While we have little problem believing smartphones shape others, we tend to resist that they shape us. The reality is that none of us are immune. That’s right. None of us are immune to the shaping influence of smartphones.
Let me suggest three ways our smartphone shapes us.
#1: Screens Shape How We Assess Truth
Not long ago I had a public conversation with Matthew Vines, an influential author and speaker who believes the Bible supports same-sex unions. In assessing our conversation, one young man commented that he thought Matthew Vines had more authority to speak on the issue than I did because Matthew had a YouTube video on the topic go viral. At that time, Matthew had more views and subscribers on YouTube than I did. Does that make him right?
This young man didn’t consider our educational credentials. He didn’t even consider the arguments themselves. Rather he sided with Matthew because he had more views on YouTube. Hopefully you can see how crazy this is. The number of times something has been viewed has nothing to do with whether it is true or false. In fact, since provocative videos tend to draw viewers, false videos might even have an edge over true ones. Be careful not to confuse viewership with truth.
Screens can shape the way we assess truth. They encourage us to focus on appearances rather than ideas. They encourage us to focus on popularity (views subscribers followers) or entertainment rather than truth.
#2: Screens Shape Us Emotionally
A number of years ago I had my ninth-grade students journal at the beginning of each class period. Since most of them told me they rarely had tech-free space in their lives — and watched videos on social media nearly every free moment — I asked them to reflect on why they keep themselves so busy and distracted.
I will never forget the response of one fourteen-year-old girl. She wrote “I keep myself busy, so I don’t have to slow down and feel the loneliness in my heart.” Wow. Her honesty took me off guard. Have you ever felt that way? She was able to tap into something deep, namely that technology allowed her to remain busy so she didn’t have to deal with her emotional hurt. Her smartphone was not the cause of her emotional pain but rather it was her escape from emotional pain.
Smartphones can be a Band-Aid that helps us cover our pain rather than deal with it.
#3: Screens Shape Our Identities
One of the most influential worldviews today is individualism, the view that life is about you, that the purpose of life is to be authentic to yourself and to live according to your feelings without obligation to anyone else. Being inauthentic to yourself is the equivalent of “sin,” and “salvation” is found through discovering your inner self.
Can you see how this worldview is encouraged through social media? Social media is all about you. Do whatever it takes to get followers and “likes” so you can be popular. Be funny. Be outrageous. Be crass. Getting followers and views is all that matters. Express yourself. Promote yourself. You be you.
The point of this post is not that smartphones are bad. They’re not! But they do affect us. If we want to resist their character-forming powers the first step is to be aware of how much they shape us.
If you want a deeper analysis of how smartphones shape us — and some practical steps for helping young people use them wisely — check out my latest book: A Rebel’s Manifesto: Choosing Truth, Real Justice & Love amid the Noise of Today’s World.
This post and additional resources are available on Sean McDowell’s website.