In 2015, photographer Erik Pickersgill took a series of photos capturing people in the midst of everyday life: eating at restaurants, driving in a car, sitting in their homes, visiting friends, or enjoying a vacation in a beautiful setting. He didn’t pose his objects or ask them to stop and smile; his goal was to capture the reality of the moment in all its genuineness: just people, like me and you, doing what they do every day.
And then, he made one single edit to every photo: he removed each smartphone or tablet.
The results were strange. Awkward and yet common. I don’t think I realized it until I saw the phones removed, but the familiar eyes down, thumbs up pose has become so normal, because most everyone around us has a small, bright screen in their hands. But seeing that same pose in these everyday moments without the screen, I couldn’t help but think this is really not normal. I immediately wondered: if this photographer captured the mundane and routine days of my life, how often would he catch me looking down?
As a mama of three little ones, neck deep in the “mommy, mommy, look at me!” stage, this question became particularly piercing. The hours of my day are spent in the company of three people who do not yet know how to tie their own shoes, but all three of them can manage an iPad without a problem. So, I began to really examine my—or rather, our practices. I started to hold up my heart and my own familiar patterns to scripture, and I quickly realized my scrolling habits were far more indicative of a woman enthralled with both my own online presence, and the seemingly glamorous lives of others, than with the gospel. I could very well fit in to the category of people Jesus rebuked when he said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me,” because while my words—even my Instagram posts—might say one thing, my heart and my time would give me away to another.
The smartphone and its easy, anytime access to social media and the internet have been an enormous gift. I’ve connected with old friends and met dozens of new ones. I’ve been able to celebrate the accomplishments of others and join in praying for friends who’ve been given a tough assignment in life. And I’ve been on the receiving end of both of those things too, hearing words of encouragement and given reminders of God’s goodness that I will never forget. Like many things, there’s an undeniable presence of redemptive qualities that come with our unprecedented access to one another.
I think many of us are trying to get this social media thing right. We’re thankful for the gift of connection it offers but when we’re honest, we see what a grip it can have on our affections, which are supposed to belong first to Jesus and then to the people right in front of us. We appreciate being understood and affirmed when we share something honest, but admit we’re spending far too much time taking a great picture and coming up with the perfect words to share with it because we’re attached to that affirmation. In an effort to walk that narrow ridge between healthy engagement and sinful self-absorption, I’ve started reminding myself of three things before I even open up my phone.
First, my motives are never hidden to Jesus. Every time I open my phone, he knows exactly what I’m seeking. God sees into every corner of my heart and mind, and whether I’m humbly offering words or lessons about the goodness of God, or looking for a quick hit of human applause for being a good mom/writer/cook/athlete/you fill in the title, he knows.
Second, my habits are influencing my kids’ character. Social media didn’t exist until my freshman year in college, and the ‘everyone has a smartphone and I need one too’ phenomenon didn’t hit me until after my daughter was born. I was well into adulthood before my first feeling of social media induced Fear of Missing Out. By the time I felt the first pangs of jealousy, comparison, hurt that I wasn’t invited, or pride at what good thing I did have to share, I had a fully developed brain, a loyal group of friends, a strong marriage to a godly husband, and a solid understanding of and relationship with Jesus. In a few short years, I will be walking my teenagers through life in a digital age and they may have none of those tools to navigate it with yet. My habits and responses to life on the internet while they are young matter so very much, because I can’t expect from them what I am not modeling myself; and that goes for both my time and my emotions. If my phone has a monopoly on those things, I can be sure it will for my kids as they grow and mature, too.
And third, if life is a breath, then I am to “redeem time, not waste it.” A few months ago, a friend showed me how I could see exactly how much time I looked at the screen by checking the battery settings on my iPhone. At the risk of losing all credibility with you dear reader, the results were telling: in 24 hours I spent just over two of them on social media alone. Assuming I was only awake for 16 of those 24 hours, that is 15% of my waking hours with my eyes on headlines and pictures instead of the life right in front of me. And while I’m sure some of those minutes were edifying and teachable, I know not all of them were. When I think about the cumulative effect of all these hours added up over a week or a month, I’m sad—so much good work I’m not doing, people I’m not calling and checking in with, scripture I’m not reading, beauty around me I’m failing to take in. As believers in Christ, we’re to ask God to “teach us to number our days” and understand that “As for man, his days are like grass… the wind passes over it, and it is gone…” These aren’t ominous warnings but honest heart-checks. Our minutes matter, and we should make them count for the Kingdom of God.
Neither the internet nor the smartphone are going anywhere anytime soon, and because our children are never going to know a world without them, we must learn to steward well our use of both. I don’t think the answer is complete disengagement, though for some people or in certain seasons, it might be. I also don’t think we need more rules we wouldn’t be able to abide by anyway, but good accountability and healthy boundaries would benefit anyone. And above all, we must return to truth again and again. God’s word tells us when we lack wisdom, we should ask for it.
Jesus, you are the Creator and Sustainer of all. We know that every good and perfect gift comes from you and in Christ we have so much freedom in how we spend our days. But Lord, someday soon, we will hold up our entire lives before you, and our devotions will be on full display. And while we know you’re not asking for perfection, you delight in humble, persistent efforts at making your name famous. Give us hearts that want that more than anything else. Make us wise in a world full of lesser things competing for the greatest thing. May we guard our time, our affections, our pride, our talents, our children and all of our lives according to your word. Let us go there before anyone or anything else. Amen.
Katie Blackburn is a mama of three who is still very much learning how to be a mama at all. She is saved by grace and runs on cold brew coffee and quiet mornings at her desk. She is also a regular writer at Coffee + Crumbs and a contributor to The Magic of Motherhood (Zondervan, 2017). You can find more of her writing on faith, motherhood, special needs, and other life lessons on her blog or on instagram.
Reinke, T (2016). Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You. Crossway.
Ps 90:12, Ps 103:15-16