Screen Time, Sacred Time

Could Tech Use Affect Your Ability to Pray?

Staring at cell phones, or contemplating scripture

Let me begin with a story I read a while ago that really got me thinking about screen time.1

A professor at a Christian college was at the end of a weary day, and happened to pass by the door of the campus chapel. It was toward evening. Glancing into the dusky interior, his heart was lifted greatly by what he thought was the warming, peaceful light of candles, or perhaps votive lights, being used in prayer. This is a good surprise, he thought, not knowing there was any special prayer event scheduled, so he decided to go in to relax and pray with the others. He stepped in, and was quickly disabused of his hope: instead of seeing many students praying together peacefully with candles at the end of their days, they were scattered about the pews intensely using their cell phones. What he had seen was not candles, but the glow of dozens of screens in the dim light. The students were there to be alone to catch up on their texts and other messages. They only seemed to be together: Chapel as “e-lounge.”2

We all go to Church to relax and be alone with the Lord, but in this case being with God in community seemed to not be the point at all, even though it was a sacred space. As a Catholic sociologist I asked myself, How did we get here? Parents certainly worry about their sexting, Facebook-glued children and teens, but adults also know that hours spent with internet porn, fantasy gaming, and online shopping can undermine their own attempts to live a Catholic life. It is a huge culture-changing problem, as pastors, parish educators, and teachers know very well; and there is now a very large body of social science research to validate their concern. In this article I’ll explore this problem by discussing how the very process of engaging too much and in the wrong ways with internet technology not only can mire people in sinful materials, but also affect the very spiritual basis they need to be able to pray. Bad screen time can in fact hurt the psyche, the soul—and by bad I mean being pulled into aspects of the way the technology physically and psychologically is made to operate. Sure we can find interesting prayers and spiritual material on the web, that is not my focus—this paper is not a condemnation of tech out of a nostalgia for a simpler world. I often say the Rosary using a YouTube video of Benedict XVI, and routinely study Catholic websites. I am concerned for how this relatively recent feature of our culture can hinder the practice of the Faith by changing our interior, by damaging our sense of who we are, bending our vision of ourselves as children of God in the mystical Body, by sabotaging our prayer lives.

What is prayer? The Catechism of the Catholic Church3 introduces its section on Prayer (paragraph 2558) using a vivid quote from St. Therese of Lisieux: “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart, it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and love.” The Catechism authors then ask, when we lift up our hearts to God or request good things from God, “Do we speak from the height of our pride and will, or ‘out of the depths” of a humble and contrite heart?” In other paragraphs prayer is described as involving a “deep encounter” with God at key moments—modeled by Jesus who Himself prayed at critical times: His baptism, His transfiguration, His founding of the Eucharist, His passion.

We may realize we don’t pray as well as we ought, or even as well as we could, and perhaps beg for the gift of prayer—this is the human condition. But considering even these few brief observations about prayer, we can visualize what is crucial to it: recognition of God in a personal way, love, focus and attention, waiting, humility, embracing, a deep I-Thou encounter. Can tech help with such centering, intense focus on the Other and the Higher? Too often, the answer is no: prayerful capacities and states of being are undermined, screen time damages the very capacity for sacred time.

Psychological and sociological research related to tech use, and current spiritual commentary on our culture, are converging to warn us of potentially de-spiritualizing dynamics involved in bad tech use that we need to be very wary about. Here I will briefly talk about four, all of which interconnect and reinforce each other: 1) tech use as a socially-approved addiction; 2) tech use as reinforcing “speed culture” and “boredom;” 3) the great increase in distraction and loss of the ability to focus; and 4) the paradox of being apparently together with others but actually alone. Then I will conclude with some thoughts on the role of selfless attention in building the mystical body of Christ; and then, connected to that, more prayerfully orienting ourselves based on Robert Cardinal Sarah’s recent fine book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. My criticism of these four dynamics is meant to offer those in a position to help youth and adults caught up in bad tech use some tools for understanding how this toxic system actually operates and how it can be undone.

Tech use as a socially-approved addiction
Talking about cell phone addiction used to be anecdotal and figurative, but now is clearly established: tech is addictive in the literal psycho-physical sense. Experts now worry that the addiction can reach down to ever younger age groups, even toddlers with their “toy” devices—for example the Catholic journal Aleiteia recently published an article affirming this, called “10 Easy Ways to Wean a Small Child Off a Smartphone or Tablet.”4 One of these, by the way, is to minimize screen time yourself in their presence, which can be very hard to do!

Research on people born after 1985 or so (often called millennials) shows that many tend to forge their identities and sense of self-worth based on what they have. Teens in particular depend greatly on peers for identify and approval, as they struggle to balance being cool in a conforming way with being cool in another, perhaps unique way. This has been generally true for decades, but now the struggle has a new technological force at work in the mix, which fosters an inherently competitive and highly materialistic, objectifying process: a race in which there is always somebody else with better devices, better objects, or better vacations or a cooler manner than you.5 In our era this race is ubiquitous and also exhausting, pumped up by a rather hollow use of phrases like “super great,” “outstanding,” “super amazing,” “really excellent,” and “incredible,” which make what is there seem even better. The whole system is certainly enduring, yet actually very fragile. Running this race today generates much underlying anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, and drug use—mental health researchers now routinely find very large increases in the rates of such symptoms among youth, as well as in suicide. The isolation that paradoxically emerges in the crowd finds expression in difficulties actually connecting with others, or being anchored to a larger meaning structure. The race overruns these. To exaggerate slightly to make my point, you hang out a lot, but have trouble with love and deep friendship.

Then along comes the smart phone, which now actually functions anthropologically like a totem: a magical device that has mysterious properties like taking you anywhere at any time and glowing invitingly when you feel lonely. Siri can talk, too. Everybody carries one around; they say they really need its powers to survive. And it can heal you, not just metaphorically but physically. Research6 in fact shows that when the phone lights up or makes a sound indicating “incoming text” or the like, users actually get a significant dopamine hit: they actually feel better biochemically, and quickly. Dopamine is the same chemical the body produces when you drink too much, or take drugs, or gamble, or watch porn. Like any addictive process, the more you use the tech the more you need to, to get the same level of physical relief from the race and its alienation. My students routinely talk about how they sleep with their phone on next to them or under their pillow, though they feel a little guilty about doing so, because even the potential that it might ring during the night makes them happier and they “won’t miss anything.”

In this process, a paradox emerges: using the phone ever more often, and at more and more times of the day, has strong social approval, while at the same time it tends to pull people away from each other into their own cocoons. Phones are huge business and a marker of social status: being without a device or having an older one makes you socially marginal, and only deviants go off the grid on purpose. Marketing cycles of planned model replacement feed the race to have the best and fastest. TV shows more and more consist of showing characters using their screens (when they are not shooting at each other). Using tech is built into cars, as drivers are assumed to want or need to be on the net or phone while they drive. Schools tell students they must be tech literate to survive and thrive. Geeks are now anti-heroes. Society says, get and use tech and stay on the innovation wave.

But at the same time the phone starts to be a substitute for actually being with people, in the same way that alcoholics would rather be with their bottle than with anyone else. People can sometimes be a downer, or trouble: the phone, like the bottle, is always full of possible pleasure that never stops, especially if you have an unlimited data plan. So, the device gives you instant gratification with less interpersonal hassle: you don’t need to wait, or gaze, or understand, or explain, just click. Thinking becomes making a choice from among so many options and coping with buyer’s remorse afterward: did I really get the best hotel deal or lowest price for the shoes? Judgment is reduced to relativistic consumer choices.

The younger this addictive process starts, the more pronounced are the effects on physical and mental health, brain development, personal relationships, and safety (think of distracted driving as well as predation or identity theft). Doctors now report seeing a major increase in cases of eye and hand disorders, especially among children. The carpal tunnel wrist brace on adults is now “normal.” Data reveal7 that people now check their phones an average of 150 times a day, or about once every six minutes. Recent studies suggest that about 46% of people say their devices are something they “can’t live without.” About one in three people say they would rather give up sex than their phones. Students all around the world in comparative studies report “serious distress” when they try to go without their devices for 24 hours—something I can verify strongly from my own experiences with a class assignment asking my college students to try it, and journal what happens.

So, tech use is addictive and also largely socially approved, though cautionary notes are sometimes broadcast, rather like our concern for concussions in playing football. We just live with the risk for a game that is too good not to play.

Speed culture and boredom
Second, and related to the first, is our cultural emphasis on speed and instantaneous results. Since the rate of change in communication and transportation speed leapt forward with the telegraph and railroad in the 1800’s, industrial and information societies have as a core value “faster is better.” “New and improved” often means “faster” and “more efficient” today: witness the huge rise in sales of energy drinks and bottled meal substitutes, whereby you get what you need fast, without the hassle. Underneath this is an increased reliance on standardization of experiences, as the makers of meal drinks can reliably inform you that you will get all the vitamins and minerals you need in a 12-ounce liquid to quaff in one minute without your guesswork and time in planning meals. Even new workout towels are advertised as drying you off faster and more efficiently.

Today’s tech runs on the same core values of speed and efficiency, now thoroughly ingrained in our culture. We can observe that any drag on time is upsetting to youth who, studies reveal, get anxious quickly when a web page does not load immediately or the computer-cash register in the fast food shop does not process a credit card instantly. (It’s interesting to observe how the workers cope with this sort of delay when it occurs). The powerpoint replaces the essay. In Church, sermons lasting more than a few minutes are discouraged because parishioners easily become impatient. Videos and shows often speed up transition times in the plot: characters’ walking or traveling is digitally speeded up so as to not waste time and enhance the viewer’s sense of exciting urgency. Characters and vehicles zip to the next scene. In tech, the newer the phone or app the faster it is expected to be—even if we can’t actually physically perceive the increase in processing speed that is supposed to be so great. With speed comes short life, as things finish up quickly and disappear: Snapchat texts and pictures disappear quickly after you look at them, by design, and users report the adaptive need to hurry up and respond before it all goes away. A new phone is “needed” every couple of years at the most, no matter how expensive it is.

Now, the other side of this coin is that when speed is valued, boredom rushes in very easily, because any time lag is experienced as tedium or emptiness, and when there always has to be something new to attract you, the new gets old quickly. The urgent need to hurry fosters a sense of irritated deadness in between the goals: “wait time” is an enemy. What exactly is boredom? Again, the spiritual and behavioral science analyses converge: one key shared idea is that boredom is a sense of “no-thingness” and a lack of longer term purpose or meaning that carries us through or over the slower or less activity-filled times in life.8 We may recall a seemingly stopped wall clock driving us crazy in the interminable algebra class, for example; but early monks and today’s spiritual advisors know very well the dangers of “acedia,” a desperate exasperation with doing the same thing over and over again, without change. In acedia, our time itself is not only not very interesting, but actually an oppression, because one feels one deserves more. I don’t care about this or anything right now, I can’t stand what I am supposed to be doing, why did God stick me here in this situation without amusement, spiritual glory or adventure? In effect, spiritual teachers argue, boredom is having the life sucked out of God’s being and purpose for us right here and right now. The delight in God’s plan is eroded, trials lead nowhere, the suns stops in the sky as the noonday demon descends. Recalling that evil can be defined as total absence of the good, one can see how acedia, boredom, can threaten one’s faith. And insofar as faith is a part of being human, as we know it is, boredom is a threat to our human nature.

Those who are bored a lot therefore have a very difficult time simply being with God, in the quiet and ordinary details of life. Thus the salience of Therese of Lisieux’s little way as a corrective. This little way emphasizes humility before God’s will in all things, even the mundane and repetitive. It is thus no surprise that underneath boredom is a fierce pride: I deserve more and faster because I want it so and am entitled to it. Bad tech use thus fosters easy boredom, and thus pride, and thus eventually a resistance to God’s designs for us. Church is a waste of time that I could be using otherwise. In fact, some who study the culture of death find a strong sense of pride connected with boredom at the bottom of the avowed indifference to God’s moral laws. “Free choice” to abort or euthanize is a form of irritated annoyance that we can’t speed up or rush past what God has offered us at this time. The more we are inured with speed culture and boredom, in part by our addiction to screen time, the easier it is for us to become part of the culture of death.

So, the speed chase and concomitant boredom embedded in bad tech use are not only psychologically dangerous, they can be spiritually deadly.

Distraction
Third, we live in a world where it almost impossible to focus on one thing, and are often pulled toward multiple bits of data or foci at once.9 For example, if you watch a TV newscast or read an online story, it is dense with separate streams of information and images: multiple split screens, a bottom scroll, a sidebar weather window and another for stock prices, more sidebars with “related stories” and “you might like’s,” not to mention ads popping up. (This screen profile is in fact driven by intense market research about your past patterns of use, so that your screen is to some extent individualized.) We are expected to want to and be able to jump around and sideways in this screen environment and feel a need to do so.

As we acculturate to routinely being pulled sideways and encountering multiple demands, we might attempt to cope by using more than one device at a time, or “multitask.” How many times have I seen students supposedly studying on a laptop or using a book, while at the same time interacting with their smart phone and listening to music on their earbuds? Unfortunately, the belief in “multitasking” is a myth, no matter how much it is praised as a positive capacity.10 Studies of students doing homework and of workers in offices report both growing rates of self-interruption, and serious drops in the ability to concentrate. It takes a while to get back to where you were before you jumped to the next thing, time very measurably wasted and mind-scrambling. You lose trains of thought easily. The next time a parishioner tries to tell you that he or she heard everything you said in the homily while texting, don’t believe it. Can you read your email while preparing a decent homily?

A further problem with so-called multitasking is that beyond being inefficient, it is physically and psychologically draining. Being online with multiple data streams and foci just undermines focus, period, and furthermore leaves one empty and frustrated in the end. Is it any wonder that “mindfulness” classes and yoga are all the rage now, as people try to cope with a powerful culture of distraction? And these are prayer substitutes in a secular climate, lest we forget—often overtly or covertly anti-Christian.

Alone, together
This phrase come from the work of researcher Sherry Turkle,11 who uses it to capture and explore a very common observation I am sure you have made: a group or family at a table, or standing together, each with their own device, not really paying attention to anyone else, each individual in their own e-bubble. Now, there are many good reasons for high cell phone use in a mobile society, where coordinating who is going to pick up Suzy or tell people in different places about the change in meeting time is complex. Data show that despite satirical claims about people having hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, they really only relate to a very small circle of actual friends and family, perhaps 10 altogether.12 But Turkle and others are exploring a new normal in the whole culture, where being together or communicating directly with someone, actually, really, is becoming more unusual. For example, research finds that younger people will often say they would rather text than talk, even on the phone. Why is that? It is now permissible and normal to interrupt others to take a call, signaling that incoming is somehow more important than ongoing. Studies show people increasingly text and email in meetings, at funerals and weddings, in church, in class, and while in social settings like family dinner at home or being in a restaurant. It is an ironic fact that an important art of interaction today is the ability to simultaneously look at your phone and seem to be paying attention to others around you.

We can be wry about this new normal but it is actually just the surface of a deeper problem: the loss of the ability to converse, to relate. Researchers see that we are often in groups, and connect a lot, but having problems with ongoing engagement. Texting or chatting on Facebook can be convenient but it often involves avoiding the reality of social intercourse; respondents in studies talk about how if they text or chat they feel they have more control over what happens. This is because you can edit yourself, and alter images to make yourself look “better.” Raw interaction is too unplanned and thus creates apprehension and uncertainly about the outcome and duration.

What do we hope for from this control? Turkle describes three core fantasies: to be able to direct attention and design our interaction in whatever way we choose because we script it in advance; to always be heard, since posting and texting command attention (and you can even keep track of how many people are following you); and never having to be alone, sine there will always be somebody or other out there who is attending to you, responding to your selfie. These are then connected to a shift in the psychology of the evolving technology. Is used to be that you had a feeling and then wanted to make a call: I miss my wife, I will ring her up. Now, in a world more flat and devoid of actual relationships, this has shifted to you want to have a feeling, you need to send a text: I feel sort of bored, I can get a feeling if I connect. This can be summarized as “I share, therefore I am.”

So if our tech use encourages us to be “together” only in a lonely way, it can short circuit our ability to be with others–and certainly with God–in a real way, less scripted and controlled. We know that many millennials see God in very deistic terms, quite parallel to how people are seen in an “alone together” culture: out there in a vaguely hopeful way, but too scary to get close to, and someone to keep at a distance lest he/she invade our space for making our choices. This outlook is sometimes summarized as moral therapeutic deism: god as someone to rely on for help in an emergency, who offers some very generic rules for living in a nice way, like “don’t be judgmental,” but who otherwise is not really around much in daily life and doesn’t box us in with many rules that need to be followed to be OK.13 “Alone together” tech culture thus feeds this tepid and erroneous vision of relating to God.

Toward a more authentic Christian community and prayer life
Countering these negative processes involves looking simultaneously at how we see ourselves in community, and how we see ourselves individually.

Consider first the role of prayer in authentic Christian community. The author of the story I opened with, Joseph Clair, wondered about the possibility of good prayer in our culture, where peaceful focus, concentrated attention, mutual encounter, and interiority are in short supply. Citing Simone Weil, he observes that “attention is the mind’s desire,” and that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” What we pay attention to reveals what we desire, rather like what we spend money on reveals what we value. Attention to God and neighbor is the essence of real human happiness, and “our capacity for attention is a matter of Christian conviction and witness.”

But in our current hyper-connectivity and technological insularity, we attend primarily to objects and our own wishes, shielding ourselves from others. Though we may claim to seek out and value the welfare of others, we are in fact farther away from them. Any claims for concern for others in the mystical Body of Christ, or for social justice, cannot be realized unless we can truly see others, be with them in their human situations. This requires focus, attention, awareness of “unscreened” reality rather than images of it, and other-directedness–in effect, the opposite of the four dynamics discussed here. Clair concludes that “Ordering our attention and overcoming our addiction to distraction have everything to do with our ability to recognize Christ in one another and to learn what it means to be the body of Christ, a people formed by habits of good attention , giving and exchanging the gifts of attention is a world of distraction.” Clair’s description of what it takes to be in the mystical body of Christ is in essence built on prayer itself. If we pray well, we can see our neighbors for who they are and give to them who we are. Was not this Saint Mother Teresa’s way?

How, then, to regain a real prayer life in our tech culture? Robert Cardinal Sarah has just published a wonderful book about the problems of noise and agitation in our age, and our very profound need for not just quiet, but inner silence and the capacity of contemplation. Called The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise,14 its poignant subtitle is meant to signal a complement to Pope Benedict XVI’s well known phrase the dictatorship of relativism. The two dictatorships are cousins. Cardinal Sarah says we need not just less noise, we need a deeper silence that is well past the quiet time of a temporary phone fast, after which unease and agitation are likely to build up again. He writes, for example, that “silence is the prerequisite for love, and it leads to love. Love is expressed fully only by renouncing speech, noise, excitement, and exaltation (p. 62).” This deeper silence runs counter to the “hazardous kind of excitement and imagination (p.36) ” we have inside us so full of unending words, images, and anxieties that are encouraged by the tech use patterns outlined in this article.

The Cardinal observes that ultimate truths often present themselves in silence: sacraments happen in silence; God speaks in silence, in our hearts. While our de-Christianizing culture seeks to destroy both our ability to pray and our ability to judge right and wrong—absolutely essential to the Christian life—its relativism evaporates in such true silence. Tech use can be a zone which amplifies the surrounding culture, when it is part of the system of addictive noise, distraction, and alienation shaping our heads and our hearts to lose sight of Christ and the truth of His laws. Cardinal Sarah implores us to seek silence, to relearn how to find God in that silence, and thus learn how to truly pray. It is time to interrupt our tech culture for a more important message.

I encourage Catholic clergy and educators to raise this very significant cultural problem in their parishes and groups, to invite people to become more aware of their own patterns of tech use, and honestly evaluate how they should alter their tech use so as to better build the body of Christ, and direct themselves to the silence of prayer Cardinal Sarah powerfully advocates we need today.

  1. This article is based on a parish education presentation given in May 2017 at Saint Mary of the Visitation Catholic Parish, Elm Grove, Wisconsin.
  2. Clair, Joseph. “Our Own Devices.” First Things, December 2016. Available at firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2016/12/our-own-devices
  3. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Edition. New York: Doubleday, 1995. Especially Part Four, “Christian Prayer.”
  4. Bilbao, Alvaro. “10 easy ways to wean a child off a smartphone or tablet.” Aleiteia, June 6, 2017 online. Available at aleteia.org/2017/06/01/10-simple-tricks-to-wean-a-small-child-off-a-smartphone-or-tablet/.
  5. Shakya, Holly, and Nicholas Christakis. “A New, More Rigorous Study Confirms: The More You Use Facebook, The Worse You Feel.” Harvard Business Review, April 10.2017.
  6. For a popular discussion of these sorts of findings, see Simek, Simon. 2016. “Simon Sinek On Millennials in the Workforce.” Available at youtube.com/watch?v=hER0Qp6QJNU
  7. Cameron, Father Peter, O.P. “The Noonday Devil: Acedia.” lead editorial from Magnificat (July, 2017): 3-5. And also Snell, R.J. Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire. Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2015.
  8. Jackson, Maggie. Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. New York: Prometheus Books, 2009.
  9. Wachman, Judy. Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
  10. Turkle, Sherry. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York: Penguin Press, 2015. And also Turkle, Sherry. “Connected, but Alone? “ February 2012. Available at ted.com/playlists/26/our_digital_lives
  11. Broadbent, Stefana. “How the Internet Enables Intimacy.” July 2009. Available at ted.com/playlists/26/our_digital_lives
  12. See Smith, Christian, Kyle Longest, Jonathan Hill, and Kari Christoffersen. 2014. Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church. NY: Oxford University Press. And Smith’s earlier study (with Melinda Lundquist), Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  13. Sarah, Robert Cardinal. The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017.
Stephen Sharkey About Stephen Sharkey

Stephen Sharkey is Professor of Sociology at Alverno College, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has been a member of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists for 20+ years and currently serves as an associate editor for its journal, "The Catholic Social Science Review." In 2012, he published a book entitled: Sociology and Catholic Social Teaching: Contemporary Theory and Research.  

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