Disconnected: Conclusions from the smartphone experiment

Carter Ferguson

By Carter Ferguson
Special Contributor

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a two-part series. The first part appeared in the Feb. 3, 2017 issue of the Arkansas United Methodist.

“We got this cell phone for you so you could call us in an emergency, or when you inevitably do something completely ridiculous and get caught,” my parents told me in high school. That’s all it was for. But with advancements in cellular technology, that view has changed, and so has the world.

Now, smartphones can tell you where you are; they can tell you where your friends are; they can tell you how to get from where you are to where your friends are. They can tell you about your health. They connect to your car, your watch, your shoes, your Fitbit, your HVAC system, your baby monitor and even your doorbell. The ways we can use our phones to affect the world around us seem limitless.

Perhaps the most significant thing smartphones do is connect us. They make it so easy it to call, text, send pictures and broadcast what we are doing that the daily experience of life has become one in which we are nearly always in contact with one another. The smartphone has shrunk our world in a way never before seen.

But this connectivity has not come without a price. Studies are beginning to show that, along with that large data plan and fancy case for your phone, you may have also bought an instrument that has the ability to, in the most terrifyingly clandestine ways currently imaginable, help cultivate (if not outright cause) emotional, psychological, relational and perhaps even spiritual brokenness.

Evidence is beginning to mount that frequent social media use, constant connectivity to the internet and constant connection to others is hurting us, even as we think it’s helping us.

I was skeptical, so, as I wrote last month, I decided to experience life in the pre-iPhone, pre-iMessage, pre-Apple mail, pre-Facebook stone age. I disconnected my iPhone 7, moving to a flip phone to observe how my life would change. I’ve noticed several things as I’ve been bereft of my iPhone.

Smartphones and social media aren’t real connection, but we don’t truly understand that.

Social media-based friendships are not true friendships, and they cannot truly provide the connection God designed us to need.

Now, we say we understand this concept. I’ve heard people say—and I’ve said myself—that we know social media is no substitute for the real thing. But what should truly scare us is that while we say these things, we still settle for digital connection. We text friends across town instead of talking to the ones standing in front of us, and sometimes we even choose to text people across the room instead of talking directly to them.

We think that we think one thing about relationships, smartphones and social media use, yet we function in a contradictory way. That means we are at least one step from reality, which suggests we’re entering into the realm of actually being a little insane.

Social media use may be popular because it’s easier.

Over the past month, I’ve had to repeatedly ask myself why I yearned to have social media apps back on my phone. The conclusion I reached, when I was finally willing to be honest with myself, is that digital community is easier than real community.

Bluntly put, I could unfriend, unfollow or block emotionally needy, grumpy, irritating and annoying posts if they really began to grate on my nerves. I could simply not answer messages. I could “walk away from my computer” or “lose my phone” when you made me mad. Or I could just say awfully nasty things about you out loud that you’d never hear, and I’d never be held accountable for, because we’re communicating digitally. You don’t get to do that to a person face to face.

Real-life relationships are far more difficult. And while it may seem relatively unimportant to experience those difficulties, in truth, it is precisely those interpersonal struggles that make us better.

Social media relationships are more innocuous; they rub us wrong less often, and therefore leave more rough edges on our personalities and souls. Yes, we can control our social media relationships more, but as Richard Rohr puts it, “It’s the things that we can do nothing about or with that do the most with us.”

What are we missing out on by settling for social media relationships above the real thing?

It’s easier to be content without a smartphone.

Perhaps the single most shocking result of being without the constant connection to social media has been how much better I feel. Initially, I was kind of unhappy and grumpy, like I hadn’t had enough coffee or something. But eventually I began to notice I was simply more content in the midst of the disconnection.

I suspect the studies are right, that cell phone and social media connection do have a drug-like effect on the brain, which we see as making us happier. In reality, though, it’s just making us numb.

I believe that without the smartphone, my sermons are better, my marriage is better, I’m a better pastor, I’m a better father. In fact, when I go back to my iPhone, I’ve decided I’ll keep restrictions on it to disallow social media.

Setting aside the smartphone has uncovered a vast reservoir of emotions, both comfortable and not, within me. As a response, I’ve had to spend far more time navigating those emotions with God.

The Rev. Ferguson serves as pastor of CanvasCommunity, a United Methodist mission congregation in Little Rock.