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Unplug & Connect

Technology should make us more human, not less. Humans are made to love God and neighbor. By Justin Whitmel Earley
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When I was first given a guitar in 11th grade, I sounded terrible. No one taught me how to play, so I just strummed away. The noise was awful, and nobody wanted to hear it.

Slowly, I learned that if you want to make good music, you have to follow rules. You have to know what each string is for, what the boundaries of the fretboard are, and how to strum in time. The most beautiful music comes when a musician knows the rules of music so well that he or she can improvise inside and outside of them. Music shows us that true freedom doesn’t come from doing whatever we want, it comes from living within the right boundaries.

I think our culture and smartphones are a lot like me and my guitar. We have inherited technology without being taught the boundaries. Many of us think smartphones allow us to do whatever we want. We think “freedom” will make us happy. But, because we don’t know the boundaries, smartphones are causing a lot of harm.

Here are some current truths: 

  • Anxiety and depression rates are at record highs. 
  • Pornography addictions are so common that many people don’t realize they’re addicted.
  • Real friendships are increasingly difficult because we don’t practice face-to-face conversation.

We’re more “connected” than ever, and it’s making us lonelier than ever. This is because, like me and my guitar, we have not yet learned the rules of the instrument.

What if the rising generation was notruined by the technology they inherited? What if you were the generation that pioneered the rules of engagement? What if you were the ones who put the right boundaries in place, so we could thrive with technology?

Here’s what that would take: First, understanding purpose. Second, creating your boundaries.

“We’re more ‘connected’ than ever, and it’s making us lonelier than ever.”

The Purpose

Technology should make us more human, not less. Jesus tells us that humans are made to love God and neighbor. When we are doing that, we are playing the most beautiful song. When we are not, we’re an unbearable noise. 

This means “the good life” is a life lived not for ourselves, but for the love of God and others. This is the open secret to happiness. Technology should guide us to that purpose.

The Boundaries

Most technology is designed counter to our purpose. It’s designed to make us focus on ourselves, because selfishness is one of the most powerful motivators. Take social media, for example. Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook all know that if they program their apps to release a constant stream of “dings” telling you someone has liked your post, you’ll get addicted to the feeling of others paying attention to you. They know if they list the number of followers everyone has, you’ll feel a constant itch of envy that keeps you coming back. 

Do you see what’s going on? They’re using our natural desire to love ourselves as a marketing tool. The main thing to know about social media is that you are not the customer, you are the product. These companies make money by getting your attention (the product) and selling it to advertisers (the customer). Then they hire the smartest people in the world to figure out how to further get your attention. Everyone is fighting for your most valuable asset—your attention—and it’s not a fair fight.

We don’t have to become the products. We can guide technology to a better purpose by setting boundaries around it. Here are three that I recommend and practice daily:

  1. Scripture Before Phone. What we see first is important. If we scroll through messages and photos in bed each morning, we immerse ourselves in a story where the main question is whether we are loved or not by the people around us. When we go first to the Word of God, we find a better story, one where we are beloved by Him, no matter what we have or haven’t done.
  2. Unplug For An Hour. Our presence is one of the greatest gifts we have to give. To really be present with someone is hard. It requires being attentive, looking at someone’s eyes, and not having dings and noises distracting our attention. Every day when I come home, I turn my phone off and put it away for just one hour. It’s a habit that helps me remember that real life—the best life—is spent giving attention to the people I love.
  3. One Hour of Face-to-Face Conversation. Friendships will make or break your life. Real friendships take vulnerable conversations that are in real-time and unedited. They also take time; they come from a habit of talking often. My best friend and I met in 10th grade—to this day we still have coffee every week to catch up. I couldn’t be the dad, husband, or Christian I want to be without that friendship. We can’t become who we were meant to be without friends, and we can’t become friends without regular conversations.


You might pick different rules, but know this: not forming boundaries around technology will cause technology to form boundaries around you. It will limit your ability to be the real person God made you to be. It’s a recipe for unhappiness. It is a song of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

You can play a more beautiful song. By setting the right boundaries on technology, you can form a life that sings of God’s love for us and our neighbors. That’s the life of love you were meant for, and that’s where the beautiful life is.

Justin Whitmel Earley lives in Richmond, VA with his wife, Lauren, and his three (soon to be four!) sons Whit, Asher, and Coulter. He is a corporate lawyer and a writer of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. "The Common Rule – Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction" is his first book-length project and is coming out with InterVarsity Press in early 2019. Read more at www.thecommonrule.org.

Further Study

Download:The Common Rule PDF guide from www.thecommonrule.orgfor an overview of four daily and four weekly habits to set boundaries for technology.

Collaborate:Changing habits almost never happens alone. Habits are set in friendship and accountability. Find at least one other person who you want to practice some new habits with and see if you can try some of these habits for just a week. 

Watch: The Art of Habit – A video where Justin tells his story of anxiety and how daily and weekly habits changed his life. 

Read:

  • "The Tech-Wise Family" – Andy Crouch
  • "The Power of Habit" –  Charles Duhig
  • "You Are What You Love | The Spiritual Power of Habit" – James K.A. Smith

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