Like it nor not, the smartphone is changing everything. Only a decade old, it is the most dominant culture-and-life-shaping technology in the world. With its myriad practical and compelling functions—Internet, phone, e-mail, texting, GPS, camera, photos, video, podcasts, music, social media, alarm clock, and so on—it has become virtually impossible to live without. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if there were not also a darker side to its use: with all of its positive functions, the small device may also be used to access an unspeakable world of wickedness.
That’s what makes Tony Reinke’s 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You such a marvelous, timely, and indispensable resource. It is a book written not only to provide significant information and research on the use and impact of smartphones in our day, but also to challenge modern Christians to be honest and self-critical about our smartphone habits, “to evaluate the place of smartphones—the pros as well as the cons—in the trajectory of our eternal lives” (27). The challenge, according to Reinke, is how to use our smartphones with biblical wisdom and for the glory of God.
In his introduction, Reinke provides a helpful summary of the history of technology, as well as how it should be understood in the light of God’s word. He explains that “technology is not inherently evil, but it tends to become the platform of choice to express the fantasy of human autonomy” (34). Our innovation for good can easily turn into idolatry. If we are not careful, we will not own our technology—our technology will own us.
He helpfully demonstrates that Christians haven’t spent much time thinking about the cultural, familial, or personal impact of the ubiquitous smartphone. This is partly because smartphone use has become an essential part of our everyday lives. It is also because the technology is so new and ever-changing. Indeed, the first iPhone was introduced at the Macworld Expo only ten years ago! Even so, it is important that Christians not become unwittingly swept up in the strong current of smartphone use and all the modern technological advances associated with it. We are called to live circumspectly as God’s people, not least in the way we employ a device found in the pockets and purses of nearly everyone in the industrialized world. It’s time we stop and think about the impact of the smartphone on our lives, in our families, and on our relationship with Christ.
Reinke writes that in the coming year smartphone users will grab their devices once every 4.3 minutes—over eighty-five thousand times. He maintains that many are addicted to their smartphones and asserts that the consequences are alarming. Because we are always distracted by our phones, it is affecting us at a deeper emotional level than we realize.
As digital distractions intrude into our lives at an unprecedented rate, behavioral scientists and psychologists offer statistical proof in study after study: the more addicted you are to your phone, the more prone you are to depression and anxiety, and the less able you are to concentrate at work and sleep at night. Digital distractions are no game. (43)
Moreover, this level of distraction profoundly hinders communion with God. Reinke states that “God feels distant because we are distracted” (48).
Distracted from God, we lose our priorities and sense of purpose. Distracted from each other, we foster superficiality and loneliness in our relationships. 12 Ways explores how, if we are not vigilant, the smartphone and its myriad apps can lead us down a dark path of isolation, narcissism, consumerism, worldliness, and sexual perversion (134–35). Social media apps such as Facebook and Instagram devour time and dehumanize relationships. It’s a great irony that the more connected we are online, the less connected we feel toward others (120). Reinke helps us understand that there is a cost to undisciplined and unwise smartphone use.
In case you were wondering, 12 Ways is no jeremiad and the author is no self-righteous Luddite. On the contrary, Reinke markedly appreciates digital technology and brings out many positive aspects of its proper use. It is a well-researched, theologically adept, and winsomely written treatise that asks honest and searching questions about the “impact of our phones on ourselves, on our creation, on our neighbors, and on our relationships to God” (37). The book is profoundly balanced in its critique and should be read by every Christian with a smartphone. I cannot recommend it enough.
Jon D. Payne is the church planting pastor of Christ Church Presbyterian (PCA) in Charleston, South Carolina. He is also a visiting lecturer in practical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta.