Conspiring for our attention

A talk given by Sean Ziebarth at the adult session of Stake Conference on Saturday, November 9th.

I recently surveyed my immediate family on my example of responsible smartphone use—100% of my family strongly agreed with the statement: I have given you good advice on how to use a smartphone responsibly.  I’m off to a good start here. So I give good advice to my family, but how well do I walk the walk?

Seventy-five percent of my family agreed with the statement: I am a good example of how to use a smartphone responsibly (the other 25% strongly agreed with that statement by the way). 

Then, I asked them this question: How often am I on my phone when you wish I wasn’t? Seventy-five percent said “almost never,” but 25% said “often”. It could be worse, but none of us should settle for anything less than 100% of NEVER being on our phones when our families wished we weren’t

Now back before smartphones, when I was in high school I was friends with a girl who I’ll call Elizabeth. On occasion I would eat dinner with her family and when I did, every time I did, all eyes were focused across the dinner table, across the family room, focused on the television. I don’t remember the shows they watched, but I should—TVs only had like five channels back then. I do remember how little her family spoke with each other at dinner and when they finished eating, they’d all move to the couches to keep watching television, with very few words passing between them.

I do remember being flabbergasted at how their television was always on and how their family seemed to orbit around it. I felt like I was in some bizarro world, like I was in the Twilight Zone. The atmosphere at Elizabeth’s house was a bit vacant, a bit cool, much different than the warm chaos I was used to in my home. 

Fast forward a decade or three, the dinosaurs are gone, I’m teaching high school, and smartphones are ubiquitous. The image of the Elizabeth’s family sitting around watching television is quite quaint. They were all watching the television, but they were together! They were watching the same shows at the same time! They were sharing an experience as a family. 

Today I imagine that scenario would look much different: each member of the family would likely have their own smartphone, thumbing their way down a screen of sports scores, funny cat videos, celebrity photos, each family member lost in their own little world of a never-ending stream of photos, videos, and memes. Instead of sitting together around the table, or in front of the television, today Elizabeth’s family would likely be sequestered in their own rooms, their own corners of the house, snuggled up in the warm glow of their very own screen.

This is the irony of smartphones: while the technology shrinks time and space, connecting a mother in Huntington Beach with her daughter serving in the Hungary Budapest mission in 15 seconds via Facetime rather than a 15 hour flight, that same technology can easily disconnect a couple sitting just three feet across from each other.

Both prophets and pundits have warned us how digital technology can de-personalize us and separate us from those closest to us. In a fireside address to students at BYU-Idaho Elder David Bednar noticed how, “some young men and young women in the Church today ignore “things as they really are” and neglect eternal relationships for digital distractions, diversions, and detours that have no lasting value.”

He continued with a plea worthy of all our attention, “beware of the sense-dulling and spiritually destructive influence of cyberspace technologies that are used to produce high fidelity and that promote degrading and evil purposes.”

Typically, the counsel offered by our church leaders is derided and mocked by the public at large, but not in this case.

In his book Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff echoes Elder Bednar’s warning, “our digital activity takes place out of the body. Whether sending an email or controlling an avatar in a video game, we are not in the computer. We are behind a computer [or phone], operating out of our bodies and free of our identities. This can promote an illusion that we may act without personal consequences.”

Other secular thinkers warn us of conspiring men in these latter-days who are taking away our agency. Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, describes the effect of our smartphones’ system of notifications and alerts, “Imagine millions of people getting interrupted like this throughout their day, running around like chickens with their heads cut off, reciprocating each other  —  all designed by companies who profit from it: Welcome to social media.” 

Harris, practically echoing Alma’s words that this life is “a time to prepare to meet God,” continues, “At the end of our lives, all we have is our attention and our time. What will be time well spent for ours?” Those are words of wisdom to chew on…

It’s no secret that Silicon Valley leaders, the same men who’ve designed the hardware and software, limit their own children’s use of digital technology. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Tim Cook respectively make their children wait until they’re 14 before they get a smartphone, limit how much technology their children use at home, and prohibit them from joining online social networks.

As parents and grandparents we must likewise teach our families how to carefully control our personal technology rather than casually be controlled by it. And modeling is the most effective teacher.

As Jesus followed the example of His Father, so too do our children follow ours. Let’s liken John 5:19 to us, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, children can do nothing of themselves, but what they see the parents do: for what things soever they doeth, these also doeth the children likewise.”

So how can we be more careful in our use of technology as Sister Craven and Elder Johnson have admonished us in general conferences this year?

I’ll couch my advice in two of Douglas Rushkoff’s commands for a digital age. The first is:


  • Turn off notifications from your apps and direct your children to do likewise. Choose carefully who you allow the power to contact you anytime THEY want. Don’t casually give that control to your phone or its app makers. That power should be limited to the very special few—your family.


  • Choose carefully when to connect instead of casually being connected. When the family comes together after work and school, why doesn’t everyone power down and stash their cellphones together, starting with mom and dad’s. That will help us with the 2nd command:


Rushkoff teaches us, “By using a [smartphone] for local connection, we lose our sense of place, as well as our home field advantage.” We can all agree that our home is one place we don’t want to lose. So,

  • Give more time to your family and less data to tech companies.
  • Pay more attention to your children, and less heed to the digital philosophies of men.
  • If you want to use your phones at home, fine. But make it family phone time: connect with the world together, at the same time, in the same room. Schedule it, make it brief, make it fruitful. Share news, share jokes. Share your light.

Use the little light in the palm of your hand to create more light in the world with your examples. Allow me to pinch and twist Paul’s advice to Timothy for our purposes: Let no man, not even me, despise all uses of your cellphone; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, on Instagram, in charity, in spirit, on Facebook, in faith, in purity, but please not on Snapchat, nor TikTok: China’s cute little Trojan Horse app

Stop casually consuming every sports stat, every perfectly planned Pinterest picture, every appalling political faux pas, every funny foible of our furry friends.

Instead, we should carefully share our journeys as disciples of Christ. Let’s share the goals we set (especially those of our youth), the obstacles we face and overcome, as we, like Jesus, increase in intellectual and social wisdom and physical and spiritual stature. Let us find favor with God as we show the world what our lives, the lives of the believers of Christ, look like.