Amanda’s Sermon notes from – The Curse of the Digital World

Sermon for The Salt Spring Island Unitarians – Sunday March 11 2018 – Amanda Tarling


What if we started every Sunday service with – please find your smartphones and iPads and Androids and Apple watches and take photos for Instagram, video us for FB live, take some Live Photos, tweet about the amazing music or inspirational readings or check yourself into this event on FB so all your friends will know how cool you are.  Would these be paths to deeper connection?


We are encouraged to create healthy relationships amongst and within UU communities and with the broader world, yet how do we achieve this when nearly everyone I interact with has sprouted a smartphone shaped appendage. Technology is becoming literally an extension of our bodies. I am not alone in being concerned about what this means for the future.


One of the fascinating results of being engaged on a device is the requirement for its users to be oblivious of their surroundings – such that the Toronto city council is trying to pass legislation to stop pedestrians from walking while looking at their screens.


Coined in 2011 there is a phenomena called the “google effect” – which suggests that people use the internet as a personal memory bank. Smartphones magnify this as they take over more and more for the functioning of our brains. (Navigation apps help us to get to places more efficiently but studies show that we need to keep the neural pathways that navigate us from place to place working, if we don’t use it we lose it.) I used to joke that my cellphone was my brain. I used to know 20 phone numbers off by heart – now I know three. However I suspect that smartphone use is curtailed on SSI, possibly because of less network coverage.



The question this morning is how do we sustain and grow Spiritually Healthy relationships and how do we deepen our connection to each other and our community while not becoming technological hermits.



It’s been a decade since Steve jobs unveiled the iPhone Smartphone. (2007)

3/4s of all Canadians have a smartphone and they have radically altered the way we function as humans. Homo sapiens developed relatively simply brains – as life 300,000 years ago was much less complex; eat, sleep, don’t become prey–  our concerns were finding food and shelter and a mate. Our primitive homeo sapien brain is up against the most complex algorithms – we don’t have a chance of not being addicted to our smartphones.


Your smart phone knows – every search of the internet you’ve ever done, every place you have been, every store you have entered, they can even pinpoint your location so actually that they know if you stopped in front of the cold and flu products or the Band-Aids in the pharmacy, they know how fast we drive or if we cycle or walk everywhere, most worryingly our home devices listen to us all of the time. What happens to all this data…


Big tech companies have vast teams of neuroscientists who create apps that set out to addict us. They look for apps that have, what is called the “stickiest” effect on the brain. Why… because The more time we spend on a platform like Facebook or twitter the more money that platform makes.


There is a growing multi-disciplinary body of evidence starkly illustrating that Smartphones are damaging our most treasured relationships, reducing our ability to concentrate, interrupting our sleep, are causing us to be depressed and are altering our moods.


Our creativity has been damped because instead of allowing ourselves to be bored we reach for our phones and fall prey to “infinite scrolling”, we are losing the ability to day dream and most worryingly the use of smartphones has been linked with anxiety– especially for teenagers.


Addicts always underestimate time spent on their activity – our brains are sculpted to whatever we do –Canadians spend on average 3.5 hours a day on their smart devices  (up 20% in just two years) which drives huge quantitative changes in brain function. The effects also include societal plummeting of attention spans, reduced patience, and loss of memory capability. Social workers are sounding the alarm citing smartphone use as leading to significant mental health issues. According to research done by the CBC spending two hours or less on our devices does not impact our health more time does.

Shockingly, leaked documents show that FB has told its advertisers that it can track teenagers who feel insecure, anxious, nervous, worthless, stupid and useless. Now we have a global tech giant exploiting kids “confidential” data by selling it to companies who will further exploit it.


Did you know…Consulting a Smartphone throughout the day reduces our IQ by 10 points, the same amount that we would lose by missing an entire night’s sleep.


Chris Marcellino, who helped develop the iPhone’s push notifications at Apple, told The Guardian last fall that smartphones hook people using the same neural pathways as gambling and drugs.


Purveyors of an addictive fix they provide us with a burst of dopamine.  But perhaps not in the way that you might think…


The Internet can be considered the world’s largest slot machine…when we go online you never quite know what you’re going to get  – an alarming Tweet by Donald Trump, pictures of puppy dogs on FB, an amusing meme or video on Instagram…and this is how a slot machine works …it is the unpredictability that keeps our brains tuned in. When we receive the reward of interesting digital content, there is a rise in dopamine, in our brains, which is strongly implicated in reward compulsion and addiction circuits. Simply put because the reward is variable and unpredictable it is highly addictive to our brains.


It is said that Neurons that fire together wire together and as we follow this new “feel good” path we create new circuits of pleasure and get addicted.


Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president of user growth at Facebook, talked about this addictions saying  “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works, It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave.”


Former Google strategist James Williams said “the dynamics of applications on devices are set up to undermine human will.”

One of the most concerning articles I read in preparation for this sermon brought to my attention …When we are not paying anything for an app – say Facebook – we are not a customer anymore – we are being sold. The compelling free apps that we download, bait us into providing valuable data for hundreds of companies.

50 percent of North Americans get their news from Facebook – what people don’t realize is that your news feed is not like picking up a paper and deciding what you would like to read – using sophisticated algorithms based on every purchase you make, where go in the world, and every single time you have searched for something on line – is amassed and stories that you will be interested in are put in front of you. We no longer have any need to think.

Not only that – our online presence knows all our secrets.

Envy drives much of the activity on social media. Negatively affects our kids. Social media has provided us with a rapidity, and persistence of human interaction. Envy is the Capacity of me wanting to be like you or how much better I am than you -hence the idealized pictures of what we are doing and where are. Young people are far more susceptible to envy. Adolescents learn the nuances of social interaction through face to face interaction. So if I say something to you that is hurtful I can see the impact on your face – learn the cue to modulate what I am doing. Also the key for critical thought is- slow thought. Our devices force us to process information quickly. Adolescent years are critical for developing the constructs from which we question the world. social media – driven by quick thinking – impedes the development of critical thinking.

Young people don’t realize to what degree peoples online presence is stage managed – despite the fact that they do it for their own feeds. Reacting as if it was real.


Learn out habits and anticipate them.

Sherry Turkle prof at Mass. Inst. of Tech describes how most Americans find it uncomfortable to be alone without digital distraction. Our smart devices offer us a world of infinite possibilities and distraction from USING OUR BRAINS. Disconnected from each other. Distraction robs us of empathy. Turkle’s research shows that because of smartphone use there has been a 40% decrease in empathy in college students over the past 20 years.

Its not just college students who are affected…preschoolers who are Exposed to screen time are less likely to look at the person they are talking to. (Slide)

The average person checks their smart phone – how many times a day-  guess – 150 – which is every 7 minutes! There is an App called “Moment” that  tells you how many times you look at your phone. I downloaded this yesterday at 8am and tried to use my phone as per normal and found that I had used it for over 3 hours.


Who has a smartphone? What do you use it for – call out


Hiking – tides, sign language, translation, navigation, find restaurants, gas station, podcasts, radio, music, photos, work, email,


we get the world view we wish to see.  App to link you up with someone of diametrically opposing views . who here would subscribe to Britebart or Fox news – who has watched/read?


What do we think about fake news –


the crux of the matter – Our highs are computer generated not spiritually created through living our principles.


We live a disenfranchised, disembodied, virtual life vicariously through our smart devices.  It is our body that grounds us, and helps to keep us present, to give and receive love.  To be part of a relationship. Face to face is how we deepen our spiritual journey.



The more time teenagers spend on social media the more lonely they feel.

Inverse correlation. On line connecting with lots of people. But counter intuitive- social media takes human experience out of the equation. Above 2 hours a day negative effects include social isolation, and, virtue signaling – pink shirt for anti-bullying – take a photo of myself and put it on social media, yeah me for being anti bullying but when someone is being bullied I ignore it. Put best face on social media and ignoring the hard work that it takes to work for anti-bullying.


Social media – is undermining the value of face to face time – its the reason that Starbucks drive through added a video screen so you can see a person.


Every devise has an off button.

We are smartphones pioneers we have to figure out what the rules are.

Upside to envy can be a force for good. Bertram Russel – envy can drive social change. Post hiking photos to Facebook to encourage people to go out and hike.


Average number of photos before choose to put on is 16.


I need to remind myself that the most important questions can not be answered online.


And I wonder…How often do we engage in social media while actually in the presence of those we love.


Can we fast from our smartphone – have a smartphone Sabbath – an hour a day?

Could we have the discipline to only check it twice a day.


I am pretty sure that if I ask for those things that made you come alive as a person we would not list our smartphones.  I truly think that Smartphones are impairing our ability to be.


How many of us look for spiritual content on line… do we listen to UU apps or podcasts – UUA, Illuminations – not updated, Unitarian Intention Connection.  Do we have meditation or yoga apps?


Who are the digital wisdom keepers of our faith – church of the larger fellowship – how Samer – in Syria refugee found out about being a UU.


To be spiritually alive I think we require action – to go and walk in the woods… to look out the window at trees, to walk on a beach….


The irony of this age is that our smart devices give us the ability to communicate globally while simultaneously allowing us to keep human connection at bay.


Whenever I ask a group of UUs why they attend Sunday services – community – there are very few ways to build real community on a smartphone.


Can we make our screens a sacred space?  Screen shot 7 principles as wallpaper? Grey out phone – turn off the coloured screen to make it more appealing. Turn off notifications. Be bored – allowing our creativity to flourish. There is no motivation NOT to look at our devices.


Digital information is still broken down into zeros and ones – what a metaphor for being alone and having nothing.



Left to our own devices is how we will end up as a society, but I hope not as a community.












Marketplace – Why you are addicted to your smartphone – Nov 3 2017


Tristan Harris, a former star product manager at Google.


Tony Reinke “12 ways your smart phone is changing you”


Paul Lewis – “our minds can now be hijacked” – the guardian


“Virtual addictions” Psychology Today Dr. David Greenfield


The Globe and Mail – Jim Balsillie and Norman Doidge conversation – “Can we ever kick our smartphone addiction”.


Tiffany Gee Lewis – Oct 20 2017 “Have smartphones Hijacked our spirituality”


“Kids just don’t get social media” Main Street Nova Scotia – CBC interview with Dr Stan Koutcher prof psychiatry at Dalhousie University. (March 2018)