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Are Our Smart Phones Killing Us, And Our Ministries?

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Editor’s Note:  Most Saturdays we will feature this “Editor’s Notebook” column. MinistryWatch President Warren Smith will comment on one or more stories in the week’s news, adding an additional perspective or, sometimes, a behind-the-scenes look at how the story came to be. 

This week I was at a meeting in Colorado Springs to discuss mental health issues with ministry leaders from around the country.

One of the presenters at this meeting was Dr. Jean Twenge. If you don’t know her work, you should. She is a professor at San Diego State University and the author of such books as Generation Me and The Narcissism Dilemma.

But we were more concerned about her book iGen. In this book, Twenge argued that smart phones and social media were the most likely cause of the sudden increase in mental health issues among teens, an increase that started in 2007, with the introduction of the iPhone, but which became pronounced after 2012, the date that the penetration of smart phones reached 50 percent in this country. She showed us historical charts that showed how the rates of depression, unhappiness, suicide, and related pathologies rose dramatically beginning in 2012.

(You can get a great summary of her arguments from her 2017 Atlantic article, which is based on the book. You can find that article here.)

This topic is particularly relevant to MinistryWatch because we often write about mental health issues, including suicide, among ministry leaders. Just this week we posted a story about a survey of United Methodist pastors. They worry more and are less happy than they were a decade ago. In less than four years, we have published more than 50 stories involving a pastor or ministry leader and suicide – and for various reasons we have chosen not to publish many more. Search our site for the phrase “mental health” and you’ll get nearly 60 hits.

Bottom line: Anyone who thinks mental health is not a key issue for churches and ministries is simply not paying attention.

But why? Could our smart phones really be responsible for all this carnage and suffering?

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Well, no. The causes of our current mental health crisis are varied and many. Surely the opioid epidemic plays a role. Studies show that those who participate in weekly religious services tend to be happier, and we have seen a decline in weekly church attendance. These are just two of many factors.

But it strains credulity to think smartphones play no role. According to Twenge, smartphones and social media cause us to have less face-to-face interaction with our friends, encourage us to sleep less, keep us from pursuing other, healthier pursuits out-of-doors. These are all activities that contribute to mental health. And we’re not even talking about the actual content — such as pornography and other corrosive content — that we can now too readily encounter on the Internet.

In fact, one of the “a-ha” moments for me came during the Q&A with Twenge. I asked her if content mattered. She acknowledged that it is better to watch an educational video on YouTube than to watch pornography, but then she made this point: the negative impacts on mental health were not content specific. Those negative consequences — less sleep, less face-to-face interaction, etc. — showed up no matter what we were watching on our phones. The problem was the smartphone itself. The problem was the smartphone itself. They are constantly with us, and always on. Even if the content is innocuous, the medium itself is the problem.

But what do we do about it? We can’t ban smart phones. They have simply become too ubiquitous and too vital to many legitimate business and other activities. But Twenge and others have advocated putting limits on them. Twenge said we shouldn’t take our smart phones to bed. She has an elegantly simple retort to those who say they use their smart phones as alarm clock: “Buy an alarm clock.”

She is one of many who are now calling for smart phone bans in schools. She encourages designating certain times of the day — such as mealtimes — as technology free zones.

These suggestions are not new, nor particularly innovative. Christian ministries such as Axis, Summit Ministries, Celebrate Kids, and The Colson Center have been making such recommendations for years. I particularly like Kathy Koch’s wise and highly readable book Screens and Teens.

But I think what is new here is a much clearer understanding of the cost of not doing these things. Our children are unhappy. Our ministry leaders and pastors are suffering and, in some cases, dying. These are terrible realities, but they also focus the mind. Massive social changes can happen quickly when the cost of the status quo becomes intolerable. For example, when was the last time you saw someone light up a cigarette in a restaurant? When was the last time you got in your car without buckling your seat belt? These behaviors were common a generation ago, but they are virtually non-existent today, largely because we began to learn more about what these behaviors were costing us.

So change is possible. Yes, the cost of change will be great, but the cost of not changing, we can now plainly see, is greater still.

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Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.