Here’s a riddle for you: I am so pervasive that I’m unmistakeable, yet so common that I’m easy to overlook. What addiction am I?
My Distraction Sickness and Yours
Just go to your local cafe or airport. Take a trip on public transportation. You’ll see technology everywhere—people on their phones, their tablets, their laptops. I’m using technology right now to write to you. You’re using it to read my words.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean we have an addiction…does it?
I know I do. I’ll tell you all about it.
I am not suggesting that everyone ditch their devices and live in the woods like Henry David Thoreau. In fact, I think that technology can be a powerful way to connect with the world and spread positivity. I’ll tell you all about that too.
Here’s a litmus test for you. Take it if you dare:
- How many times do you estimate that you have the impulse to check any of your devices (i.e. smartphone, laptop, tablet, etc)?
- How many hours a day do you spend on your devices combined?
- Does your use of technology enlarge or restrict your capacity to feel the Holy Ghost, live, to love, and to serve in meaningful ways?
You may be using your phone more than you think. A 2015 study of young adults found that participants were using their smartphones five hours a day at 85 separate times. And that’s not the most interesting part: the users thought they picked up their phones about half as much as they actually did.
I can’t tell you how many roommates I have witnessed spend hours in front of the TV or holing themselves in their rooms surfing the internet. I can’t tell you how many days I have wasted on Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube.
If there is anywhere we see it most, it’s when we look at children. How many parents strive to limit their child’s screen time, only to encounter behavioral explosions, protesting, sneaking time on the internet or TV, childhood obesity, and other destructive behaviors?
The worst part is that we can’t escape…Right? I mean, yes, we do meet the occasional straggler who still clings to a flip phone. Even more rarely, we’ll find the eccentric oddball who doesn’t use the internet at home.
I did both those things—for years. The price to pay for that kind of isolation was heavy. But it was worth it. It was like excavating my eye to save my soul.
I want us to see the war that is raging right before our eyes. I want to start a dialogue of support for the struggling. So I will share my story.
I grew up in a southwestern suburb of Chicago. I didn’t really connect with other kids at my school. I was sensitive, and the bullies were attracted to me like flies. I was the only Mormon in my classes, and I felt different. What real friendship I had from third grade to junior year of high school, I can count on one finger; that lasted two of those years. Senior year my social life was better, but still a struggle.
Church was a different story. There I had several friends, and I felt like I belonged. It was in many ways, my saving grace.
Even so, my freshman year of high school, I was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety. This marked the recognition of a 12-year battle with pervasive and sometimes intense feelings of fear, loneliness, and despair.
My family didn’t watch TV. When I was young, my parents disconnected the channels for good. They figured we’d have a more peaceful home if my brothers and I didn’t fight over the remote, and we’d be smarter if we did our homework and read books instead. We did watch movies on occasion. But while my peers ranted on and on about Power Rangers, X-Files, and Friends, I had no idea what they were talking about. We had a family computer with dial-up internet. When we got DSL, it seemed like the greatest thing since sliced bread.
When I went to college in 2004, I got my own laptop and cellphone. I also got real friends. Some of my friends had season sets of various TV Shows and other DVDs. Suddenly I had all this power at my fingertips, and no parents to check usage. I plunged into the world of the internet, texting, and TV. I even found myself skipping classes to watch episodes of Lost or play computer games.
I knew this was a problem, but I didn’t call it an addiction. It was just a problem.
After I turned 21, I took a break from college to serve full time in the Arizona Phoenix Mission. Any return missionary understands the striking contrast in use of technology on a mission. Back then, we only had cell phones in a few of my areas and we had no tablets. We used the internet for an hour once a week. Surprisingly, it didn’t take long for me to adjust. I was living in the real world again, and as soul-stretching and soul-crushing as it sometimes was, I found great meaning there.
When I left the mission field, I also left the safeguards of the missionary schedule. No more companion, white handbook or structured, meaningful service to keep me in check. I went back to college…and back to my “problem.”
I remember the warning signs. In fact, it was during that time that Elder Bednar gave his talk entitled, “Things as They Really Are,” wherein he discusses the potential pitfalls of technology. I remember ignoring him.
The fog settled over me. It was a gentle sleep, a sleep of numbness, of relief. What was I trying to escape? I didn’t know anymore.
Escaping the Escape
It was late August of 2010. I had just returned to college from a summer interning at Turn-About Ranch, a rehabilitation program for troubled teens. This was supposed to have been a meaningful experience ministering to the downtrodden. Instead, it had been isolating and discouraging. I’d worked with a pretty rough crowd, and my three semesters of psychology classes didn’t do much to help me help them. The tiny town of Escalante had only 823 people, and none of those I knew were my age. I’d lived alone in a small mouse-infested ranch house with no WiFi. I’d spent many nights on my netbook in the parking lot of a hotel watching TV shows til my battery ran out—which didn’t take long.
By the end of the summer, even my naturally introverted heart was starving for social interaction. I prayed fervently for deep friendship—deeper than I had ever had. And you know something? I got them. In fact, I lived with them.
My addiction was starving too. And it got its fill. For a while anyway. It was like a gluttonous monster; it was never truly satiated.
I thought I was fine. I had good friends, after all. I was doing ok in school. I wasn’t completely failing in life.
But my roommates saw the truth. Slowly they pulled me out of my self-imposed isolation and helped me see it for what it was: counterfeit happiness.
Counterfeit happiness is numbing; it is hazy. It’s a dopamine hit, and it’s cheap. It is the lack of suffering, but there is no lasting joy.
When I moved to my last apartment, I made a decision: I wasn’t using the internet at home anymore. I made my roommates swear never to give me the home internet password. I used it only at school. I watched just one movie a week and only with friends. I didn’t have a smartphone and I didn’t intend to get one; I used an ancient slider phone with a QWERTY keypad instead.
That final semester of college, I began to see reality again in full color. I noticed the lights and darks of the trees, the mountains, the grass. I saw the light and dark in the people I knew, and the striking contrasts within myself. It was beautiful. I started to actually study my scriptures consistently every morning. I deepened my relationship with Heavenly Father and He, in turn, showed me how much deeper my relationships could be.
After I graduated, I continued this commitment. It was then that reality became less gentle with me. I moved to two other states, experienced career failures, dating failures, and at times an intense loneliness. But I didn’t hide; I couldn’t. So I faced those failures, I felt those emotions to their fullest, I forged connections with others, and I grew.
A Weapon Of Mass Construction
“Discoveries latent with such potent power, either for the blessing or the destruction of human beings, as to make man’s responsibility in controlling them the most gigantic ever placed in human hands. … This age is fraught with limitless perils, as well as untold possibilities.”
-David O. McKay, October 1966 General Conference
Three years later, in September 2014, I attended an evening session of Stake Conference in Williamsburg, Virginia. The Stake President addressed us. He focused his message on Elder Bednar’s recent talk at BYU, “To Sweep the Earth as With a Flood.”
I mentioned Elder Bednar’s talk, “Things as they Really Are” earlier, which proclaims the potential pitfalls of technology. There is another side to the story though that we often forget: technology can be a powerful weapon we wield for good. In fact, this is actually exactly how we fulfill the last-days prophecy to flood the earth with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
As my stake president spoke, I felt a strong desire to use the tool of technology for the right reasons. And then I heard a voice inside tell me, “You can use the internet at home now.”
You know that moment when you want something really bad, and you think might actually get it, but you’re not sure you can handle it? That was how I felt. “Did I hear that right?” I asked God. I felt a warm glow of clarity and trust and a certain weight of responsibility, and I felt the impression that yes, this was right, and a reminder to wield this weapon for good. I then received specific instructions and limits to set for myself in my future internet use.
Within the month, I had my apartment’s internet password and a new smartphone. I could not believe the power that was in my hands. I was determined to use it wisely.
It has been three and a half years since that day. I cannot say that I have always used technology wisely. I still use it to escape sometimes; I still use streaming video to numb my mind, and I check my phone far too often. I am no model citizen in this regard.
Along the way, however, God has taught a powerful truth. It’s the same truth that psychology has recently discovered: the antidote for addiction is connection.
My addiction was only a symptom. So were my depression and anxiety. None of those things were at the heart of my pain. I only lacked connection. Real connection.
The deeper the relationships I form with friends, family, and significant others, the less likely I am to reach for my smartphone or computer. The more face-to-face, flesh-and-blood connections I have, the shallower my cravings to escape.
And here’s another, even more powerful truth that psychology doesn’t know: the closer the relationship I forge with Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the more the holes in my heart that are filled. People are fallible, after all. God isn’t. He is the antidote. He is the most powerful connection. He is my secret weapon.
I am also fulfilling the assignment commissioned to me to wield this power for good. As you know, I work for Mormon Hub, whose entire purpose is to flood the earth with goodness. This very article is an attempt to fulfill that commission.
Can you handle the power?
I invite you all to take a minute and consider how you use technology today. What can you do to check your desire to escape reality? Is it time to quit Netflix? Do you need to put your phone in airplane mode while at work or church? Do you need to take more extreme measures, as I did? Don’t be afraid to do what it takes to live in the real world.
Do you feel the calling to bring more positivity to the internet? Are you on social media? Join the movements that The Church and More Good have begun using hashtags like #ShareGoodness, #BecauseofHim, and #LiveLikeJesus. Share your testimonies. Share Conference Talks. Let’s make technology a Weapon of Mass Construction. Let’s flood the world with truth.