“I scrolled ‘til it hurt!” So came the sheepish self-disclosure over a coffee last week. I knew what she meant. I’d been there too in recent months. That state when you’re sitting somewhere comfortable, holding your phone and passing image after image before your eyes. Not just for a moment but for what seems like an age. And doing so until your eyes, your thumb, even your brain begin to ache.
It’s a modern phenomenon. You don’t have to go back that far to remember a world where smartphones didn’t exist. But they’re here now and they have a tremendous impact on our lives.
Is scrolling always wrong? Not at all. Making an active choice to spend a limited amount of time, flicking through media and social media feeds can be an edifying thing. Doing so can provide us with tantalising information we’d never actively seek. I mean, how else would I know that the average ant takes 250 x 1-minute naps a day (how about that for an intriguing work-rest balance!) Scrolling can result in us randomly discovering a talented new musician who brings great joy – or being fascinated by the skill of a sporting hero previously hidden from our view. Those videos – when wholesome in content – can bring us joy, and laughter can have a wonderfully positive effect on our bodies (endorphins flow, muscles relax to name but two). And there is something beautiful about stumbling across a post from an old friend and being able to reconnect over stories from the past.
The trouble is our scrolling is often not an active choice – it’s an unconscious default. Our scrolling isn’t always wisely time-limited, it lingers – encroaching on important tasks and bringing uncomfortable symptoms to our body and mind. And it doesn’t result in information, entertainment or relational connection but leave us cold. So, why do we do it?
Unhealthy scrolling can have its roots in many places but the most common seem to be a desire to escape, numb or control:
- When life is painful, it can be tempting to push our own problems aside and, instead, flood our minds with things that distract. In the process, we enable ourselves to forget our problems for just a little while. Of course, it’s not a technique that works long-term. At the end of our time online, our problems are still present, and yet another opportunity to work on those struggles has gone past unused. But the escape is tempting and we run there time and again.
- When life hurts, we’re naturally inclined to want that pain to go away. Just as we might reach for a painkiller to ease a headache, we can be quick to reach for something to numb the ache in our heart. A constant flow of pictures and text does just that – numb. Like a blanket, it can envelop our mind and make things feel easier or, at least, fuzzier … until the phone gets turned off and reality hits once more.
- When life is chaotic, we kid ourselves that having more information will help. We allow ourselves to believe that if we just knew what was going on / knew what that other person was thinking / accessed the right teaching or technique then we’d be fine. There are, of course, some helpful things online but scrolling is rarely the way to find what’s wise.
For others it might be fear of missing out or a growing dependence on the stimulation that screens provide to feel anything at all. Every human’s story is unique.
Of one thing we can be sure, though, keeping on mindlessly scrolling isn’t going to help. It’s only going to reinforce a pattern of running to something that isn’t God and, in the form we are using it, isn’t good. Every time we scroll excessively, we practise prioritising a screen over our Saviour and that has no hope of ending well.
So, what can we do?
Telling someone is probably the best place to start. In this modern world, it won’t be too hard to find someone who understands. Allowing ourselves to be known puts us in a position where we can be encouraged and, where appropriate, pointed to professional help. Bringing darkness into light enables us to see our struggles more clearly and articulate how we would like things to be different.
Telling God is important too. He already knows, he doesn’t need more information, but he’s longing for us all to express afresh our dependence on his tender, loving care. Change requires repentance and faith – running back into our Father’s arms, like the prodigal son, for all the grace and Spirit-enabled transformation he chooses to lavish there. Remembering he’s better than any screen – more kind, more powerful, more worthy – is also a useful place to dwell. If we need comfort, he is the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3-4) – if we need hope, he is the God of all hope (Romans 15:13).
There are practical steps we can take, too. Every so often I put my phone into “black and white” mode – it’s still functional but far less appealing. Others I know turn off all notifications other than those indicating a real person is trying to get in touch. We might want to consider using apps that monitor, even actively limit, our time online. Or asking a human being to hold us accountable – nothing heavy or coercive, just a friend who can ask us about our online habits, pray for us and encourage us to change.
But, ultimately, fuel for living life without scrolling is found in God’s word. There we have so much to show us God’s character and our call. We can remind ourselves of our 1 Corinthians 10:31 responsibility to do all things to the glory of God. And fuel that walk by flooding our minds with something far more wholesome than anything social media holds: words of life, love and strength.