How to keep your phone from eating your soul

Tools for disciplined living in an age of distraction

May 15, 2019

I’m writing these words from the Seventh Circle of Hell.

Well, that’s what I call it. My kids call it Chuck E. Cheese’s, and they think it is heaven. Right now, they’re running around slapping buttons, whacking moles, spinning wheels, and shooting tiny basketballs into tiny hoops. I’m over here at the corner table eating cheap pizza and trying to write something intelligible. It isn’t easy to do amid the flashing lights, blaring games, and shrieking children. (Oh, and did I mention there’s a guy in a mouse costume running around high-fiving everyone?)

Pray for me in my hour of need.

As I sit here trying to concentrate, a thought occurs to me. The outside world is becoming more and more like this place. No, there aren’t people running around in giant mouse costumes. I’m talking about the distractions, the noise. Life has gotten louder, chaotic, and more disruptive. And just like at Chuck E. Cheese’s, a lot of the cacophony comes via screens.

There are the familiar diversions like TV, which, despite the advent of the Internet, Americans continue to watch on average for more than five hours a day.[1] Advertisements bombard us from every angle, more than at any other time in history. In addition to these distractions, the Internet has spawned a host of tools—like email, apps, social media, and online games—to grab even more of our time and attention. The average American now spends almost 11 hours a day staring at a screen.[2] Throw in eight hours of sleep (which we should be getting, but aren’t), and that leaves a paltry six hours in which we risk making eye contact with another human being.

A different distraction battle

In every generation Christians had to battle distraction, but today the battle is different. It now involves ignoring Internet trolls and not blowing money you don’t have on apps and one-click purchases. It means not frittering away hours scrolling through your Facebook feed or crushing digital candies on your phone. I’m not saying new media are all bad. They can enrich our lives when used properly and in moderation. But we’d be fooling ourselves if we didn’t recognize their drawbacks.

I wish I could lecture you on the dangers of new media from Mount Solitude, where I pass my days in silence and prayerful meditation. But alas, I live in the proverbial valley, immersed in the distracting technology that has become the hallmark of modern life. Recently I saw a report showing the average American house now has seven digitally connected devices.[3] I scoffed at the excess, then started counting the devices in my own home and came to a humbling realization: we have eight.

Every day I sign into three different email accounts, and I check them compulsively. And I usually do so on my smartphone, my ever-present help in times of boredom. It continually dings and buzzes and beeps, assuring me that I’m connected and popular and entertained. The other day I got stuck in line at Chipotle for 20 minutes and made a horrifying discovery: I didn’t have my phone with me. I grew uneasy. My hand kept searching my pockets in vain for the glowing device. I was shocked by just how hard it was for me to stand there with nothing to do. I got so desperate I almost resorted to talking to the people around me!

So how exactly can we fight back against the digital onslaught?

Structure Your Time

I doubt any of us sits down to plan the week and thinks, Hmm . . . I’m going to pencil in 35 hours for staring at my phone, 30 hours of TV, and seven hours of mindlessly surfing the web. Sounds ridiculous, right? We’d never plan to spend our time like this. Yet that’s what many of us do—week after week.

How do we bring sanity back to our schedules? By becoming intentional about the way we spend our time. Of course that doesn’t mean we say no more phones, TV, or computers. For most of us, that isn’t feasible. If I said no to email, I’d lose my job! But it does require applying wisdom to our online habits.

One tool I’ve found helpful comes from the author Brett McCracken. Playing off Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs, McCracken came up with the “Wisdom Pyramid” to give internet-addicted Christians a way to think more fruitfully about the way they spend their time.[4]

McCracken puts social media and the Internet at the pinnacle of his pyramid—not because those are the best uses of your time, but because they’re the least important. He advises prioritizing Scripture-reading and spending time with your church family in order to keep your priorities balanced. This is great advice. When we make sure we’re spending time with God and each other, it helps us rein in our use of isolating technology.

Use Tech to Control Tech

A few months ago, I did something simple that reduced my tendency to waste time on my phone. I turned off all the notifications. Did I really need to be alerted every time someone liked one of my tweets or Facebook posts? Must I know each time CNN.com posts a new political story? Nope. Yet these dings and beeps were continually pulling me away from more important activities and sapping my ability to concentrate deeply. So I went into my settings and disabled all notifications. I haven’t missed them.

The second thing I did: install an app (called Moment) that tracks all the time I spend on my phone. It’s sobering to get an accurate understanding of just how much time you’re spending on your phone. Such tools help you prevent giving too much of your time and attention to the Internet.

There are also small steps you can take to curb your digital dependency. One is to disable color on your smartphone. The former Design Ethicist at Google, Tristan Harris, explains that opting for the “grayscale” option makes the apps on your phone far less addictive.[5]

Draw Bright Lines

Most of us know we have to handle technology better. But often we pursue this goal with vague aspirations, like “I’m going to try to look at my phone less.” Of course, objectives like this rarely work because they’re so ambiguous. “Bright lines” are hard-and-fast rules that help you avoid unwanted behavior. The term came from the legal system to describe clearly defined courtroom rulings, but researchers found the idea helpful for controlling conduct.

These rules may sound difficult, but they actually preserve your willpower. You know certain behaviors at certain times are off limits, so you don’t have to wrestle with a decision. You don’t even have to think about it. Bright lines are especially crucial for breaking bad digital habits. Make hard-and-fast rules like “No email after 6:00 p.m.,” or “No Internet on weekends,” or  “No phones at the dinner table.” These bright lines are like levees, strategically placed in your life to guard against the flood of digital distractions that threaten to overwhelm your soul.

Make Your Sabbath Tech-Free

A couple years ago, our family started giving our Sabbath a low-tech twist. We forbade the use of screens. We called it “No Screen Sundays.” It’s a little cheesy, but somehow the alliteration helped it stick. We don’t always observe it in our home (and usually Dad is the weak link), but we try. And when we do, it feels like a little slice of heaven. The kids aren’t zoned out watching cartoons, Mom isn’t texting, and maybe most refreshing of all, Dad isn’t glued to his phone checking email or Twitter. It’s a day to worship God, enjoy our church community, and to be together as a family. Really together. “The Sabbath prefers natural light to artificial light,” writes A. J. Swoboda.[6] We’ve found this to be true in our home. When we power down our devices and step outside into the natural light of God’s creation, our souls are restored.

This is just a sampling of strategies I’ve found useful. You may opt for different ones. The important thing is that we get intentional about freeing our minds from the tyranny of technology. Too much time in front of screens breeds impatience and impulsivity. It leaves us depressed and distracted and discontent. Compare those states of mind with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and—self-control. The contrast could hardly be sharper. By limiting our time online, we give God the space in our lives to cultivate the virtues he longs for us to have.

This article is adapted from Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible and Brain Science (Moody, 2019). 


  1. ^ John Koblin, “How Much Do We Love TV? Let Us Count the Ways,” New York Times, June 30, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/01/business/ media/nielsen-survey-media-viewing.html.
  2. ^ Jacqueline Howard, “Americans Devote More Than 10 Hours a Day to Screen Time, and Growing,” CNN.com, July 29, 2016, http://www.cnn.com /2016/06/30/health/americans-screen-time-nielsen/index.html.
  3. ^ Jayson Maclean, “Households Now Use an Average of Seven Connected Devices Every Day: Report,” August 25, 2016, https://www.cantechletter.com/2016/08/households-now-use-average-seven-connected-devices-every-day-report/.
  4. ^ Brett McCracken, designed by Jeremy Hamann, “The Wisdom Pyramid,” August 13, 2017, https://www.brettmccracken.com/blog/2017/8/3/the- wisdom-pyramid. Used by permission of the author.
  5. ^ Betsy Mikel, “Former Google Designer Says 1 Simple Trick Can Curb
Your Smartphone Addiction,” Inc., January 15, 2018, https://www.inc.com/ betsy-mikel/former-google-designer-says-1-simple-trick-can-curb-your- smartphone-addiction.html.
  6. ^ A. J. Swoboda, Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2018), 100.

Drew Dyck

Drew Dyck (M.A. in Theology) is an editor at Moody Publishers and the former managing editor of Leadership Journal. His work has been featured in USA Today, the Huffington Post, Christianity Today, and CNN.com. Drew is the author of Generation Ex-Christian, Yawning at Tigers, and Your Future Self Will Thank … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24