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Science & Technology | December 3, 2012

A shabby replacement


Technology fasts help reveal and mitigate device dependence

©iStockPhoto/Anne-Louise Quarfoth

It's a common scene on metro buses, sidewalks, campuses, and even churches: people pass each other without a glance, eyes fixed on their screens, thumbs tapping away.

During Sunday service, fingers flick across iPads and iPhones rather than thumbing through Bible pages. Birthday wishes stream down Facebook timelines; debates heat up in condensed text messages; conflicts resolve over emails.

But even with increased connectivity, some find digital relationships a shabby replacement for face-to-face interaction. At Biola University in Southern California, students tried to turn off their electronic devices for a week in mid-November to consider the effects technology has on their human relationships and relationships with God.

Biola junior Jeremy Hamann, 20, happened to visit Disneyland with three friends that week. Leaving his iPhone at home made him slightly anxious at first.

"I kept wondering if someone is calling me, if someone is contacting me," he said. "It was the lack of connectivity that got me."

But once he and his friends adjusted to not having their cell phones vibrating in their pockets, Hamann said "it was seriously one of the most genuine times I've ever spent with people in that large stretch of time." They didn't always chat, but they enjoyed each other where they were.

Biola professor David Bourgeois, who teaches information systems, said the barriers technology imposes are something students rarely think about, especially because social networking is such a part of their everyday lives.

"I noticed that walking around campus, people don't talk to each other as much anymore, because they're always on their cell phones," he said. "We're losing the depth of relationship that comes from spending lots of time together. Even time in silence together can build relationships."

Entrepreneurs also see an opportunity to market the void left by digital relationships. Alex Capecelatro, 24, created a site called At the Pool that helps people get away from the screen and meet others face-to-face. He came up with the idea after moving to a new town where he didn't know anyone. He tried searching Facebook and even joined dating websites to find new friends, but failed.

"I started wondering, why is it so hard to meet people?" he said. That's when he saw the need for a site that would bring people together in real life.

Within four months of At The Pool's launch, more than 10,000 people signed up all across the United States and 50 countries. More than 85 percent of users are under 35 years old, and more than half are under 25.

Capecelatro said the swift and positive response shows today's digital generation is ready for some change in the way social media takes the "social" out of the equation: "At the end of the day, we are social people, and the web has often served as a barrier that has prevented us from feeling like we need to connect. We always see people on their cell phones, not connecting with the people two feet away because they have this scapegoat."

But it's not just human relationships that lag due to technology. Christians need to understand how it affects their relationships with God as well, Bourgeois said.

As a digitally savvy professor who uses technology six to seven hours each day, Bourgeois said he also was guilty of bringing his iPad to church and peeking into his email inbox or Facebook page. He now leaves his iPad at home and brings his old Bible instead.

Students often tell him that technology helps them spiritually because it makes it easier to study and share the Bible. But Bourgeois disagrees. Real spiritual growth takes place when you're not being spoon-fed, he said: "Studying the Bible shouldn't be easy. It should be something you work through, think about, and pray about."

Bourgeois got worried when he saw his own children preferring to text their friends about problems, because "texting is easier." Just like with friendships, Christians are getting lazier in building a focused relationship with God: "It's becoming kind of this lazy relationship ethos, where whatever is easiest, whatever is simplest, that's what you want to do."

The more pervasive technology becomes today, the more disciplined Christians need to be in devoting time to God, and respecting their neighbors enough to put away their phones. Set aside 30, or even 10, minutes a day to turn everything off to spend time with God, Bourgeois suggested.

"You're then saying, 'This is important to me, Lord. You're my priority.' Taking effort to be with the Lord is something that is being lost today."