“My name is Syler Thomas, and I am addicted to my smartphone.” I don’t think they offer support groups for people such as myself, but they probably should.

It all started so innocently—my Kyocera that I picked up at the Verizon store that meant I could make phone calls outside of my house. Little did I know that sad little phone (with an antenna I had to extend) would become the gateway drug, first to a sweet Samsung flip phone (with a stylus!), then a Blackberry and finally to my iPhone. I just never thought it would come to this, you know?

Now don’t get me wrong: I am thankful for all the ways my smartphone makes my life easier. I truly am. To have one device that does so much is helpful in so many ways, but it also can come with a cost. The irony is that while in many ways our smartphones put us more in control, they now control us. They can prevent us from being the youth workers we need to be, in the form of interruptions and distractions.

If we get a buzz or a ding, we now feel compelled to stop whatever it is we’re doing to check to see what it is, which can mean for a youth worker that the few precious moments we have each week to spend with students can be hijacked. It doesn’t have to be that way. As a rule, I turn off my work email on my phone, which eliminates a number of unnecessary notifications. It’s convenient to have available if I need it, but I don’t want it interrupting me all the time.

I love text messages because they allow me to send or receive short messages without interrupting what I’m doing as a phone call would. However, they end up becoming interruptions themselves and keep me from focusing on whatever task or person I have in front of me. So, I take advantage of the Do Not Disturb feature, which allows me to receive messages, but only be interrupted by those in my favorites.

Just for one day, try turning on that feature and see what happens. Important calls or messages will interrupt you if necessary; and when you’re ready, you can respond to the others, but they won’t have forced their way in uninvited.

The other big issue for phones is the distractions they bring. Some of us are more ADD than others. Whether you’ve been clinically diagnosed as such, it’s not easy to ignore this little box of technological fun that is waiting for you, calling to you. You can hear its little voice: “Let me entertain you…” Again, we simply have to take control and commit to not being distracted from the person or task at hand no matter what, including when we’re missing The Big Game (why God created DVRs).

When you are on your phone in the presence of others, what you unwittingly are communicating to them is that what is on your phone is more important than them. I remember seeing a leader standing in a security line on the way home from a mission trip, flipping through social media, while a student stood right next to her, utterly ignored. My first thought was: How could she be doing this? My next thought was: How many times have I done that and not realized it?

It doesn’t matter if they’re on their phones, too. Set the example that when you are with them, you will not do anything except perhaps answer a quick text message. If you do, say: “I just need to reply quickly,” and they will understand.

The other reality is that not every student in our ministry can afford a smartphone or is allowed to own one. If we are overly fixated on ours, it makes them feel left out.

Smartphones do make our lives easier in a number of ways, but they have also created their own problems. We can mitigate some of the down sides by taking control and by not becoming beholden to what Gordon MacDonald (in a pre-Internet age) called “the tyranny of the urgent.” Above all we…Oh, hang on, I gotta take this.

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About The Author

Syler Thomas is a native Texan who has worked as a pastor at Christ Church Lake Forest in Illinois since 1998. He writes a column for Youthworker Journal, has had articles published in Leadership Journal and the Chicago Tribune, and enjoys acting in the occasional play. He believes with all of his heart that the Cubs will one day win the World Series, and he and his wife Heidi have four kids.

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