If you are in public place right now, take a glance around you. How many people are staring down at their smartphones? Maybe you are doing it yourself, reading this post on your phone as you ride the bus or wait for a friend.
Smartphones have become the fastest proliferating technology in history. According to a recent Pew Forum study, nearly two-thirds of Americans currently own a smartphone. Taking in the scene in a crowded subway or cafe, it seems that practically everyone has one and that those who have them are looking at them all the time. In fact, the same Pew study reports that one in four teens, equipped with smartphones, goes online “almost constantly.”
And what are we doing with all that time we spend staring at those glossy screens? Plenty has been written about the negative effects of modern technology—how it breaks down social bonds, shortens attention spans, and deprives us of valuable silence in our lives. However, today I’d like to take a different tack and suggest a few ways that you might use the smartphone in your hand to actually grow closer to God and other people.
#1—Set a reminder to nourish your soul
One iPhone feature that I have found immensely helpful is the reminder function. Countless times a day something pops into my head that I can’t deal with right this minute—defrost chicken for dinner, email Jack about the meeting, return the library book, pick up milk on the way home. Because these thoughts often occur to me when I’m on the move and don’t have pen and paper handy, I simply forgot most of them in my dumbphone days. Now, no sooner does the idea enter my mind than I have it entered in my phone, queued up to remind me at just the right moment.
Beyond staying on top of my to-do list, I have also found the reminder function handy for keeping my spiritual life in order. A common piece of practical wisdom among great spiritual traditions is the value of breaking for prayer throughout the day. Muslims pray five times a day. The Christian Liturgy of the Hours—many Christians may be surprised to learn—is structured in a similar way. But, if you’re like me, once the day’s work begins, trying to tear away is like trying to stop a runaway train. Even if I have every intention of taking a break, often I simply forget. Thanks so my smartphone, however, I now receive a reminder to observe a moment of prayer and calm at 1:00pm each afternoon. Most days I only break for a minute or two, but the effect it has on my day is significant.
#2—Send some love
How many text messages do you send each day—10, 15, 20? According to one estimate, the average teenager sends 30 texts a day. And what are we saying in all those texts? Again, if you’re like me, most of the communication you exchange this way is focused on the pragmatic (“Can u talk?” “Where should I meet you?” “What was the name of that restaurant again?”) and the frivolous (“Did you hear the news?” “Check out what Jess just posted.” “I heart T Swift.”) But there is so much potential for more meaningful communication.
Think about the last time someone sent you an affirming, loving message. How did it affect you? Your eyes probably lingered over the screen longer than usual. You probably felt a boost in your mood. It is such a small thing—perhaps only a few words or a hug emoticon—yet it can transform someone’s entire day. If something requiring so little effort can bring some joy to another person, why not make a point of typing out at least one affirming text, tweet, or post every day?
Nowadays there is an app for everything. There’s an app for tracking the ETA of the bus. There’s an app for helping you to fall asleep and another one to wake you up at the right time in your sleep cycle. There’s even an app for identify the song playing on the radio.
Even though you’re less likely to find them on the average person’s phone, there is also a wonderful array of apps for facilitating prayer. These prayer apps can be a real spiritual lifesaver because we all need a little help with prayer sometimes. Maybe you are just now beginning to take prayer seriously and you need help getting started. Or maybe your prayer life has become a bit dry and you need something new to reinvigorate your prayer. I find that listening to some reflective music and the daily reading with Pray as You Go is a great way to start my day. The Divine Office and Ora apps are two other good options.
#4—Rejoice in something beautiful
Apple’s latest marketing campaign has included billboards with breathtaking photos and the self-promoting reminder that these pictures were shot on an iPhone 6. Even if many people are using their iPhones for less transcendent purposes, as a slew of parodies point out, this does not diminish the fact that these devices can be used to focus our attention on the beauty of the world around us.
Indeed, there is no shortage of beauty in this world. God’s gifts are all around us. What is often lacking is the attentiveness needed on our part to recognize this beauty. I’ve found that one positive side effect of carrying around a phone that doubles as a high-quality camera is that now I am more inclined to observe things around me that might make for a good photo. Still, there is a significant difference between mindlessly snapping a picture and allowing the beauty of the moment to wash over you. The key, I believe, is taking the extra few seconds after you’ve shot the photo to linger in that spot and take it in with your own two eyes.
An added bonus of always having a digital photo album at our fingertips is that, at virtually any time, we can enjoy the beauty of past moments as well as present ones. On a dreary or monotonous day, pulling up pictures of the people you love can provide just the ray sunshine you need.
#5—Turn off the phone
For all the good your smartphone can do, it is nonetheless important to take a break from it every now and then. According to another study, 79% of smartphone users age 18-44 have their phone on or near them for almost the entire day. Pew reports that 67% of cellphone owners catch themselves checking for messages, alerts, or calls even when they don’t notice their phone ringing. With so much attention focused on our phones, we have to wonder what else we might be missing. Could we be so concerned with what’s trending on Twitter or when that cute guy/girl is going to call that we are missing God’s call?
While I don’t check my phone as frequently as some, I am a compulsive email checker, and I have come to recognize the importance of cutting myself off at a certain time each day. Thanks to this self-imposed discipline, I now find myself more peaceful at day’s end. Maybe a daily “phone fast” can do the same for you. Fasting has always been an importance practice in the Judeo-Christian tradition, not so much because it forces us to eschew harmful things as because it helps us to appreciate good things more and to recognize the blessings that we might have been overlooking.
In sum, smartphones need not only be a source of distraction in our lives. Like just about everything else in the world, they can serve as a sacrament of God’s love… if we use them well.