SALT LAKE CITY — Overcoming bad online habits isn't easy, but some Christians feel their faith holds a winning strategy.
They're using the holy season of Lent, a six-week period that stretches from Ash Wednesday (Feb. 14 this year) to Easter weekend, to step away from their favorite apps and websites, with the goal of learning how to log on less in the future.
"It's sad to realize how much a part of my day-to-day life social media is," said Sarah Lovinger, a nondenominational Christian who quit Instagram for Lent. "It gives me something to work on."
She's far from being the only American struggling to use the internet in moderation. More than 1 in 4 U.S. adults say they're almost constantly online, Pew Research Center reported earlier this month.
In the Christian context, overuse of apps, Facebook and other websites can create a spiritual crisis, drawing people away from loved ones and God, said Jenny Miller, a Methodist who gave up iPad games for Lent this year and Facebook in the past.
"Instead of choosing to sit and pray or talking to our families, we're sucked into technology. We're aware of the problem, but it's a hard thing to break," she said. "Lent is a good time to start that process."
Recognizing the problem
Although a majority of Americans who use social media say the practice would not be hard to give up, the percentage who say the opposite is growing, according to Pew Research Center. In 2018, 40 percent of users said they would have a hard time leaving social media, compared with 28 percent in 2014.
Sites like Facebook and Twitter are designed to be hard to quit. Each new "like" from an Instagram follower or comment from a Facebook friend floods the brain's pleasure receptors, said Heidi Campbell, an associate professor at Texas A&M University who studies the relationship between religion and digital media.
"There's an endorphin release," she said.
Before Lent, Miller's favorite release came from games like Candy Crush, which took up a growing chunk of her day. She'd put her 14-month-old baby girl down for a nap and then get lost in her iPad screen.
"I’d play games for an hour or an hour and a half," said Miller, who is a stay-at-home mom in Brookfield, Wisconsin. "I wasn't getting anything done."
Pamela Revak, director of youth ministries for St. Stephen United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, struggled with Facebook. The site is meant to connect users to faraway loved ones and friends, but it was taking Revak's attention from people next to her.
"My boyfriend is not on Facebook, so our relationship helped me realize how much time I spend on social media," she said. "Having someone there who wasn't pulling out his phone to check notifications made me more aware of my habits."
Lovinger, who quit Instagram, said her phone had started affecting how she viewed the world around her. She'd obsess over finding something cool to photograph and share online.
"Saying that out loud is embarrassing," said Lovinger, who is a faculty and student support administrator for Boston University.
These internet-related experiences are common, but Miller, Revak and Lovinger are going about improving their relationship to technology in a uniquely Christian way. They're trading beloved apps and websites for prayer and reflection during Lent.
Lent is a solemn period that prompts believers to remember Jesus Christ's sacrifices and consider their own sins. Some Christians choose to give something up during this religious season as a personal sacrifice.
Sweets and soda are popular choices, since they're so tempting. But the general goal is to choose something that's causing you to sin or serving as a distraction, Miller said.
"You give up something that's keeping you at a distance from God," she said.
With less than two weeks left of Lent, Revak, Miller and Lovinger are confident they'll finish their Lenten challenges without a slip-up. However, improving your relationship with an app or website requires more than logging off for a few weeks, Campbell said.
"Tech fasts aren't the answer" to internet addiction, she said. "They're just one part of the solution."
In other words, unplugging for a whole day or week doesn't guarantee better future habits. Lovinger has stayed off Instagram for the past month, but she admits she'll need a friend to keep her password after Lent, if she wants to log on less, she said.
"I know myself. If I'm tired and feel like checking Instagram, I will," she said.
In order to be more mindful online, people need to spend part of their time offline creating engagement strategies for the future, Campbell said. They need to think about the positive aspects of an app or website and find ways to focus their use on those features.
"We have to reflect on how to use technology so that it doesn't go against our values," she said.
Lent encourages this kind of reflection, Revak said. Congregation members talk to each other about what they're learning from what they gave up.
"A lot of the value of spiritual disciplines comes from being able to share them in community," she said.
Revak's time away from Facebook has helped her distinguish between good uses and bad uses of the site. Moving forward, she'll continue to use it to stay in contact with members of her youth group and friends in other states, but she'll avoid scrolling through her feed just to pass time.
"I want to use it as a platform to connect instead of just to creep in on other people's lives," she said.
Lovinger plans to put less energy into Instagram's "stories" feature, which allows users to record informal videos throughout the day. She doesn't want to broadcast so much of her life to her followers, who aren't all people she regularly sees offline.
"There's a little bit of shame that comes with sharing too much," she said. "I don't want it to be a consistent thing."
After Lent is over, Campbell encourages Christians to use other parts of their religious routines to assess their digital routines. They could take a break from the internet each weekend or have a phone-free spiritual retreat, she said.
"Some people take a regular Sabbath, which includes not checking their cellphone or email from sunup to sundown," Campbell said.