thou shalt not be distracted

Recently the Church of England published a ‘digital charter’ encouraging online behaviour to be consistent with values of kindness, respect and tolerance for different views. As one headline put it: ‘Thou shalt not tweet in anger’.

It was all helpful stuff, but stopped short of reflection on the possible spiritual effects of spending large amounts of time online. This would obviously differ widely from case to case, but one thing that anyone with a smart phone will know is, most of us underestimate the time it’s taking up and how it might be making us permanently distracted.

Because smart phones with apps taking you straight to yet another online site in one small tap, are designed to distract you and keep you distracted. Social media platforms gain money from advertising, so it’s in their interest to keep you tapping. Studies have shown that every time we get a positive notification, our dopamine levels increase. This provides an emotional/physical uplift similar to the experience of enjoying exercise, sex or a good meal. Successful social interactions online, in the form of ‘likes’ and smiley faces on our posts, stimulate that dopamine ‘hit’, and as we can’t predict when a ‘like’ might happen, we constantly check the phone just to keep that hit coming.

It’s hard to imagine pre 2012, before you had a smart phone. And I’m not talking about the Baby Boomers who never got into social media, or those Generation X-ers (and even Millennials) who eschew such things as a ‘waste of time’. They exist, and bless them, they never know what’s happening and it probably doesn’t matter. I’m thinking of those for whom daily Facebook/Twitter/Insta/ebay/Amazon etc. is so normal (preaching to self) there’s a danger of no real boundaries to our wandering attention.

We now shop online, book our journeys online, check the weather, the route, the bank balance, the auction, the news online; take photos, write travel reviews, listen to music and chart our exercise plans online. I even used to meditate online (“Headspace”) and say Morning Prayer online (The London Internet Church). I have an app for interceding, an app to listen to the bible, a Lectionary app and an app to see if I’ve earned any free coffees at Nero or Costa. I can order repeat prescriptions at the tap of a button and follow exciting new developments in the various WhatsApp groups I seemed to have joined (e.g. person number 9 out of 33 saying “lovely photo; thank you for sharing”).

The brains of constant internet users are in danger of permanent distraction. I tried googling “brains and smart phone use” to read an article on my laptop, but before I got to the beginning of the first line, I’d been asked if I wanted notifications of further articles (you know, the YES PLEASE button is bright blue and the No, thanks option is underneath in tiny font). I was bamboozled by a flashing 5G advert on the right hand pane and had to skim down through three further articles before the first line of the one I’d looked up appeared. By then I was starting to read another unrelated article on “Why pink salt is so expensive”.

Honestly, I didn’t know pink salt existed till I went to Homesense one Christmas and was distracted into buying some (it comes from the Himalayas, so obviously it’s going to be better than normal salt. Plus it’s pink). Recently I had been staring at my pink salt cellar and wondering idly how I managed to exist before discovering pink salt. Surely it would be highly interesting to know why it was so expensive?

But by now I was thinking also how fascinating it would be to “watch a diver swim right next to a 12 foot giant squid in Japan”, not to mention feeling curious about the “beauty secrets of Reading mum of 58 who looks 40”, so I was finding it hard to concentrate on……what was it I was looking up again?……

This level of distraction threatens regularly. I think: “I must send so-and-so a message”. I go to my phone to send a text, see I have a notification from another WhatsApp group (Wednesday’s pilates session is available); notice I have a missed call from a number I don’t recognise – look up the STD code on Google……but before even typing it in, Google suggests three interesting local news stories and I look up one. Half way through the article (“heatwave hopes fade as ‘danger to life’ storm alert issued”) I remember I ordered a raincoat off an Instagram site….. but it hasn’t arrived – I’ll need to track the package….Click, tap….

…I track the package from an email with my order number on and return to Google news stories. What was it I was looking up? Ah yes, the STD code. I don’t know anyone in Southampton though I did stay in a hotel on a roundabout in Southampton once….I block the missed call number and feel the urgent need to see if I have any messages on Facebook (for pastoral reasons, of course). (The FB app is bright blue which basically shouts “press me”; Facebook made the blue even brighter a few weeks ago…I wonder why). Click on Facebook. No new messages. But 25 minutes goes by with me catching up on people’s pets passing away (sad face), people moving jobs (thumbs up) and holiday snaps from ‘friends’ I can’t remember (‘like’, obviously, because the sea looked so…. blue).

By now about 37 minutes has elapsed and I was only going to send a text. I put the phone down in disgust. Later, I think, “did I actually send that text or not?”

Distraction is by definition the enemy of attention. And attention is what you need to develop any kind of spiritual practice – to pray, to listen, to notice, to be reflective. You need attention to notice someone’s need and to empathise; not to mention to deal with your own internal issues.

Fasting from internet use is an interesting practice. It reveals our social over stimulation (which is, to an extrovert like me, attractive) and how Jesus’ advice to ‘go to your room, shut the door and pray in secret’ (no tweeting your opinion on Brexit, or posting another picture of a cappuccino with a coco powder leaf design) is so hard to follow.

I sometimes worry I’m giving myself dementia, with all this distraction. Soon it’ll be, walk upstairs to get a cardigan; get into the bedroom; have no idea why I’m there. Walk downstairs empty handed. Feel a bit chilly.

Fore-warned is fore-armed though. As I sign up to “Our Social Media Community Guidelines” on the Church of England website, to observe kindness, tolerance and respect online, I will also be mentally, quietly, adding the following: “Thou shalt not be distracted”.


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