By Chris Bolinger, Crosswalk.com
In 2019 the average North American spent about nine hours a day on screens. Then the pandemic hit. Locked in our homes with little to do, we spent even more time staring at our glowing companions. Over two years later, our increased screen usage doesn’t seem to be abating.
As we’ve given more of our time and attention to screen life, we’ve lost touch with real life, says David Murrow, author of the book Drowning in Screen Time.
“We spend nearly every spare moment we have on screens: looking at our phones, playing video games, streaming media, or watching traditional television,” Murrow says. “We're seeing the world through these screens. It’s leading to division, including division in the church. And it’s causing us to forget how to be together.”
Losing Your Peripheral Vision
To explain why, Murrow offers a metaphor.
“Let’s say I've got a pair of binoculars,” Murrow says. “When I put them to my eyes, I can suddenly see things that are far away. Distant objects become very close and very large. At the same time, however, I lose my peripheral vision.
“For instance, if I were looking at a moose through these binoculars – I live in Alaska, so that’s a distinct possibility – that moose would seem very large and right there in front of me, even though it’s quite a distance away. But I wouldn't see a moose that has walked right up next to me. I gain distance vision but I lose peripheral vision.”
Screens have become our binoculars, Murrow argues. “Followers of Jesus are watching cable news and ‘doom scrolling’ the internet for hours a day,” he says. “We see distant happenings and world affairs -- how horrible political leaders can be, global warming, wars, pandemics, and other threats – as large and up close. Hour after hour, these distant happenings dominate our view.
“Meanwhile, our peripheral vision is gone. We cannot see that neighbor in distress. We cannot see that person who needs to know the love of Jesus.”
Distant happenings, such as world affairs, are God's job, Murrow continues. “But with these screens in front of our eyes, we're doing God's job for Him. And we're neglecting the job that he gave us to do, which is to love our neighbor. That's the tragedy in the church today. The church is divided not over issues of theology but over what we're seeing on our screens. It's polluting our minds, it's breaking our hearts, and it's destroying churches.”
To be faithful followers of Jesus, he says, we must put down the “binoculars” and follow the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor.
Ruling Your Own Domain
Screens invite each of us to build a personal digital kingdom. Within the artificial world that you create, you reign as lord and master. Murrow explains this phenomenon with a parable about an Old Testament king: David.
“David starts off as a poor, impoverished shepherd boy with no privileges, no perks, and no prerogatives,” Murrow begins. “When he ascends to the throne, suddenly he can order whatever food he wants. He can choose from a harem of women. His decrees are heard throughout the land. He has a cabinet of ‘yes men’ around him who tell him he is always right.
“Screens place us on a digital throne. We can tap on our phones and food appears magically at our door. We have a harem of lovers ready to fulfill whatever we desire. We can post our opinions for all the world to see. Algorithms act as ‘yes men’ that tell us how right we are and how wrong everybody else is.”
But this kinglike power comes at a price. “We are not meant to exercise dominion in this world,” says Murrow. “We are meant to be under the dominion of Christ. Yet the digital world allows us to become little tyrants, and it’s unhealthy. It's making us opinionated, unloving, and ignorant.”
Why Reducing Screen Time Is Tough
Prior to the debut of the iPhone in 2007, most people tended to view screens in fixed locations, such as a desktop computer monitor or a family room TV. Now, nearly everyone has a powerful, handheld screen that he carries in his pocket and can use anywhere.
“Can you imagine standing in line at the grocery store and just looking at other people or maybe praying for them, or for God's wisdom as you interact with the cashier?” asks Murrow. “That used to happen. Now you don’t even see the people around you, because you're doing something on your phone.”
That “something” is designed to capture your attention and keep it. “Our brains are wired for novelty,” explains Murrow. “When we see something new, we feel a dollop of pleasure.” Producers of screen content – including Murrow, who has been doing it for 40 years – know this, so they use your brain chemistry to hook you on their content. “They constantly push novelty toward us – new things, exotic things that stimulate that part of our brain,” he says.
Our brains also are wired to respond to threats. “This is why the news is always so extreme,” explains Murrow.
Men tend to be visually oriented, captivated by three-dimensional objects moving through space, so most men enjoy watching sports or playing action-oriented video games on screens. And, of course, many men are attracted to online pornography. Why?
“Men are hormonally predisposed to be attracted to naked women,” says Murrow bluntly. “But we're not meant to see a new body every few seconds. Pornographers use our brain chemistry against us.”
Some Steps to Take
Want to spend less time on screens? Murrow recommends that you start by eliminating what he calls mindless screen time, where you turn to a screen out of habit or to fill a few moments of downtime. Examples include turning on the TV or starting to play a game the minute you get home, or pulling out your phone when you’re waiting in line or waiting for your bags at the airport.
“These were the moments that we used to devote to resting our brains,” he says. “To meditation. To prayer. To thinking about nothing or, as Mark Gungor likes to say, being in our ‘nothing box.’”
When you are in a public place, rather than turning to a screen, Murrow suggests that you observe the people around you. “See if they need help or just a smile,” he says. “Be the hands and feet of Jesus. Pray for them. Redeem those moments for Christ. Give those moments back to the Lord instead of giving them to Candy Crush or Fox News.”
Another good practice is to recognize your screen tendencies and get help from your friends to change them.
Apple and other phone makers provide tools that help you track how much time you spend on each app. Those can help you identify a potential “danger zone,” says Murrow. Such a zone may be certain sites on the web. It may be social media, where a person feels better about himself by having his opinions “liked.” Or it may be video games that offer affirmation through artificial conquests or the opportunity to build a life that is more appealing than life in the real world.
When you’re ready to avoid your danger zones, Murrow recommends approaching a trusted friend, telling him what you want to do, and asking him to hold you accountable. Give him permission to “bust you” if you stray. If pornography is your issue, Murrow recommends an accountability program such as Covenant Eyes that uses a buddy system.
Restoring Time with Loved Ones
Today, many couples and families have fallen into a trap: Being Alone Together. “A typical evening in a home may find the daughter on TikTok, the mom posting to Instagram, the son blasting away aliens on a video game, and the dad surfing the web,” Murrow said. “We are physically present, but emotionally detached – and that’s a recipe for dysfunction.”
Murrow recommends a policy that screen use ends when dinner begins. “Everyone surrenders his phone or tablet at the dinner table,” he says. “Put them on chargers behind a locked door. Turn off the TV. Devote the evening time to family time – reading books, outdoor recreation, blanket forts, whatever it takes to create real-world interaction.
“It’s so much easier to look at a screen than it is to interact with your loved ones,” he continues. “But it’s a trap. You never get that time back.”
Photo Credit: © GettyImages/МихаилРуденко
Chris Bolinger is the author of three men’s devotionals – 52 Weeks of Strength for Men, Daily Strength for Men, and Fuerzas para Cada Día para el Hombre – and the co-host of the Empowered Manhood podcast. He splits his time between northeast Ohio and southwest Florida. Against the advice of medical professionals, he remains a die-hard fan of Cleveland pro sports teams. Find him at mensdevotionals.com.