In our world of touch screens and endless scroll, the inability to focus is pandemic. We touch our phones an average of 2,617 times every 24 hours. We are part of one of the most significant cultural phenomena in human history: screen addiction.
Our minds are being rewired to use, rely upon, and crave screens and the superficial world they display to us. Moments of peace, solitude and focus are few and far between. The quality of our thinking, the way we absorb and digest information, and the very nature of our lives is changing.
Adults, teenagers and even children spend hours a day looking at screens. In the year 2000, there were roughly 500 million cell phones in the world. In 2010, there were almost 5 billion. Now there are an estimated 15 billion. Of the 8 billion people alive today, an estimated 6.6 billion use smartphones.
A 2010 study found that the average teen consumed more than 70 hours of electronic media per week and spent less than 16 hours with parents (and not necessarily in meaningful interactions), less than 10.5 hours in physical activity and just over five hours doing homework, per week. Those teens are now in their 20s. Their kids are even more connected.
At work, many of us stare at computer screens all day every day, interrupting ourselves to check our smartphones. (Office workers are interrupted an average of once every three minutes.) We check our phones again on our commutes and come home to laptops, tablets and an average of three televisions per household, all emitting enticing glows. On these screens we message, e-mail, video call, post, watch videos, check the weather, read news, shop, pay bills, play games, join clubs, read, skim, vent, connect, and continuously scroll.
We are consuming nearly triple the amount of information our grandparents did. But are we leading richer lives? Are we even truly better informed?
“We told ourselves we could have a massive expansion in the amount of information we are exposed to, and the speed at which it hits us, with no costs,” writes Johann Hari in Stolen Focus. “This is a delusion: ‘It becomes exhausting.’ More importantly, [Prof. Sune Lehmann] said, ‘what we are sacrificing is depth in all sorts of dimensions.’ … Depth takes time. And depth takes reflection. If you have to keep up with everything and send e-mails all the time, there’s no time to reach depth. Depth connected to your work in relationships also takes time. It takes energy. It takes long time spans. And it takes commitment. It takes attention, right? All of these things that require depth are suffering. It’s pulling us more and more up onto the surface” (emphasis added throughout).
Hamlet’s Blackberry author William Powers makes the same point: Our captivation with gadgets is making life more “frantic and rushed,” and causing us to lose “something of great value, a way of thinking and moving through time that can be summed up in a single word: depth.” Not only are we losing depth of thought and feeling, we’re losing “depth in our relationships, our work and everything we do,” he writes. And “since depth is what makes life fulfilling and meaningful, it’s astounding that we’re allowing this to happen.”
Hari’s book identifies 12 causes for society’s attention crisis: technology, the volume of information coming at us, constant switching and continuous distractions, sleep deprivation, bad food, pollutants, drugs and more. Our society is largely designed to steal our attention, decimating our focus.
Rewiring Our Brains
Dozens of studies point to the same conclusion. The Shallows author Nicholas Carr writes: “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.”
We’ve grown quite adept at scanning and skimming, Carr writes, but “what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation and reflection.”
For almost 20 years, children have been growing up with a different way of reading, their eyes not necessarily moving left to right and top to bottom but scanning, darting around the page, and moving on to the next thing. These habits are infantilizing the brains, not just of children today, but of yesterday’s children who are now today’s young adults.
By becoming addicted to screens, Carr observes, we have “rejected the intellectual tradition of solidarity, single-minded concentration”—a state of mind often induced by reading a book, for example—and “cast our lot with the juggler.”
Increasingly, our minds are like the cursors on our computer screens. They dart around, up and down, rarely settling, constantly moving, clicking and dragging. Like the modern library, the modern mind is devoid of nooks, places to go for prolonged, single-focused, undistracted thought.
The nature of our lives has been fundamentally altered.
Consider Your Ways
Google measures success by “engagement”—minutes and hours of eyeballs on the product. Engineers are always looking for new ways to suck eyeballs onto their programs and keep them there. They are constantly proposing more interruptions to people’s lives. Google shapes more than 11 billion interruptions to people’s lives every day.
“Your distraction is their fuel,” Hari writes (op cit). This is how tech companies make their money; it is the basis of their whole business model. Many of these brilliant engineers thought they would help make the world a better place, but are now “caught in this arms race to manipulate human nature.”
Hari quotes iPhone co-inventor Tony Fadell as saying, “I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, What did we bring to the world?” He worried that he had helped create “a nuclear bomb” that can “blow up people’s brains and reprogram them.”
His fear is justified. People are being reprogrammed. The average American between ages 13 and 17 now sends one text message for every six minutes he is awake. The average Internet user who clicks on a photo is pulled away from whatever he or she was doing for 20 minutes before he or she gets back to it. And so on.
The consequences for society are grave. They are also devastating personally. Distraction overload is death by a thousand cuts to your productivity, your contentment, your focus, your thinking, your relationships.
Take a moment to count the number of screens in your life and calculate how much time you spend on them. How many of those minutes, those hours, per day do you spend in necessary, important, engaging activities? How many do you spend on media consumption that wastes your time or even destroys your ability to think?
How many texts do you send and receive per day? How many of those texts contribute real value to your life? How much television do you watch? How many times do you check your e-mail? How many times do you need to check your e-mail?
Now, how much time do you spend in activities that deepen the mind, that lend themselves to focused, undistracted thought? How much time do you spend reading each week? How much time in meditation? How much in conversation with your family?
Next, think about your ability to think. Would you call yourself a deep thinker?
In his bestselling book The Art of Thinking, Ernest Dimnet said the thinking mind is like the eye: “It must be single.” Great thinkers—or as Dimnet called them, “people possessed of a mastering purpose leaving no room for inferior preoccupations”—stand apart for the “directness of their intellectual vision.”
Dimnet wrote that the mind of a weak thinker has a “fatal capacity for letting in extraneous thoughts or mental parasites.” Could there be a better description for the smartphone in your hand or pocket?
Perhaps you are more addicted to the screen than you thought. What can you do? Everyone’s circumstances and mind are different, but these principles may help you overcome screen addiction.
Subtract Distraction, Add Meaning
A 2010 study at the University of Maryland asked 200 students to refrain from using electronic media for a day. After the exercise, one student commented that communicating with friends online gave “a constant feeling of comfort” and that forgoing it for a day brought an “almost unbearable” sense of feeling “quite alone and secluded from my life.”
Screen addiction grooms us to fear solitude, to fear being alone with our own thoughts!
“The art of thinking,” wrote Dimnet, “is the art of being one’s self, and this art can only be learned if one is by one’s self.” Just as the reader loves quiet nooks in the library, the thinker cherishes quiet nooks in life.
If you carry access to the whole world through a constantly dinging device in your hand, then you are never alone. Creating the solitude needed for thinking requires flicking the off switch on every screen in our lives!
As with other addictions, you will find a seemingly simple change of habit to be more difficult than you might have thought. But it is crucial that you limit and control your consumption of electronic media. Put a limit on your recreational Internet use. When you’re on the computer, set the timer so you don’t lose track of time. Limit the number of texts you (and your teenager) send each day. Force yourself to only check your e-mail once an hour, or once a night. Turn the television off after the specified maximum time each day or week. Carve out blocks during the evening when all smartphones or gadgets are off.
Powers describes his “Internet sabbath.” It began when he and his wife started a habit of turning off Internet access completely from Friday night until Monday morning. It wasn’t easy at first. But as time passed, the value of this new intentional habit became clear.
The house became a “kind of island away from the madness.” Instead of each family member retiring to a room with a gadget, they gathered for conversation, for games, to spend time outdoors, to get to know their neighbors. Naturally, the family grew closer.
Try switching off all gadgets in your household for a day, or at least during dinner times and for an hour afterward. Try creating nooks of solitude, areas in your home where family members can be free of noise, distractions and screens. Keep attention-gobbling devices in their place.
This will gradually free you to fill your mind and your life with the necessary, the important, the enriching and fulfilling.
“To lead happy, productive lives in a connected world,” writes Powers, “we need to master the art of disconnecting.”
Think on These Things
OK, the screens have been switched off. You’ve managed to create conditions conducive to focusing and thinking deeply. You are free to fill your mind and your life with the necessary, the important, the enriching and fulfilling. So, what should you think about?
The Apostle Paul answers: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8).
Be determined and be active in feeding your mind a healthy diet of information and knowledge that is true, honest, just and pure. Read quality books that will uplift and inspire and educate your mind. As you read, stop and meditate on what you are consuming.
Keep a journal. Make time to write in it regularly. Record your goals and aspirations, for you personally, but also for your family. Take notes on a conversation you had with a friend. Flesh out a creative or original thought sparked earlier while you were reading or driving.
Take time to write a handwritten letter to a friend or distant relative.
All these activities will contribute to you developing the habit of thinking.
How much thinking should we strive to engage in? For most of us, the more the better. Aim to devote at least the same amount of time (or more) to serious, thought-provoking activities as you do to shallow, superficial activities like watching television, surfing the Internet, or playing video games.
Remember: Thinking doesn’t mean only reading or writing, or sitting cross-legged in still silence on the living room floor. Abraham Lincoln took long walks during which he would meditate deeply. And nothing inspires original, creative thinking like an in-depth conversation with friends.
Embrace a hobby that lends itself to solitude and meditation, like gardening or painting. When you do these activities, strive for interior solitude. Turn the smartphone off. Have your own mental conversations. Sometimes background music is nice, but don’t be afraid to switch off the music app or radio. Create your own mental music.
For those interested in pursuing some of the deepest, most profound thoughts available to man, study the Bible. No other knowledge on Earth will stretch and strengthen your mind like that found in this book. Why? Because the Bible is the mind of God in print.
It is filled with what the Apostle Paul termed in 1 Corinthians 2:10 “the deep things of God.”
A Battle for Your Heart
Unless you can focus, you cannot maintain quality relationships with your spouse or your children. And you cannot develop a real relationship with your Creator.
God wants to teach you knowledge (Isaiah 28:9). God wants to reason together with you (Isaiah 1:18). He wants you to mature from the way of thinking of a baby or a child to thinking like an adult and, ultimately, to thinking like God (1 Corinthians 13:11; 2:9-12).
To be able to do that, however, you need to be able to focus in prayer. You need focus for quality Bible study. You need focus to keep the first and great commandment: Love God with all your heart, soul and mind (Matthew 22:37).
The devil is always trying to steal pieces of our mind—to distract us, divert us and chop up our attention. In 2 Corinthians 2:11, Paul warns that we must not be “ignorant of [Satan’s] devices”—or else he will “get an advantage [over] us.” In any war, ignorance of the enemy is dangerous. If you are walking through a minefield, you want to be able to see those mines. If the devil is laying a trap for you, it is important to recognize it. We are far more vulnerable to the devil if we are ignorant of his devices. (That word “devices” means designs or schemes in the Greek—but incidentally, it is also the word we use for the smartphones, tablets and laptops we are so dependent on. And they can easily become “Satan’s devices.”)
Hundreds of millions are addicted to these meaningless things. That is the express intent of so many of these devices! Engineers are literally hacking our brains and using our own weaknesses against us to waste our time for their own profit.
Addiction is a form of slavery. And the one who is ultimately behind it is the devil. He is using every flaw in human nature against us to waste our time and waste our life.
An article titled “How to Organize Your Life God’s Way” states, “In this lawless, perverse, pleasure-mad society in which we are living, all of us as God’s people must constantly grapple with the challenge of staying close to God in spite of the world around us. Satan is the god of this world, and he has arrayed the entire society against us to distract us and snare us as we seek to draw near to God and serve Him. Satan is the world’s greatest time-waster, and he has designed this society and this world to waste your time and your life!”
Truly, the devil’s world is engineering more ways than ever to destroy your focus, squander your time and your life. “Satan has increased the pace of the society and has ‘jammed the frequency’ with materialistic distractions,” this article continues. “He has littered the world with every conceivable gadget, activity, pleasure and late-night entertainment to keep mankind ‘active’ and ‘busy’ from the time he wakes up in the morning to the time he falls into bed exhausted late at night. There is simply no time to stop and ponder the purpose of human existence and where all this is leading.”
Dangerously, disastrously true. And think of the consequences: So many of our problems are caused or exacerbated by the degree and intensity with which the average person is frenzied, distracted and caught up in trivialities. If you are not actively resisting this onslaught, you are being heavily impacted by it.
Renew Your Mind
Your mind was created to develop, to improve, to mature. This requires a lot of things, but perhaps first of all it requires focus. Your mind can only grow if you can concentrate on things that matter for much more than three minutes at a time. Only then can you delve into the type of thinking, reading, studying and meditation that will help you grow into who and what you were created to become.
In Romans 12, Paul wrote: “[B]e not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind …” (verse 2). Do you ever feel like your mind needs renewing? The more we study the Bible, the more we give God the opportunity to renew our minds, to wash our thoughts in His truth and His deep thinking.
For many, the Bible’s archaic language and seemingly illogical flow make it almost impossible to understand. (Scripture itself reveals that there is a profound reason for that.)
Let us help. We have a smorgasbord of literature explaining all the deepest truths of the Bible. For those interested in understanding Bible prophecy, there is our free book The United States and Britain in Prophecy. If you want to learn more about the Christian Sabbath, why it was created and how to keep it, request and study Which Day Is the Christian Sabbath?
We live at a time when traditional marriage and family is under assault. Now would be an ideal time to investigate what the Bible says about marriage and family. Just request The Missing Dimension in Sex or Why Marriage—Soon Obsolete? If you want a more detailed understanding of the Bible, including all the major doctrines and prophecies, consider enrolling in the Herbert W. Armstrong College Bible Correspondence Course. This course is designed to guide you through a systematic study of your Bible—the Bible is the only textbook. And best of all, it is free. The only cost is the investment of your time into this invaluable study.
Lastly, if our cultural infatuation and addiction to screens, and the fundamental impact this is having on our brains, really concerns you, you need to study our free book The Incredible Human Potential. The more you study this book, the better you will see how screen addiction and its effect on our brains are actually damaging a masterpiece of God’s creation: the human mind!
This book explains the magnificent difference between the human brain and the animal brain. It reveals the human mind for exactly what it is: an instrument that has the potential to receive God’s greatest gift to mankind—to be joined with the very mind of God! The Incredible Human Potential will teach you how to take care of your mind, how to build and strengthen it, and most importantly, how to add a spiritual dimension to your life that will truly expand your mind so you can embrace your full, incredible human potential!