Screen Time Quantity and Quality
I have caught myself slipping. Picking up the smartphone out of pure habit to cycle through apps and websites. Grabbing the laptop to tinker or look something up on the web or whatever. I keep removing apps, using website blockers, etc. I just reinstall apps, pause website blockers, etc. But the impulse remains. There is a deeply ingrained urge, a need to stare at a screen – any screen. For any reason or no reason at all.
I have to remind myself that this is a habit that formed long before I owned my first smartphone over a decade ago. Even before my parents bought our first family computer (a Pentium 266 MHz running Windows 95). Television has been a fixture my entire life. I watched it daily growing up. I have been spending so much time staring at TVs, monitors, and displays of one kind or another for about forty years.
But for two years of my life, screen time was the exception, not the rule. From December of 2000 to December of 2002, I served as a full-time missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Brazil Santa Maria Mission. During that time I was expected to refrain from watching TV and movies or listening to the radio. There were exceptions, of course, like church media or occasional holiday treats like watching The Prince of Egypt or a Disney animated film – with special permission from the mission president. But we did not own TVs or radios and definitely not computers. Our apartments were not furnished with them. We did listen to music, but only approved kinds – church music or classical, mostly. Smartphones didn't exist, and cell phones were rare and expensive – we used pay phones.
For the first year of my mission, I corresponded with my family via snail mail. It took two weeks for letters to be delivered. The second year, we used email. Once a week we would go to an internet cafe and pay probably too much money for thirty minutes of computer time to read and write emails. There was also a stretch of seven months when I served in the mission office as the financial secretary, and I used a computer often in that role for administrative purposes – we didn't have an Internet connection. But as a percentage of my total waking hours during those two years, screen time was drastically lower than the years before or since.
I don't think I was worse off for having missed TV shows, movies, and popular music that came out during my missionary years. Granted, I was committed to a work and ministry that accounted for most of my time. But I believe that screen time outside of the rare instances I described would have been too much of a distraction for me to be an effective missionary. It would have been too tempting a diversion. And I think it would have also negatively impacted me spiritually and made me less receptive to the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit.
After my two years of full-time missionary service, I returned home. It was time to focus on school, my career, and starting a family. I didn't have to follow missionary standards and rules anymore. Some of them wouldn't apply to or make sense in post-missionary life.
But I have sometimes wondered: why shouldn't I continue to follow the media standards I followed as a missionary?
If I wouldn't have watched a certain movie or TV show as a missionary – even as a rare exception – do I need to watch it now? If a particular movie or TV show or song would have been too distracting or spirit-numbing to watch or listen to as a missionary, why would it be okay for me to watch or listen to it now? Should I not strive for the same level of spirituality? The same focus on Jesus Christ and His work?
I'm not planning to get rid of my TV, radio, or smartphone. They can do a tremendous amount of good when used properly and intentionally. But I am going to be much more careful about the media I choose to consume.
The Thirteenth Article of Faith states:
If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.
When considering media to consume, I want to develop a habit of asking myself: “would it have been right for me to watch or listen to this as a missionary? Why or why not? If not, does it hold to the standard of being “virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy?” If I'm still in doubt, I will err on the side of avoiding it.
Another good litmus test is found in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet, which provides the following guidance:
Seek that which uplifts, inspires, and invites the Spirit. As you make choices about what to watch, read, listen to, or participate in, think about how it makes you feel. Does it invite good thoughts? Stay away from anything that mocks sacred things or that is immoral. Don’t participate in anything that dulls your judgment or sensitivity to the Spirit, such as violence, alcohol, and harmful drugs. Have the courage to turn off a video or game, walk out of a movie or a dance, change your music, or turn away from anything that is not consistent with the Spirit.
I have already been trying to cut back drastically on the quantity of screen time in my life, but I need to also focus on the quality. This will not be an easy life change for me to make in a media-saturated society. I may have to give up some entertaining media I have cherished for decades. I will likely soon be out of touch with a lot of the popular shows and movies and won't be able to contribute to conversations about them. But I feel it's the right thing for me and I'm going to try it. In time, perhaps, I won't have the urge to stare at a screen for any reason or no reason at all.