Steve Jobs may have had a bigger impact on the spiritual formation of a generation than any other person in the last 50 years.

Steve Jobs may have had a bigger impact on the spiritual formation of a generation than any other person in the last 50 years.

The Smartphone Generation are growing up in a new normal

As we see the impact of the i-devices on our society I am starting to wonder whether Steve Jobs may have had a bigger impact on the spiritual formation of a generation than any other person in the last 50 years.

I used to joke that Jobs was the Anti-Christ, an image he did little to dispel by pricing the Apple 1 at $666.66 and shaping an apple logo with a bite out of it. Of course, I was never serious.

I fondly remember the day I saw the unveiling of the iPhone, and then the iPad. I was fascinated and excited by this new and seemingly magical technology.

While I am not really an “early adopter,” I do like to get in on new technology fairly quickly and it wasn’t too long before I had the first generation iPad and eventually traded my beloved Blackberry for an iPhone. At the same time, my kids started to get their own i-devices. First, it was little iPods, then touchscreen iPods and now, somehow, each of my kids actually has both an iPhone and an iPad.

I started to realise just how dependent I had become on my phone a few months ago when I was shopping with Leeanne in a large Canadian chemist. I don’t like shopping much, and I didn’t have my phone. I felt lost. I was surprised at how strong the frustration I felt was. I didn’t know what to do with myself.

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg points out that Habits are made of three distinct parts.

What I experienced in the Chemist was a “cue”: the emotional state of boredom. Playing with my phone was the “routine” that had developed. Distraction from the pain of boredom was the “reward.”

I am increasingly convinced that the real challenge with our devices is not the productive things we do, but the way we now find ourselves using them at times when we used to do other things. Our devices have become our main source of distraction.

Back in the 1970’s a book called Born to Win authored by Muriel James and Dorothy Jongeward claimed that:

Being bored for a long time hastens emotional and physical deterioration… To avoid the pain of boredom, people seek something to do with their time.

People structure their time in six possible ways. Sometimes, they withdraw from other people; sometimes, they engage in rituals or pastimes; sometimes, they play psychological games; sometimes, they work together; and occasionally, they experience a moment of intimacy.

The advent of smartphones and tablets has meant that people’s first response to boredom is not to structure their time in one of James and Jongeward’s six possible ways, but rather we have a seventh option that allows us to more successfully distract ourselves from the pain of boredom than ever before.

This is actually a very big problem if Victor Frankl knows what he is talking about. The Austrian psychiatrist’s book Man’s Search For Meaning has stood the test of time. Jimmy Fallon recently talked about how profoundly the book had influenced him.

Frankl’s core idea is that every human being needs a purpose bigger than they are. Frankl explains that the lack of purpose results in what he calls an “existential vacuum.” Why is that important? Frankl says:

The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom.

The big challenge of the distraction that our phones afford us is that we actually need to feel the pain of boredom because it is that pain of boredom that drives us to find the purpose of our lives.  Frankl believed that no amount of distraction could take away the ache of the existential vacuum, and that vacuum is also responsible for many psychological issues:

Such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression and addiction are not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying them.

What started me thinking about all of this was an article I read last night with the headline “Have smartphones destroyed a generation?” that outlined some of the consequences that we are now starting to see.

Apparently, the average teenager spends almost all their waking hours on some sort of screen.  American teenagers are spending 9 hours of those days consuming media, and my experience tells me that Aussie and Canadian kids are not much different.

About six months ago I discovered a handy function that most iDevices have. If you go to the settings and look at the battery menu you can find exactly how much time you have spent on your phone, and on specific apps, over the last 7 days. Most people don’t know that this information is so readily available, and everyone who I have shown it to have been a little shocked at their own usage.

James Bryan Smith  pointed out that:

Spiritual formation is not something we do or do not do, it is what is happening to us all the time.  Our spirits are always being formed, whether we know it or not, or like it or not.

There has been a dawning awareness for me that as more and more of us spend more and more hours attached to an alternate reality that we discover through the looking glass of our devices we are finding ourselves being spiritually formed by them…  And the consequences are becoming measurable.

These are the statistics from the Atlantic article:

On the positive side, I am not complaining that teenagers are engaging in less sexual activity, but all the other indicators seem to be that smartphones are not helping our kids.

As I read the article and processed what it was saying I was left wondering whether I have made a big parenting mistake.

Should I have kept my kids away from the devices that I was so enchanted by when Steve Jobs unveiled them?

Should I have realised something might be up when the world discovered that Steve Jobs wouldn’t let his own kids have an iPad?


As a Pastor should I encourage people to ditch their devices, and if I did would it make any kind of a difference anyway?

I haven’t reached any immediate conclusions, however, I must confess that the weight of data and my own experience is pointing to the fact that we can’t keep going on the trajectory that we currently are without things getting significantly worse.

What do you think?

3 thoughts on “Steve Jobs may have had a bigger impact on the spiritual formation of a generation than any other person in the last 50 years.

  1. Your thoughts are so accurate. Not only in Canada, Australia or US but here in Belize electronic devices are every where and seems to be the mode of communication. Young people text each other sitting beside them. Head phones are in their ears and words are not heard. The art of conversation and use of imagination is dying.

    1. Yep… Phones and technology theoretically enable us to communicate and create far more effectively than ever before yet somehow they have become distractions… It’s not simple… Nice to hear from you Marg..

  2. So much food for thought, Matt. I’m trying to remember what parents worried about back in the 50s and 60s. Their teens spent hours on the phone, or listening to radio music, or watching TV. I’m not trivializing those habits in light of today’s technology. At the time, they were serious worries.
    — Ronnene

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