Dear Christian: Is Technology Conforming You to the Pattern of This World?

A well-known verse tells Christians, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Flipping the Apostle Paul’s admonishment on its head, Christians are expected by the culture to look to the world for approval, cues, and specific direction on how to feel and what to think and even do. This is why preachers have long warned against the worldly influence of pop culture and, on the extreme end, addiction to drugs and alcohol. Similar cautions are now being raised about technology, specifically smartphones and social media. Except this time the warnings aren’t coming from preachers but from the techies who helped develop smartphones and social media technologies.

In an interview with The Guardian, a group of software engineers, designers, and project managers explain why they are severely curbing their personal smartphone and social media usage.

Titled, “Our minds can be hijacked: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia,” the article opens with a story of how “Justin Rosenstein had tweaked his laptop’s operating system to block Reddit, banned himself from Snapchat, which he compares to heroin, and imposed limits on his use of Facebook.”

Rosenstein’s efforts to protect himself from addictive technologies became even more extreme when he “purchased a new iPhone and instructed his assistant to set up a parental control feature to prevent him from downloading any app.” The article goes on to say that “He was particularly aware of the allure of Facebook ‘likes,’ which he describes as ‘bright dings of pseudo-pleasure’ that can be as hollow as they are seductive. And Rosenstein should know: he was the Facebook engineer who created the ‘like’ button in the first place.”

The Guardian’s article introduces readers to several other tech insiders who now take precautions to protect themselves from addictive technologies and who are hoping to sound the warning for others to hear.

“There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called ‘continuous partial attention,’ severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ,” the article notes. “One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off.”

“Everyone is distracted,” Rosenstein says. “All of the time.”

Starker words of warning are used by ex-Google employee Tristan Harris. Called the closest thing that the tech industry has to a conscience, Harris believes that “A handful of people, working at a handful of technology companies, through their choices will steer what a billion people are thinking today.”

Harris then goes on to detail some of the familiar ways in which tech and social media giants manipulate and control their users. Even the color of Facebook’s notification symbol is designed to trigger a response in users. Facebook first used the color blue, but found that people weren’t responding the way the company wanted. Switching to red spurred a massive increase in interaction with the platform.

The switch from blue to red may be the most innocuous means that Silicone Valley has used to alter consumer habits. This past spring, Facebook revealed to advertisers that they had the ability to “identify when teens feel ‘insecure,’ ‘worthless,’ and ‘need a confidence boost.'” That ability not only allows Facebook to steer users but to control how users respond to the social media’s prompts.

The warnings are dire, and people addicted to smartphones and social media are going to be tempted to dismiss or simply ignore the mounting evidence that the technology can be quite harmful. And that’s kind of the point — we love our technology and will resist any calls for us to curb our usage, no matter how true the warnings are.

Christians live in a world and society that is hostile to our faith and to Jesus. Temptation to pursue worldliness at the expense of holiness has been omnipresent since Jesus ascended back to heaven (and before). Now, with new, shinier, more attractive tools, Satan is mounting an assault on God’s people that is subtle yet, in many ways, poses a far greater danger than the tools of the past. Sadly, many Christians use smartphones and interact with social media without any thought as to how their usage negatively affects the command to not be conformed to the world.

As the research pours in and the anecdotal testimony from both tech and parenting experts sound the warning bell louder and louder, Christians should take heed. As the people of God, Christians are to live lives directed by the Word of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. The manipulative and addictive power of social media and new technologies make it increasingly harder for Christians to guard against being conformed to the world.