficult discipline to master. Neuroscientists tell us that our brains are constantly being flooded with information about the world around us. Because there is a limit to how much information our brains can effectively process at once, most of this sensory information is processed at a subconscious level.

Only a small component of the information we take in is processed by our conscious brain. Neuroscientists call this selective attention. Our brains prioritize information so that we can focus on what is important, while shifting other information to the background.

Two major modes of operation that our brains use to prioritize information are bottom-up attention and top-down attention. Bottom-up attention means that stimuli from the outside world, including sounds, lights, and colors, drive what I focus on. Imagine walking down the Las Vegas strip while your attention ping pongs from place to place. Top-down attention means that my brain decides what I am going to focus on. This is the situation when I decide to take a test or write a paper. Sometimes these two systems clash. Imagine trying to work on that same test or paper while sitting on the Las Vegas strip. Sights and sounds are competing with a task my brain has decided to undertake.

Neuroscientists believe that smartphones and social media undermine our ability to focus our attention. Filing our brains with sights and sounds, smartphones and social media are much like the Las Vegas strip in commanding strong bottom-up attention. Additionally, smartphones and social media can redirect top-down attention.

FOMO, or “fear of missing out,” is a recently coined term to describe the pervasive worry that other people are having a fun experience that you are not part of. It’s like trying to focus on a paper, all the while feeling that you are missing the biggest party of the year. Because of the way social media allows us to share our experiences, there is always something fun going on, and you will always be missing something. FOMO is a strong motivator which places smartphones continually at the center of our focus.

The phone proximity effect demonstrates just how big of an influence our smartphones have on our concentration. If you take a test with your phone face down on your desk, in your pocket or bag, or outside of the testing room, your test score will go up the farther your phone is from you. This is true even if your phone is silenced. While you will feel no difference in your ability to focus as you take the test, your brain is being distracted by the proximity of the phone at a subconscious level.

The process of preventing your brain from focusing on the phone is tying up limited cognitive capacity, draining your brain without you even knowing it. And this is smartphone use under ideal conditions, with your phone silenced and face down. In the real world, most of us don’t use our phones that way. We multitask, alternately looking at the paper we are working on and then at our phone and then back again. While not fully understood, neuroscientists are becoming increasingly concerned that multitasking is much less efficient than accomplishing one task at a time. Not only so, but multitasking also interferes with your working memory, causing you to make more mistakes on the tasks you are doing, and it may even cause problems with long term memory formation.

Concentration and attention are imperative in the Christian walk. Hebrews 12:1-2 exhorts us to “lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus.” To fix our eyes is to turn the eyes away from many things and fix them (and our attention) on one thing, in this case Jesus.

The author is exhorting us to give Jesus our full attention, to the exclusion of all else. Much of what the Lord commands of us requires our full attention. Consider admonitions to let the word of Christ richly dwell in us (Colossians 3:16), to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18), to consider how to stimulate one another towards love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24), and to take every thought captive (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Without fixing our attention on Him, these commands will be impossible to obey. When our attention is fixed where it ought not to be, we run the risk of walking after emptiness and becoming empty (Jeremiah 2:5). We do well to be on guard against any encumbrance or entanglement that would seek to distract us from our goal.

Sleep

Psalms 127:2b

“For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep.”

Anyone who has pulled an all-nighter studying for an exam knows how important sleep is to how we think and function. Neuroscientists believe that sleep is primarily for the benefit of our brains (though certainly other parts of our body benefit as well). Sleep aids our brains in rest and recovery, and it is essential for the processing and storing of information. You can rest your muscles and still be awake. Not so with the brain. During sleep, toxic waste products are removed, new synapses are formed between brain cells, and neurons are given a chance to rest.

This is crucial for memory retention, cognition, concentration, and maintaining a normal mood. It is also a time when the brain forms new connections between thoughts and ideas, allowing for new insights or fresh understanding. Our brains seem to retain information best when learning something new is followed closely by sleep.

This is why one of the best ways to retain new information or solve a problem is to think about it before bed and then sleep on it. As we sleep, our brains cycle between REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement), and non-REM sleep, and while poorly understood, both types are essential for proper brain function. The timing of sleep is driven by our circadian rhythms, which is a biological clock that tells our bodies when it is time to sleep. At night, our brains release melatonin, telling us it’s time to go to bed. Melatonin is suppressed in response to light (especially in the blue wavelength), telling us it is time to get up.

Sleep experts believe that smartphones disrupt sleep in multiple ways. Anyone who has been sound asleep only to be awakened by a phone notification can relate to this. In addition to poorly timed notifications, screens emit a high amount of blue light, and, if used before bed without a blue light filter, they will suppress our normal production of melatonin and disrupt our circadian rhythms.

Smartphone addiction and the stimulating nature of content available on phones may also play a role. Users may be so engrossed in what they are doing that they are unable to turn off the device and go to sleep (bedtime procrastination).

Even if they do successfully shut the device off, their minds and emotions are often in a heightened state of arousal, a state in which sleep is nearly impossible. People who suffer from insomnia may find their smartphone a tempting way to pass the sleepless hours, making a difficult problem even worse. Though not proven, there is even some speculation that the radio frequency electromagnetic fields emitted by phones may also disrupt sleep patterns.

Whatever the mechanism, smartphone use around bedtime makes users more alert in the evening, have more difficulty falling asleep, reduces the amount of REM sleep, and makes users less alert in the morning. These effects seem to occur just by having a device in the bedroom, even when that device is not used. Predictably, academic and workplace performance suffers the next day. When this process is repeated regularly over months or years, the effects become far more widespread, ranging from metabolic, immune, and mental health disorders.

The night is a unique time when the distractions of the day are darkened, and we are left alone with our thoughts. Our minds are processing information they have taken in during the day, whether we are awake or asleep. While often overlooked, these are crucial periods in our walk with Christ, and scripture gives us guidance on how to approach them. Deuteronomy 6:6-8 instructs, “These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.”

When I lie down at night is a perfect opportunity to consider God’s Word in my heart. Remember, what I think about before bed is more likely to stick in my memory. Or, if I have gotten a good night sleep, I may be most fresh and alert to consider His Word when I rise up first thing in the morning. If I can’t sleep, Psalms 119:148 models an appropriate response. “My eyes anticipate the night watches, that I may mediate on Your word.” After a busy day, my mind is looking for an easy distraction, but sometimes I am best served by quiet time alone with God and His Word. I then have the opportunity to experience the blessing of Psalms 16:7: “I will bless the Lord who has counseled me; indeed, my mind instructs me in the night.”

This mirrors the findings of neuroscience that sleep is a time when new insights and perspectives may be gained. I know of no New Testament commandments regarding sleep hygiene, but time alone with God and His Word is an essential part of our walk with Christ. In this sense, sleep is simply a means to gain true rest: the rest of unbroken fellowship with God. “Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall through following the same example of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active…” (Hebrews 4:11-12a). We spend roughly a third of our lives sleeping, and we do well to give careful thought to what degree we are willing to allow smartphones to impinge on that time.

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