Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Digital Addiction?

Written by: on March 21, 2019

Two weeks ago, a distraught woman in my church came up to me with her 6thgrade son.  They had moved to our area a year earlier from Shanghai, China and they were struggling.  While the mom worked at her well-paying high tech job, her son was floundering at school, and according to her, “all he wants to do is play video games!”

My sister is a Clinical Social Worker in the Bay Area of California.  Last week, she sent me a link to a local resource that she had been using for teenagers and their families who are dealing with screen addiction. This is an intensive outpatient program that is located here in my community.

According to their website, “Many families in the U.S and in the Bay Area are impacted by the stress of life. The teens worry about school, the parents are stressed by work and financial responsibilities. Our numerous electronic devices provide fast and easy access to the Internet, social media sites and video games. When this constant access becomes addictive, parents lose the opportunity and ability to guide their teens towards healthy goals and success.”[1]

When I shared this resource and information with the youth director at our church, one of the things he said was “It’s not going away, for sure, and adults are going to have to deal with it in their own lives before we really get anywhere with teens and kids.”

What a perfect moment to encounter Cal Newport’s newest book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Newport writes that many books on this topic suggest various hacks and tricks, but, “I’ve become convinced that what you need instead is a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else.”[2]

The book is organized in two parts, with the first half laying out this philosophy of technology use, or the intellectual underpinnings of “digital minimalism”, and then the second half explores what this would look like in practice.

The Principles of Digital Minimalism as laid out by Cal Newport include the following:[3]

  1. Clutter is costly
  2. Optimization is important
  3. Intentionality is satisfying

In explaining the idea that “clutter is costly”, Newport writes, “Digital minimalists recognize that cluttering their time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services creates an overall negative cost that can swamp the small benefits that each individual item provides in isolation.”[4]

It is interesting to me that this first principle sounds a lot like the first step in a 12-Step program. According to the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step is that, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”[5]  In a sense, the clutter of our digital lives, the compulsion we can feel to check our various apps and “tools”, to click and surf and mindlessly scroll, all of it can all feel very similar to the grip of a kind of addiction.

According to the Betty Ford clinic, “Technology addiction can be defined as frequent and obsessive technology-related behavior increasingly practiced despite negative consequences to the user of the technology.”[6]

Newport is not only writing about technology addiction, but it is a key component in why his writing is so forceful.  As technology pervades our lives more and more, he is mapping out a way to think about technology use, and then, provides some practices to try out.

Some might call these practices a form of liturgy, whereby the words and beliefs and philosophy is made real with actions.  Much like the liturgical “work of the people” in a church, where the congregation prays responsively, or kneels, or greets each other with a holy kiss, there also ways to live out the philosophy of digital minimalism.

Some of the practices include admonitions like: spend time alone, don’t click “like”, reclaim leisure, delete Facebook from your phone, and more.  Newport writes in a way that draws the reader in and has you nodding your head as you recognize yourself or your family or your friends in what he is describing.  In many church communities (like mine), where we observe the season of Lent, people will “give something up” as a way to draw closer to God.  Newport describes this as a “digital declutter”[7]and sees it as an entryway into a new way of life.

Maybe it is like going “cold turkey” in terms of other addictions.

This is a book to be savored and enjoyed.  It is full of interesting anecdotes and very portable ideas.  For my own context, I can see a group of people in the Silicon Valley reading this book and deciding to try and live it out together.  I could also see this book as a simple resource for parents (or anyone) who wants to live with more intentionality.  My caution with a book like this, is that it not be used as a bludgeon or a way of shaming or judging others.

As a parent, I am keenly interested in how my children will encounter and use technology and I am aware that my own use of tech will be the largest influencer of their lives.  So, even as I work on this for myself and maybe share this resource with others, I don’t want to presume that everybody sees it this way or wants to make any changes.

Indeed, it is only in a crisis point that most addicts come to know that they have a problem.  These are the people that my sister sees every day in her work.  This is the reality for this young mom in my church.  And maybe, this is what the future looks like: where everybody needs to take a hard and clear look at technology use, to make sure that we are using it in ways that serve us, rather than the other way around.

[1]“Information About the Addiction to Video Games, Social Media and the Internet,” Los Gatos Therapy Center, accessed March 21, 2019, http://lgtcgroup.com/iop.

[2]Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019), xv.

[3]Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019), 35-36.

[4]Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019), 35.

[5]“Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions,” Alcoholics Anonymous, accessed March 21, 2019, https://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/en_step1.pdf.

[6]“Technology Addiction,” Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, March 16, 2017, https://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/articles/fcd/teen-technology-addiction.

[7]Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019), 59.

About the Author

Dave Watermulder

9 responses to “Digital Addiction?”

  1. Kyle Chalko says:

    Good point Dave about this book being used to bludgeon. That could easily happenn. What I like about this book, is that it didnt blundgeon us by itself. It actually did more than just shrae the problem that we all are already aware of, but it gave really great ideas and tips for how we should re-orient our lives.

  2. I really appreciate the stories you tell about people in your network…the mother, the youth worker, your sister. Thanks. Do you struggle with this? You mention the need for parents to model the way for their children, I’m wondering how you and your wife are being intentional about your technology usage at home. Do you have “rules” for yourselves and your kids?

  3. Trisha Welstad says:

    Dave, I am glad for your definition from the Betty Ford Foundation. This is a good to add to the conversation as it helps to name what is happening in a concise way. I can also see how this text can be used to judge and condemn others (as I sit in a Starbucks watching everyone on their devices and thinking of this text).

    I told my dad about this book because of the very reason you mention- it is to be savored and enjoyed. There are so many stories and insights that I thought he would value it probably more than I even did. What do you see as important parenting practices for yourself with regard to technology? This is something I think about often and I am curious about how other parents are responding.

  4. Jean Ollis says:

    Hi Dave,
    Great blog! How did I not know your sister is a clinical social worker? This statement is profound:
    “It’s not going away, for sure, and adults are going to have to deal with it in their own lives before we really get anywhere with teens and kids.”
    ABSOLUTELY. As I work with parents I frequently tell them “you can never expect more from your children than you are willing to do yourself” – and that includes emotional regulation with anger, use of technology; communication; healthy communication, etc. I know this isn’t a new issue in parenting but when are we as a culture going to get this? As parents we are the most impactful role models and I guarantee our children will mimic us. Kudos to you for walking this journey with the mom. Your congregation is lucky to have you!

  5. Jason Turbeville says:

    You talk about this not going away and that is one of the things we as pastors have to find a way to help God puts in our paths to be able to see. I like how you point out as parents, we have to model the behavior first before we expect our children to do the same. I had to take this to heart about three years ago for the sake of my kids as well.


  6. Great post, Dave! It made me wonder if screen addiction has to do with one’s relationship to stress. For instance, the majority of people who turn to addiction, do so in order to turn away from something, whether that be the stress of their job, family issues, etc. If screen addiction is in the same realm as other stimulants, then it would be interesting if each addiction was tied to a certain stressor. Are the statistics as high in rural areas or places that have higher rates of employment?

    Cal Newport discusses a bit of this idea and suggests that a smartphone is “not about usefulness, it’s about autonomy” (Digital Minimalism, 8). Do you think that this escapism is causing more teens and children to experience high rates of depression and suicidal thoughts? Are their ways of stress relief causing them to become more stressed?

  7. Dan Kreiss says:


    For many of my students I think it is more of a ‘digital abduction’. It is something that no one foresaw coming that captured them and transformed their connection to the outside world. Seems more like an episode from the ‘X Files’.

    What boundaries have you and Lisa put on your own children’s technology use? How do you think that is forming them? Do you receive any pushback from them? If so, how do you help them understand the need for balance?

  8. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Dave,

    Great post, especially from the total addiction perspective!

    Does your denomination have an emphasis on Pastors taking a Sabbatical? (Including from technology)…

    Have a great Spring Break and put that digital device to bed for the week (grin).

  9. Dave,

    You have an interesting challenge in creating a philosophy of internet use while ministering in Silicon Valley.

    You mentioned, “Much like the liturgical “work of the people” in a church, where the congregation prays responsively, or kneels, or greets each other with a holy kiss, there also ways to live out the philosophy of digital minimalism.” This is profound and I hope you’ll keep canoodling this forward. Submitting oneself to liturgy is a way to crowd out the demanding insistence of the social media monster.

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