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Science & Technology | October 16, 2012

Smartphones and spirituality

Science & Technology

Constant connectivity eliminates boredom but also erodes disciplines of silence and contemplation

©iStockPhoto/Milan Zeremski

Kara Loush never lets her smartphone out of her sight. When she hears the familiar buzzing, she answers it immediately. Loush, a student at Michigan State University, says she would feel "lost" without her phone. If she's not using it to talk or text, she often browses the device simply to pass the time.

Smartphones have become entertainment companions, eliminating the possibility of boredom. Instead of spending moments of free time simply thinking or reflecting, young adults increasingly turn to their phones to browse Facebook and check email. Despite their dependence on the devices, students acknowledge that the constant buzzing has the potential to hinder Christians' ability to connect with God through the disciplines of silence and solitude.

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 66 percent of young adults own smartphones. College students largely use their smartphones during free time at school, waiting in lines and even in bed before and after sleep, according to information gathered by Online Colleges, a resource for web-based degree programs.

Read Schuchardt, associate professor of communication at Wheaton College near Chicago, thinks that many people hold smartphones as near-sacred objects because they allow unrestricted access to the digital realm.

"Smartphones represent portable omniscience and omnipresence, giving us two out of three of God's characteristics," he said. "They are all-consuming because they present the illusion that technology can give us a better version of reality than nature can."

Schuchardt describes smartphones as a "maternal and endless store of emotional security." The incessant beeping and buzzing subtly reminds users of their importance and how much they are loved, he said. The need for constant affirmation continues to escalate. Some people even sleep with their smartphones.

The devices often cause unwanted interruptions for students attempting to build quiet time into their schedules. Whenever Loush reads her Bible and hears her phone vibrate, it instantly distracts her from focusing on God, she said. Although she recognized times in her life where her phone became an idol, it also helped her to be more aware about the time spent on her phone compared to time spent with God.

Wheaton College encourages students to separate themselves occasionally from the digital world by limiting technology use in the classroom and through media fasts, which often occur during Lent, Schuchardt said.

"Unless there's an app for that, cell phones can seriously interfere with the disciplines of silence and solitude," he said.

Yet, ironically, there is an app for that. Certain applications allow users to disable phone functions, such as texting, for a set period of time in order to remove distractions.

It would be unfair to claim that smartphones have no value in the world of spirituality and ministry. Loush views her smartphone as a valuable tool for communicating with other women in the off-campus Bible study she leads. Although they're spread out geographically, she can instantly inform the study members about announcements and events.

While phones have the potential to advance spiritual growth, it's up to the user to apply the technology in the proper way, said Kyhle Porter, a student at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Porter reads the Bible and church magazines on the go using his smartphone, and he's also connected to his church directory.

To create space in his routine, Porter regularly takes walks to distance himself from technology. He uses the time to organize his thoughts and contemplate God's will for his life. Although he acknowledges smartphones' capacity to inhibit spiritual progression, Porter also recognizes it can be a tool for growth: "I see that technology, just like any other facet of the world, presents an advantage and opportunity to use our time and talents for good and for God."