Scrolling through Twitter on my train commute home, I came upon a photo of an odd-looking phone—matte black and paperwhite. A former coworker of mine had been using the low-tech phone for about year. I was fascinated because I had been thinking about ditching my smartphone altogether. The post unintentionally revealed a felt need. After a few days of watching product review videos, I placed my order.
I bought my first cellphone in my mid-30s when we moved to the New York City area 11 years ago, where I still work as a college professor. It was a “dumb phone” that lived mostly in my backpack. I eventually eased into a refurbished iPhone about six years ago. The iPhone eventually moved from my backpack to my front left pocket. I never put social media apps on it—just email and a web browser. Recently, I added a mindless brick-smashing game and used it often to divert my attention on the train ride home.
I’m familiar with the pangs of addiction. I used to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day for ten years. In addiction’s loving arms, I couldn’t go long without a hit. Fifteen or 20 minutes after my last drag, my anxieties would crescendo to a frenzied need for relief. My entire being grew restless until it found its rest in smoke—40 times a day. It was exhausting.
Making myself still, mentally or physically, has always been hard for me. I often have many irons in the fire. But maintaining the discipline of stillness requires a certain level of security with oneself and with God. My smartphone, on the other hand, offered an all-too-easy way to focus my constant motion, without truly slowing me down.
Scripture commands weekly stillness—Sabbath. Our bodies are designed for the daily stillness of sleep, where we trust the sovereignty of God to uphold all things together and “my soul to keep” while we slumber. The burdened find their rest in Jesus (Matt. 11:28). And yet, my phone was becoming my main source of mental burden. It’s always on. It provides instant access to work that needs doing.
Christians should be marked by a sense of stillness, practices of stillness. If I am honest about it, I am terrified of being still because it quietly affirms that I am not in charge.
Though my app usage might seem restrained compared to some of my students’, I always felt a vague sense of guilt when I spent the whole ride home reading news, checking email, looking at social media on my web browser, and smashing bricks. I recognized the subtle addictive pangs of this phone in my pocket.
Every semester, I challenge my freshmen students to go a week without screens: no texts, no streaming, no music. I’ve been chronicling their reactions to this challenge. In past years, my students were hooked on Instagram. But in 2021, students say they can’t do without music. Music helps them to “drown out,” “distract,” “close out,” and “numb” themselves to the real world. These are their words. By musically medicating their emotions, reflection and contemplation seemed to be collaterally damaged.
I introduced the digital challenge after researching the effects of smartphones on teenagers. I thought it would make for a lively illustration for a book I was writing on the power of rituals to shape our understanding. The research was not encouraging. It’s all the things we’ve already heard. Our phones monkey with our neurology. Social media apps (especially Instagram) inflame depression and anxiety. And most troublesome from my perspective, the 24/7 demands for their attention came mainly from their parents. They were always expected to be “on.”
For my students, rest, boredom, silence, and other human rituals taught across Scripture were deemed absurdly unattainable. Keeping their phones out of their hands and off their bodies seemed to them a dream. And when they dismiss such dreams as unrealistic, other dreams can get shoved off with it too: sexual self-discipline, contentment, generous giving, giving up prestigious opportunities, and a host of practices that characterize Christian maturity.
Many students reported to me that they hadn’t experienced undistracted boredom for as long as they could remember. When stillness was unavoidable, most reported anxiety to the point that they had to get a fix of music to avoid having a panic attack. These are their words.
A week after seeing the “Light Phone” on Twitter, mine arrived. One colleague described it as “a tiny Kindle with a built-in phone.” That’s about right. It makes calls, sends texts, plays audio, navigates, and has an alarm and calculator. It doesn’t take photos or allow apps, and I always show up as a green text bubble in my friends’ iPhone chats.
So what’s it like to switch to a phone “designed to be used as little as possible”? The first week, I kept pulling it out of my pocket as the iPhone had trained me to do. The dumb phone quickly re-trained me out of that old habit. It would just look at me, and I at it. Then, I’d realize that there was nothing to do, tap it a few times as if I had just sent an important email, and, feeling somewhat silly, settle it back in my pocket.
Matt Wiley, a doctoral student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School whose phone had inspired me, had already removed social media from his phone but was lured in by news and email. “I was already pretty minimal with my iPhone use, but I still found myself using it more than I wanted,” he told me. “I found that I would fill any little moment. I would just pull out my phone. I don’t even know what I would do with it—mindless clicking.”
I also found myself constantly responding to email, reading the news, or listening to podcasts. I have little silence in my life except during intentional quiet times, but those times are almost always in the morning. By evening, my mind is spaghettified with discussions, thoughts, dilemmas, emails, and family matters.
By dividing the phone from the computer, a few unexpected benefits flowed. First, I started having concentrated times where I could do more focused work. When I was away from the computer, I felt away—free from a sense of urgency to check.
Aaron Griffith, a history professor at Whitworth College, has been using a low-tech phone since last fall. He noticed not only the “sabbath inducing” benefits when there’s nothing to do on a phone but also how it allows for focused work. He loves that he can go to a coffee shop with a book and his phone and still be able to read the book. The phone doesn’t draw his attention away.
Griffith, who admits to enjoying the app-accessible world, even appreciates that low-tech “texting is not very fun to use.” It’s effective, he says, “but not going to suck you in.” The phone’s touchscreen responds a little more lethargically than I want. It forces me to slow down, be patient, and make decisions about whether I really want to text or just wait to talk in person.
Mainly, I feel as if I’ve gotten my brain back, but also my sensory attention. The number one benefit for me became clarity of mind and time to think. A month in and I feel much more coherent in my own headspace. After my body fully realized that there’s no need to pull out my phone for anything, I began attending to smells, sounds, and sights more than before. My prayers have also increased, and more in the mode of intercession than pleading for personal favors.
What I’ve learned from my students and myself is: None of this is magic. I can be busy and “always on,” regardless of whether I have a smartphone or not. Making the switch just shook up my daily rituals enough to make me rethink how I should be physically and emotionally navigating the spaces into which God has put me.
For me, the most terrifying line in the Psalms has always been, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). In unremarkable ways, moving to a low-tech phone eased my terror of stillness by forcing quiet into a dozen little junctures of my day.
But that doesn’t mean we have to switch devices. Deleting email or social media apps, turning our phone on airplane mode for periods of time, or switching to grayscale screens are all ways to help us reevaluate our relationship with the computer in our pocket.
Dru Johnson is the director of the Center for Hebraic Thought, teaches biblical studies and theology at The King’s College in New York City, and is the author of Human Rites: The Power of Rituals, Habits, and Sacraments.