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Smart Phone Issue is Bigger Than We Realized

We knew it was an issue – we just didn’t realize how BIG an issue it was. When I blogged Should We Ban Smart Phones on the World Race? last week, over 200 comments came back (including the 80 on Facebook), many of them long and passionate. For example, Darren began by saying: “It seems AIM is t…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

Banning SmartphonesWe knew it was an issue – we just didn’t realize how BIG an issue it was. When I blogged Should We Ban Smart Phones on the World Race? last week, over 200 comments came back (including the 80 on Facebook), many of them long and passionate.

For example, Darren began by saying:

“It seems AIM is trying so hard to uniform everything and run everything like a well-oiled machine that they are losing the individual racer and individual squad growth at ones own pace and instead trying to control every aspect and ram it down your throat if you like it or not.”

A staff member read his comment and wrote me,

“I know, and just about everyone at this office would affirm, that just the opposite is the goal and heartbeat of AIM and the World Race. We are actually trying to create an atmosphere for young people to get out of the grip of the vanities of the present culture. And that is actually, from my understanding, why we are having this conversation about smart phones. We want to help racers get freed up.”

The World Race is about discipling and empowering 20-somethings. We are about helping them discover freedom and identity. Rarely do you solve complex problems like this one with a rule.

At the same time, smart phones, while a wonderful tool, can completely undermine a racer’s discipleship experience. Many of those who have been on the race were passionate about the issue:

Kara said:

“When I left on the race (Jan 09) none of us had smart phones. As a result, our teams became family in a very deep way. I read through the bible that year and really pressed into my relationship with the Lord.. I can’t imagine what my race, and what my relationship with the Lord would look like if myself and my teammates had smart phones.

I’m thankful that we didn’t have the option, as a result our relationships were richer, we grew in the lord, and we actually knew what abandonment looked like.. I have to wonder if Racers these days even know what it’s like to really miss their family, do they know what it’s like to really not have constant communication with them? I personally think we should do away with them, computers are already enough of a distraction. No phones is part of the journey.”

Andy had a good analysis of the issue:

“Smartphones preference immediacy by abandoning continuity. Smartphones assume your default state is interruptable. Immediate updates – no matter how trivial – should be allowed to disrupt real-life interactions or deliberate mental focus. Smartphones inhibit intentionality, which should be alarming as a precedent for Racers.

Smartphones enable rapid communication by devaluing dedicated dialog. Smartphones assume the user ought to be able to split their attention across multiple conversations and stimuli for indefinite periods of time.”

I asked our senior leaders to read over your comments and consider what the appropriate response would be. Our consensus was, “We’re not going to ban smartphones, but how do we help racer’s use this as a learning experience where they get the most out of the race possible?”

We further thought that perhaps you, our readers, can help us. We are not in a rush and we want to get this right. We need your counsel.

So please help us develop a considered response to the issue. Help us craft a statement the comment section below. What if you were responsible for the experience of a specific squad? What would you ask of them or require of them to help them get the most out of the race possible? 

We compiled a list of governing principles here. Please check them out.

Comments (40)

  • What could I write to make the world see from a different angle, different perspective? We live in an age where it becomes easier and easier to check out from the ‘real world’ each subsequent year. About a month ago now I was on Cuba on a World Race Alumni and guests trip and the time stood beautiful!! You see in Cuba it still stands a communist and closed nation and so one gets ‘cut off’ from the comforts of home as internet in the country rests super expensive and so not worth it to partake in the activity. For me I loved it for it allowed me to prrss into learning about the team, the ministry and hear Papa with more clarity. The truth of the matter rests in that Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and such will still be there when you get back or have scheduled internet time for your computers.

    Though I may miss exciting news or even sad news of my family and friends lives, it actually is a good thing, because then when you get home you can press into how they have been and develop those relationships with more intentionality. I don’t know if all of this makes sense, but it’s what came forth. Haha…

    • Hey AJ – you are right. It is far too easy to check out from the real world and all the while Jesus is asking us to engage more deeply with him and with the world.

  • As a current month 10 racer, it’s sad to say that I can actually relate to Darren’s comment a lot. Being on the race, you lose a lot of your individuality. You lose a lot of simple decisions that you don’t think about before leaving. For example, I hardly ever get to choose how I want to spend my off days, what I want for dinner, where and when I want to worship, or even what shampoo I want to use.

    Before leaving for the race, AIM made it seem like they would be a great support system for us. That we would have squad coaches and mentors and leaders to be there alongside of us… But they aren’t. So having a support system at home is great.

    And it seems like World Race makes decisions a lot (as far as when team changes should take place, what team changes will look like or team leader changes) without thinking about how they affect the individual. They maybe think about the effects on a squad, and MAYBE the effects on a team, but I’m not sure the individual is ever put into consideration.

    That being said, putting more rules and control in place is taking away individualization even more. Putting any sort of restriction on smart phone usage just irritates me.

    I agree with Beks comment on the previous blog, present information to racers and let them decide. Individually. Smart phone usage does not have to be a team decision. Because maybe one person isn’t too close with their family anyway, so it’s not an issue for them. Maybe another person has a parent dying of cancer, and talking with them IS shining the light of Christ to them.

    Many racers have (as I would hope they do) relationships back home that are worth maintaining. That are worth growing and cultivating just as much as their relationships with their squad mates. I have found lifelong friends on this race that I cherish so much. The thought of not seeing them at the end of each month in the future is hard, but when we get home, we’re gonna communicate. How? FaceTime on our PHONES. Because we live too far a part to see each other all the time. So why wouldn’t I communicate with my family as friends back home the same way?

    One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that the race IS life. This talk of “real life” vs. “race life” is crap. There should be no difference. This journey should push and change you, sure. But it should teach you how to live a better life wherever you are with whatever you have. And at home, you’re most likely going to have a smartphone.

    So maybe the race can be a place for individuals to learn how to use their phones more appropriately, sure. But that will look different individual to individual, and setting any kind of “boundary” to help some will hinder others.

    There are age restrictions in place on the race for a reason, and everyone is an adult. So treat them like one. Let the individual choose. It’s their race, it’s their life.

  • This is not a unique problem. In my secular job, productive meetings and smartphones do not mix well either. But there are times when a smartphone is an amazingly efficient communication tool. Rather than the ban (which you’ve already ruled out), I would suggest you put the problem to the racers. Get them to consider the disruptive nature of smartphones and the value of community. I bet you can get them to voluntarily put their phones in a bag to be taken out intentionally to allow folks to catch up on correspondence when the group is choosing to have some individual downtime.

    Address the resistors like you would someone with other non-constructive personal habits. Racers like anyone under the stress of a community situation need to grow into their understanding of the effects of their behavior on others.

  • I have been thinking about this so much since the first post and even before you brought this up. Why?

    1. I have a teenage (almost adult) child that IMO seems to always have his cell in his hand OR on his mind. Again, IMO, it hinders our family relationships, his intimacy with JESUS, real face to face friendships, real fellowship which doesn’t come through how they use a cell phone, it hinders learning, growth, productivity, being healthy, and I could go on and on. This has had my heart broken for over a year now, it upsets me, hurts me, concerns me, and again, completely breaks my heart. I started thinking months ago about praying/encouraging him to go on the World Race, in part because I thought if he got away from media and technology a little, it will help with those areas I mentioned above…BUT I have been completely disappointed to see (and here is number 2)

    2. My racer, who is still currently on the race, has been gone for many months now. Before she left for the race, we told EVERYONE she would have little or no way to be on contact and not be able to communicate with anyone here very often and that was hard and yet exciting at the same time. (some people think I’m a helicopter mom but I’m really not as bad as they make it seem)

    Once she left, I was so prepared not to hear from my racer for MONTHS and I prayed a LOT more IMO. I had to trust GOD a LOT more for her safety and protection AND I had to trust her squad (and leaders and AIM) to be there for her in every way. It was a good difficult adjustment. I also thought she would really really develop deep, intimate, godly relationships with her squad mates and her host families and others on the field. I believe she has and has tried hard to do this….

    BUT….the disappointment is that is SEEMS that many racers were/are to connected to home, so up-to-date on events, political, social, family, etc. and so distracted by all this that it SEEMS it has hindered the depth they could have gone with JESUS, each other, and their ministries/hosts. I am NOT there, I am ONLY saying, it SEEMS like there would have been MORE….I’m not saying there wasn’t….it’s not a statement from experience or knowledge, just a guess, an observation based on my assumptions….so it can’t be taken as fact from MY perspective, but it would be interesting if, during debrief for squads about to return home next month, some REAL time was spent REALLY praying about this and some HONEST input was given so it can benefit future racers and squads.

    This isn’t well thought out and now I feel like I rambled but I hope something made some since in all of this.

    We love AIM so very much. You are all amazing and I wish I was able to be more involved than my family situation allows.

    Praying for wisdom and discernment for all at AIM and for racers too.

    Blessings in CHRIST,

  • P.S. I wonder if the squad that was documenting their race may have some documentation that might help also…just wondering. It seems here in the ‘real world’ lol, as opposed to the ‘race world’ that you cannot take a picture or video too often without seeing some or many tuned into their hand and not those around them.

  • I hope to go on the World Race one day and hopefully in the next year or two. To me, it is sad to see my generation so absorbed in their phones. It is frustrating to sit at a meal with friends sometimes. I say this fully aware that I most likely do the same things.

    My hope is that the racers are taking pictures or videos. I can completely understand the desire to do that sometimes. However, if phones are hindering their ability to live in community, maybe their time with them should be regulated to a certain window of an hour or two per day or even week with the possibility of the time decreasing or challenging them at some point to be completely without it as a social aspect.

    Personally, I lived at a camp serving a ministry with 24 other students previously. Phones weren’t as much of an issue for us because we chose to not let them be one. This is an issue that is in part self-governance. It also seems like a subject that racers should be able to weigh in on because while it is an issue for some, it may not be for all.

  • I say all of that, but at the same time, the idea of unplugging sounds amazing and would be wonderful to do. Our world is so “connected” that most people miss out on the moments. To have racers voluntarily disconnect should be the goal. The real struggle is getting them there and seeing the need to put the social media down.

  • It made me sad to see the comment about the phone Darren made. At 62, I’ve lived without lots of things these children may never fully understand the concept of. If The Word is going to grow and people are going to live anywhere near the lives God intends for us to live, we have to understand that it takes time and is hard, intentional work that text messages somehow can’t provide. I feel that AIM has bent over backward in so many ways to help and encourage our Racers.

  • Many people my daughter knows thought she was on a happy-go-lucky whirlwind tour of the world with God thrown in for looks, to be quite blunt. Smart phone addiction only adds to this perception. And I, for that reason, really don’t agree with PVT’s. It seems like a way to mollify ansy parents. I’m glad I don’t need to get a mission fix/vacation to really “know” what my child’s doing. She needs that to be between her, the team she committed to, and most importantly, God.

    • Love the way you’ve raised your racer!

      PVTs don’t mollify- they are an amazing way to allow racers to lead their parents into new territory rather than leaving them behind. Wish I could show you the fruit.

    • Good thoughts, Sherry, thanks. Our objective is to connect racers deeply to Jesus. Our commitment is to press into how that can best happen.

  • Hey Seth! As a previous World Racer (pre smart phone era) I’m going to encourage future World Racers to leave their smart phones at home. In this stage of life, I would love any excuse to completely unplug and go “off the map” for a bit. That said, I understand your dilemma in how to go about this. I think banning smart phones on future, yet to be launched races is a good idea. I think it’s just a part of the race. You leave your comforts behind to go out into the world and see/hear/feel what God’s doing. It’s a part of the challenge! On our race, (original A & B squads ’07) we had more wifi and internet cafe access than we ever imagined and some fellow racers hated it. They went for the ‘roughing it’ experience (which we definitely had as well!). To ban smart phones now (on current or just-about-to-launch races) might be a little too soon because of expectations (but that’s also another great thing the race challenges us with). Perhaps to side step much back lash, you could make it a rule for future races; races that are not full yet, etc. That way people can sign up knowing in advance what is expected and what they’re leaving behind.
    I would not let your WR leaders on the field govern other’s smart phone usage. That could create resentment and would put undue stress on your leadership team.
    If parents and/or racers are concerned about safety and communication, your leadership have SAT phones in case of emergencies. There’s internet in every country and almost every place they will travel. It’s doable. It’s awesome. And they can do it!!
    My 2 cents!

  • As a former racer it is stretching enough to step into new levels of your gifts, new understandings of your own identity, of the Father’s nature, learning community, that to simply say no phones actually seems like a great idea, 1 less thing for someone to hide in and grab onto. I feel like we need all the help and pushing we can get to press in, that this idea seems not controlling but actually supportive! I think it like a good father knows best and is going ahead of you to clear your path more to ensure you get all that he desires on this amazing journey. People get a glimpse of what they are signing up for during the interview process and a bigger glimpse during training camp that to say no phones I think should press upon their hearts that this truly is a time of going so deep. And they either want it or they don’t. Shackeltons advertisement was pretty straightforward but numerous men jumped at the chance and obviously the race isnt that journey but its enough of a challenging radical step that people should know this isnt childs play. If there is an alumni trip or part 2 then I think the self governance thing can come into play. But it is just too costly to risk missing out on lifechanging moments for racers with a simple ever present phone by your side. And too much of a burden to place upon leaders to monitor this. It truly is like father sees down the path and knows whats best for his sons and daughters. We may not understand fully what God does at first but I guarantee that at the end of the race no one will say I wish I was on my phone more. And God will say yes! He said drop everything and follow me, thats phones too!

  • I loved the video testimony Christina provided. I think the challenge provided at boot camp is precisely the way to start the conversation. The only way to add value is to make it a group conversation. Christina self-evaluated and made a personal decision which she generously chose to share in her video. But there is power in making that decision process a group discussion. The choice can still be individual, but processing the decision together builds on all of the values you are trying to encourage during the race including self-sacrifice, dependency on one another, trusting in God and helps defeat cultural norms by encouraging deferred gratification and overall self-discipline.

    I would even encourage you to take this conversation to the other groups you take on mission, not just the racers. Convincing people to decouple from their habitual dependencies is a great way to let God speak into their lives. Keep the conversation going…

  • I am about to go overseas for two years with the IMB. I am choosing to have my smartphone to stay in touch with family & friends, solely on a wifi-availability basis, as well as getting a local plan to be able to contact new friends while on field. I also want to use my phone as a mobilization tool, using Instagram and FB not solely to stay connected with happenings (though inevitably, I will to some extent), but more to keep others connected to me–by posting daily life pictures that can be easily shared to my prayer partners.

    Food for thought though–there’s an app I just discovered called “Moment” that enables you to set a daily limit on screen time and/or daily times without any screen time. I’m looking into getting it downloaded. I have deleted most social media apps, but unfortunately, it is still a very difficult issue to get around. Thanks for looking into this; it is a very important issue.

  • Jenny, I think that is excellent as a suggestion. Have it for the future but not for those already signed up. Phase it in.
    Just as a small aside, the kids I work with who are younger (early teens) have a rule that their phones get put in a box in a safe place when they arrive at a meeting. They get them back at the end so they have the possibility of parental contact or emergency cover, but they deliberately put them down in order to focus on the now. They all know they can’t resist looking at them if they are there but not one of them objects to laying them aside so they don’t interfere with them joining in with what’s going on. The benefits far far outweigh the cons. Leave them behind completely – same for everyone. I agree with Jenny; it’s way too stressful on your leaders to have to govern this in the field. To be without one is now so alien in our culture, but I bet you there will not be one racer returning from their time without one who regrets it.

  • I have had a work-personal smartphone for about three years and have noticed a significant deterioration in my ability to focus during my quiet time and in meetings. I’m an early 30-something and did not get a cell phone until I was 19 or 20, so I did not come to depend on a cell phone until my late 20s. I’ve also led and interacted with a few short-term mission trip teams made up of primarily high-schoolers and can vouch for the importance of a no-smartphone rule. When it’s all said and done, we sell ourselves short by insisting on having our technology around at all times. Is it really that handy to have an iPhone that does literally everything I ever need, including my Bible reading and such? I think a key thing pro-smartphone millennials on the World Race might not realize is that, by allowing technology to cloud our minds and pull our attention in different directions, they miss out learning to be present, with fellow racers, the people they serve, their surroundings, etc. How many opportunities we might miss to hear God speak or see Him move when we carry around an escape hatch 24/7?

  • As someone that has gone on a three month journey with AIM I have experienced times when it was beneficial for me to be off my smartphone and times when it was beneficial to be on it. My 3 months were some of the most difficult I’ve ever experienced and my team often fought and bickered, and I would’ve joined into the negative if I didn’t have my support system at home as well. When you are in the middle of terrible situations, you need an outside perspective. Honestly my time of being able to communicate helped me make it through all the really really hard patches, helped me keep my sanity, and helped me communicate when things that absolutely were not okay we’re happening on my trip to those that could help. You can’t request someone to not speak with anyone at home and then come back after being away for a huge chunk of time and not feel as if all is lost. Transition back is extremely hard let alone if you don’t let those on the field keep in communication with their loved ones at home.

  • I guess I am still of the mindset that taking the option of “no smartphones” off the table isn’t the wisest path. If the intention of allowing phones is to allow racers to stay plugged in at home as a backup support system, there are many effective ways of doing so short of putting a smartphone in everyone’s hands. Why not give the team a single phone that they can share during down times? This is just one of many options.

  • I think there is a time and place for smart phones. What about instead of saying ‘don’t do this…’, have each squad have the discussion together and define their own expectation of when it IS appropriate to use them. More of a ‘do’ list. I’m a middle school science teacher, and believe me, have to deal with phone usage every day. We have the conversations about how they can be used as a tool for learning and discuss times that it is okay to use phones. Then, if students are not making good choices and it’s affecting their/others’ learning, as their teacher, we have a conversation, and sometimes they do lose that privilege. And honestly, phones aren’t the ‘problem’, they’re just a symptom of something deeper, and if we spend time working on those things, I don’t think it will be a huge deal, if any at all.

  • Also, there are some times that it’s not okay to use them, and my kids can usually name then off without me needing to say much. I bet most world racers could come up with a whole list of ‘really not in good taste’ situations. If it’s developed as a group, it will grow as part of the culture and expectations of the group and there will be natural accountability as well.

    • I agree Becca. The good news is that this has given life to an important conversation about what helps us best accomplish our purpose.

  • The issue is that no matter how good racers intentions are to stay off their phones and be present, the inherent issue is that being on the phone, scrolling and posted live updates, and then waiting for feedback, is addictive. Perhaps this has already been written, as I have not read through all the comments. So the opportunity for remaining truly present – which is actually a way to connect to God – and not just waiting to check ones phone/chat/scroll/post is completely lost if phones are permitted. The race is such a unique part of life, a rare opportunity to learn that is it possible to live without constant internet connection, and develop an ability to be present. Because so many in this generation of racers will have never experienced a true break from smart phone connection it would actually be revolutionary for them. All there is so much interesting research out there about how true boredom breeds creativity – if everyone is distracted during all those hours of travel by phones, some may never develop the new ideas this world needs! That being said, learning personal discipline, counterculturalism, and following Jesus are lifelong journeys, and even being introduced to healthy ways of thinking about life-long disciples on the race is a good thing. I would suggest a Sabbath from phones to be part of the mandatory requirements/culture on every team, whether that’s one entire day of the week, or every day until evening.

    • This is the bottom line: “being on the phone, scrolling and posted live updates, and then waiting for feedback, is addictive”

  • I never had a smart phone, still don’t. Have a tablet, but most apps need wifi so i dont use it much away from wifi. The only time I used tech was in the evening by myself on the race. About the 5 month I had my Macbook Pro stolen. That was an eye opener to the Goodness of God that having tech or online access is not always necessary to have at all times.

    When I am with a group of people I tend to remind them to put there tech down and focus on those around you. It’s when I am by myself that I use my tech.
    I have been with out tech for over a year and it didn’t seem to change wether I got closer to God with or without tech. It came down to a personal choice to be engaged with the team or the locals or with God.

  • There are so many comments and I don’t have time now to read them all so forgive me if I repeat anything already stated.

    I was glad we didn’t have phones in general, though I understand that some would chose to bring one for the reasons I brought my computer and/or camera. I think a challenge to leave the smart phone at home is a good one. They can pray on it and make the decision, hopefully listening to the Holy Spirit. For those that bring them, treat them as we did our computers, for off times, blogging, or connecting with family/friends at home. Each team can pray and decide if there should be specific, agreed upon boundaries, such as; no phone while out on Ministry. Those are my thoughts… hope it’s helpful.

  • I say challenge (beseech, call to, entice, kindle this desire, electrify, wake up, arouse in) young people to not look at their phones. To have them put away and out of sight and mind. With God all things ARE possible. We’re all addicted to something. Whether it’s people’s approval, fashion concerns, etc..

    Because this amazing mission race has many purposes. One of which to disconnect, unplug and stop? Then start: Start something unique, something life changing (for others!! As well at the racers) something heart rending, something like jumping off a spiritual cliff and not looking back.

    Blog once a month, Connect if theirs an emergency, allow the families and racers to trust wildly in a God who has everything under control.

    Allow these young people to grow up in such a way they never could in the states or if they are continually checking and reconnecting with their former life they left behind for a time. Just some thoughts from a regular and excited intrigued “onlooker.”

    Cheering you all on as you set your affection on things above NOT on the things of this earth. Colossions 3.

  • I am confident in saying that a Racer would have a more fruitful, full experience on the race with little smart phone interaction. I was a racer in 2012-13 and my squad, thankfully, chose one another and being present over being at home via smart phone. My race was phenomenal and relationships were rich and the life in front of us was being absorbed and appreciated. In January 2014 I hosted two world race teams in South Africa and my heart was broken for them and the amount of time they spent on their devices. We had internet at the homes and I would walk to their corridors desiring to see them engaging and enjoying one another and would find all of them spread out individually ENJOYING home. I believe this played a role in the difficulties they were having: teams weren’t getting along well, communication and team time wasn’t happening, they were irritated at the ministry, the food, and each other. It was a big disappointment for me.
    Whether banning smart phones or not I desire for people to live in the present and take advantage of the amazing experience the world race is. And I believe you have to leave home to fully receive the gift the world race is, which means putting your phone down.

    • Great testimony, Chris! It really is a shame how much racers miss out on by not self-governing on this issue.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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