Recently, I’ve noticed myself spending more time on screens. I do it in passing moments, to fill up gaps in time with entertainment, articles, or educational videos. It seems harmless enough. But I also started reading the philosopher Owen Barfield, who writes about humanity’s connection with nature. According to him, human conscience originated from the meaning inherent in nature, along with our language. So that made me wonder, if perceiving God’s creation was originally what formed our consciousness, how might perceiving the world through screens change us?
According to the Nielsen company, the average American daily spends ten hours and thirty-nine minutes looking at screens. This includes televisions, computers, phones, and tablets, all our primary methods for consuming information at present. While many have voiced concerns about what this trend might be doing to our physical or relational health, not as much has been written about how this might affect us spiritually.
After all, part of human nature is that we change based on stimulus from our environment. Things we experience change us. So it isn’t too much of an ivory tower consideration to ask how changing the way we experience things might change our minds as well. In the past, children played outside; now they play on screens. These are the trends: before social media, friends discussed their lives in person or over the phone; now they share their lives through Instagram and Facebook. The vicarious experiences of watching Netflix more and more consume hours that might have been spent doing other activities together. Regardless of how these changes affect us socially, they are dramatically changing our sensory focus from the many senses to a narrow band of the visual.
Consider the way you would process information on an average day at the park. Walking the trails engages the kinesthetic sense as your legs and feet propel you forward and your torso bends to keep you balanced. You smell the earthy scents of decaying foliage and the grass on the breeze. Some of the scents are so pungent you can almost taste them. Moreover, your eyes and ears are immersed in a panorama of stimulus, having to focus one at a time on various trees, animals, streams, and people.
Now compare this to watching a nature documentary on an iPad. While rendered in high definition quality, the prefocused image lacks depth and breadth, and only the muffled sounds picked up by the microphone leave out the echoing voice and silence of nature. All other senses are completely muted. Humankind’s new way of perceiving the world is different indeed.
The real problem with screen time isn’t just our disconnection from each other, but our disconnection from nature, and ultimately disconnection from the revelation of God in creation. It says in Romans 1:20,
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Creation reveals basic truth about God. That means that whenever we participate in activity that connects our senses to creation we engage the revelation of God.
Our screens distance us from the solid reality of creation, instead engaging us visually with illusions. By steps, they draw us away from the reality which points to God and toward a truncated sub-reality that offers only a dim echo. I don’t think this ruins us, but I think it has the potential to make our minds less open to revelation. If humans were meant to be immersed in the revelation of God in nature, and now we distance ourselves from that, could anything else result? Perhaps then, our technology is numbing us more deeply to the natural revelation of God.
If that is the case, I want to try then to limit my time on the screen and increase my time with the physical world. I want to open my mind to God and creation, and if it is true that God is revealing Himself through the natural world, then I want to become a student of nature.Part of the Christian life is to be counter-culturally aware of and sensitive to the one God, and cutting down the screen time may be a pathway to just that.