A Book Review: 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, by Ben Sones

The Internet. The iPhone. Social media. The immensity of these inventions’ impact on our lives (for good and for ill) has been widely discussed, so much so that now, a scant ten years after the iPhone was invented, the huge effect of our phones has become a cliché. However, clichés usually become clichés because they are true. And I don’t know about you, but I certainly see many ways I – not just my circumstances or lifestyle, but I myself – have changed as a result of the interaction between my indwelling sin and my Precious (uh, I mean, my iPhone).

Accordingly, when I first heard from John Perritt about Tony Reinke’s recent book 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, I was keen to read it. Mr. Reinke, a self-described “early adopter” and heavy iPhone and social media user, wrote this book to answer a simple question: “What is the best use of my smartphone in the flourishing of my life?” This is an important question to which I (and, I suspect, most of us) need to give more careful consideration.

To answer this question, Mr. Reinke made a thorough review of the current literature and research on the topic, conducted many personal interviews of key thought leaders, and filtered all this information through the lens of his Christian worldview. The resulting book is packed with interesting information, thought-provoking insights, and often-convicting theology.

The book is primarily arranged into twelve chapters, with each chapter devoted to a different “way” in which your phone is changing you. I found that many of these “ways” apply to me, resulting in some much-needed self-examination and ongoing efforts at habit change. I discuss each of these twelve chapters below – the first two in detail and the remaining ten more briefly – in the two-fold hope, first, that you will find this discussion helpful and impactful in your own life and, second, that you will be moved to read this book for yourself as you seek to honor God with your smartphone habits.

Chapter 1: We Are Addicted to Distractions

Our smartphones foster an addiction to distractions. Studies show that we check our smartphones about once every 4.3 minutes of our waking lives. In Reinke’s nonscientific survey of 8,000 desiringGod.com readers, 73% said they were more likely to check email and social media before rather than after spiritual disciplines on a typical morning. The average Facebook user now spends 50 minutes – every day – in the Facebook product line (Facebook, Messenger, Instagram), and that number is still growing. In this chapter, Reinke asks and answers three questions:

     (1) Why are we lured to distractions? Regarding this question, I will let Reinke himself do the talking:

First, we use digital distractions to keep work away. . . . When life becomes most demanding, we crave something else – anything else. . . .

Second, we use digital distractions to keep people away. . . . In the digital age, we are especially slow to ‘associate with the lowly’ [Rom. 12:16] around us. Instead, we retreat into our phones – projecting our scorn for complex situations or for boring people…

Third, we use digital distractions to keep thoughts of eternity away. . . . [I]n the most alluring new apps, we find a welcome escape from our truest, rawest, and most honest self-perceptions. . . . Staring at the ceilings of our quiet bedrooms, with only our thoughts about ourselves, reality, and God, is unbearable.

I experienced some very un-subtle conviction of sin as I read through this portion of the book. If, like me, you see yourself in some or all of the discussion above, then that should move you to prayer and action. Such distracted living is not an acceptable status quo.

     (2) What is a distraction? Noting that distractions can take many forms – the latest game or app, a recurring anxiety, or a vain aspiration – Reinke divides distractions into three main categories: (i) those that “blind our souls from God,” (ii) those that “close off communion with God,” and (iii) those that “mute the urgency of God” (i.e., our need to live in a state of watchfulness for Christ’s return).

     (3) What is the undistracted life? Reinke rightly concludes that the answer to this third question is not found merely in getting rid of your phone – “there may have been a pre-digital age, but there has never existed a life without distractions.” Rather, we must make an intentional effort to remove all unnecessary distractions from our lives. To that end, Reinke provides a list of ten diagnostic questions to assist in self-evaluation:

            1.    Do my smartphone habits expose an underlying addiction to untimely amusements?

2.    Do my smartphone habits reveal a compulsive desire to be seen and affirmed?

3.    Do my smartphone habits distract me from genuine communion with God?

4.    Do my smartphone habits provide an easy escape from sobered thinking about my death, the return of Christ, and eternal realities?

5.    Do my smartphone habits preoccupy me with the pursuit of worldly success?

6.    Do my smartphone habits mute the sporadic leading of God’s Spirit in my life?

7.    Do my smartphone habits preoccupy me with dating and romance?

8.    Do my smartphone habits build up Christians and my local church?

9.    Do my smartphone habits center on what is necessary to me and beneficial to others?

10.  Do my smartphone habits disengage me from the needs of the neighbors God has placed right in front of me?

This list of ten questions alone is worth the price of the book. I needed to contemplate these questions for my own life, and I feel confident you would also benefit from doing so.

Chapter 2: We Ignore Our Flesh and Blood

In this chapter, Reinke makes the point that “[w]e are quick to believe the lie that we can simultaneously live a divided existence, engaging our phones while neglecting others.” He illustrates his point with examples such as texting-and-driving and the pervasive and contagious nature of online conflict (“anonymous anger”).

Reinke contrasts the fractured nature of online disembodiment with the joy of embodied Christian fellowship. He makes insightful observations regarding the strong New Testament emphasis on the idea of embodiment. God becoming flesh; the metaphor of the church as Christ’s body; the encouragement to greet one another with a holy kiss; the command not to neglect our gathering together; the inescapable physicality of the sacraments of baptism and Communion; and the crucial physical realities of Christ’s life, ministry, crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension – the embodied nature of these themes deserves our attention and reflection.

Reinke concludes this chapter with a penetrating observation about the pervasive modern desire to follow Christ without participating in “organized religion,” calling this “nothing short of ‘conniving at dehumanization.’” The point is that we were made to love, serve, and fellowship with the people God has physically placed in our lives, and our phone habits should not be allowed to hinder us in this calling.

Remaining Chapters

In the remainder of the book, Reinke unpacks many other ways in which our phones are changing us. These include the following:

·         Chapter 3: We Crave Immediate Approval. We prefer an online community of people extremely similar to us rather than complicated local relationships, and we crave immediate approval – likes, follows, and shares – rather than eternal reward.

·         Chapter 4: We Lose Our Literacy. As our social media compete for more and more of our attention with “well-engineered cultural marshmallows,” we lose our ability to linger over Scripture and nonfiction books in a way that leads to understanding and wisdom.

·         Chapter 5: We Feed on the Produced. As opposed to direct enjoyment of God’s natural revelation (creation) and special revelation (Scripture), everything we view on our phones is intermediated by man, adding a layer of interpretation of which we ought to be aware. Practical applications include putting your camera away so that you can directly enjoy the moment, getting out in God’s creation to behold his glory, and diving deep into God’s word.

·         Chapter 6: We Become Like What We “Like.” “Social media has become the new PR firm of the brand Self, and we check our feeds compulsively and find it nearly impossible to turn away from looking at – and loving – our ‘second self.’ . . . But we all do this: we all wear ‘costumes’ to meet the approval of certain subcultures, because our search for individuality is always a chase for conformity.”

·         Chapter 7: We Get Lonely. “Isolation is both the promise and the price of technological advance,” and the smartphone is “the supreme invention of personal isolation.”

·         Chapter 8: We Get Comfortable in Secret Vices. In a culture largely defined by the catchphrase “There’s an app for that,” everything in life can be converted to a commodity, even our most intimate experiences. We believe the lie that we can indulge in pornography and other vices without consequence. To combat this lie, we must develop the eyes of faith – a “robust eschatological imagining” – so that what we see on our phones is outweighed by the hope of glory.

·         Chapter 9: We Lose Meaning. Amidst today’s unprecedented deluge of information, we suffer from “neomania” (addiction to the latest breaking news, Facebook timeline entries, etc.). To overcome this, we must learn to treasure wisdom, to strive for “fearful obedience over frivolous information,” and to embrace our freedom in Christ, including the freedom to power down our phones and simply enjoy the presence of our spouses, families, and friends.

·         Chapter 10: We Fear Missing Out. FOMO – fear of missing out – is a dominant force in many people’s lives, driving people to continually focus on their social media. But there is only one legitimate form of FOMO, and that is the fear of eternally missing out; therefore, if you are in Christ, the fear of missing out is eternally removed.

·         Chapter 11: We Become Harsh to One Another. Although Scripture provides processes for dealing with the sins of fellow believers and church leaders, many are tempted instead “to judge cases remotely, make premature conclusions, and then attract an online groundswell of support.” Furthermore, despite the command in James 4 not to speak out against our brothers, most of us at some level would love to publish and consume dirt online regarding others. In this environment, extreme caution and self-restraint are called for.

·         Chapter 12: We Lose Our Place in Time. “Life online is a whiplash between deep sorrow, unexpected joy, cheap laughs, profound thoughts, and dumb memes.” Amid this fragmented ongoing conversation, we squander precious hours and lose our place in time and in God’s eternal story. The following passage was especially moving for me as I read this chapter: “Forget for a moment your virtual crowd of online followers and imagine all of your spiritual ancestors in the faith watching in the bleachers. Their times are legend; your time is now. Whether you were expecting it or not, the baton of faith, passed down from generation to generation, has now been slapped into your hands. Run! Run with diligence. Cast off everything that distracts, unfetter your life from the chains that trip your ankles, and bolt with freedom and joy as you follow Christ. . . The race is on – our race! We have one shot, one event – one life. We must shake off every sinful habit and every ounce of unnecessary distraction. We must run.”

I hope this brief summary has been helpful to you and has piqued your interest in reading this book, which is such a relevant, timely work in our day. For those of you who are parents with kids still in the home, my recommendation to read this book is especially hearty, since you will benefit from the reading not only in your personal life, but also in your efforts to teach wisdom to your children, who are growing up in a smartphone culture. As we run the race that is set before us, it is my hope and prayer that we will handle our devices in such a way as not to hinder us, but rather to speed us onward.