by Dr. David Diener
Digital screen technology is ubiquitous in our lives today. While this is a fact that probably isn’t going to change anytime soon, digital screen technology, like any technology, affects us in ways we cannot always predict or control. Thus, if we accept Socrates’s claim that “The unexamined life is not worth living,” it is valuable to consider how digital screen technology is influencing our lives and accordingly make intentional decisions about how we use it. One area that faces significant challenges by digital screen technology is the cultivation of spirituality. More specifically, the practice of spiritual solitude is an important aspect of a healthy spiritual life that faces unprecedented challenges by digital screen technology.
Throughout the history of the Christian tradition, solitude has been understood to be an important component of a healthy spiritual life. The importance of solitude is seen in the life of Jesus, who consistently withdrew from the business of his ministry to spend time alone in prayer. According to the gospel of Mark, for example, after a post-sunset evening of healing the sick and driving out demons, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35). Luke also tells us that in fact “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). We are commanded in Scripture to “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), and many have found that this stillness can be experienced only in solitude. A person’s ability to enter into solitude is thus an important characteristic of spiritual maturity, and according to Søren Kierkegaard, “The urge for solitude is a sign that there is after all spirit in a person and the measure of what spirit there is.”
In solitude we are forced to face ourselves, and God, without the distractions that so often provide a superficial veneer over the deepest parts of our souls. Solitude thus involves a kind of desolation and sense of abandonment, and because of this the practice of solitude is not easy. It can be lonely and uncomfortable. According to Douglas Burton-Christie, however, these challenges are precisely what make solitude so valuable: “Without an honest reckoning with the desolation of solitude, with the real sense of abandonment that so often colors this experience, we risk losing who and what God can become for the one who ventures into this lonely place.”
While the practice of solitude always has been difficult, digital screen technology poses an unprecedented challenge by offering us the ability to be perpetually connected to a digital universe even when we are physically alone. Studies abound on how much time Americans spend in front of their screens, but on average the figure comes back somewhere between six and nine hours each day. These numbers are predictably higher among teenagers who live as digital natives and have difficulty imagining life without the ubiquitous presence of their screens. At least 80 percent of teenagers never shut off their cell phones, while 84 percent report taking their cell phones to bed with them. The average teen sends over three thousand text messages a month—in other words, over one hundred texts every single day. Taken together, these statistics demonstrate the degree to which digital screen technology is inhibiting us from the practice of solitude. Through our screens we are never alone but are instead engaged in what Mark Bauerlein refers to in his book The Dumbest Generation as “nonstop peer contact.”
Digital screens not only make the cultivation of solitude more difficult but also, by their very nature, are inimical to it. They continually remind us of their presence through vibrations, alerts, and various noises, and Cory Doctorow thus writes of the world we enter through digital screens as an “ecosystem of interruption technologies.” As users become accustomed to the perpetual presence of interruptions, attention spans are shortened and the brain becomes chemically addicted to constant stimuli. These physiological changes are at least part of the reason why those conditioned by their screens often report feeling lost, naked, or exposed without their devices, cut off from the constant digital feedback on which they have become dependent.
This constant digital feedback further militates against solitude in that the practice of solitude requires persistent effort. Digital screen technology, however, cultivates an expectation of instantaneity and immediacy that precludes such discipline. As educational psychologist Jane Healy observes, those “weaned on a media culture tend to have trouble taking responsibility and exercising persistence. If they can’t push something and make it happen, they don’t want any part of it.” By its very presence, digital screen technology thus not only prevents us from experiencing solitude but also cultivates in us an aversion to it. In a world where instant access, constant connectivity, and perpetual feedback are the norm, the cultivation of solitude becomes not only exponentially more difficult but also undesirable and even anathema.
Digital screen technology’s assault on solitude thus constitutes a formidable challenge for cultivating spirituality that should not be overlooked or underestimated. How then, should we respond? Given that digital screen technology is changing us in ways we cannot control and as a medium is itself communicating a message, it seems incumbent on us to critically examine the effects such technology is having on our lives. This critical examination should not, I think, lead to a wholesale, neo-Luddite rejection of such technology. That response would be imprudent and maybe even impossible. I do not think it is an exaggeration, however, to assert that digital screen technology poses one of the most significant and potentially undermining challenges to the cultivation of spirituality ever faced by believers. As such, we should take very seriously the effects that it is having on our spiritual lives, be willing to challenge our culture’s uncritical (even maniacal) embracing of its unquestioned benefits, and based on a thoughtful analysis make considered decisions about how we allow our lives and spiritual journeys to be shaped by digital screen technology.