Motivating Digital Virtue
The addictive nature of screens, computer games, and social media means that sometimes “the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38), that is, sometimes we know and desire virtuous behavior but our flesh gets the better of us and we compulsively fall into old patterns of vicious behaviors.
So it can help to treat ourselves as we would little children under our care, setting limits and boundaries that will foster the virtue that one desires. In this it is good to know that what works for one person may not work for others: different people and children at different ages need different approaches and motivations.
Although intrinsic motivations are the best—seeking holiness, pleasing God, to have a positive impact on one’s children or friends…—it is good to realize external motivations (physical rewards and punishments) can be quite helpful to get the “flesh” to be in sync with the spirit. Remember our Lord’s response to the apostles who couldn’t cast out a evil spirit, but Jesus could: he said, “This kind can only be driven out by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29). So, let’s embrace the external manifestation of our intrinsic motives to help us grow and improve.
Set Goals with clear Milestones
Start with setting goals for yourself (and your children), such as:
• how much time you will spend on digital device, screens, apps;
• where you will and will not use your digital devices;
• what destructive behavior you wish to eliminate: bullying or being bullied, porn, comparing your life (body, possessions, vacation…) with that of others.
Try to visualize how a virtuous person would live with digital technology. How would Jesus use digital technology? Review “Purposes of the Internet and Electronic Devices” and consider would Jesus not use tools to communicate? To teach? To develop healthy relationship? This doesn’t mean we must eliminate all digital activity in our life: remember, how the Pharisees criticized Jesus because he “partied” with friends… but vituously:
“John the Baptist came eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of man comes eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Luke 7:33-35).
Once the big goals are set, then set little intermediate milestones to mark your progress.
Example, Inspiration, and Competition
Find examples that can inspire you. The best are the saints. It could be an ancient saint, such as St. Augustine or more modern saints such as St. Thérèse, St. Gianna Molla, or Bl. Carlo Acutis. Read their lives, pray for their intercession, and imitate them.
If you know people you admire for their virtuous life, ask them to give you pointers in your struggle. You may also ask them to be an accountability partner, sharing with them your goals and milestones, reporting to them on your progress in your struggle, your successes and your failures. They can give you ideas one how to tackle particular challenges, or share with you their story of struggle, giving you hope that you can follow in their path.
If you have some clear milestones toward your big goals, celebrate those milestones with your accountability partner or friend. It is great to be able to go all Lent without compromising using my phone in the bedroom or bathroom, then the six month milestone as well. If you fall, start over and then when you reach the milestone you’ll be more proud of the accomplishment.
Sometimes rewards also helps, for example, go for an ice-cream each Sunday if yiou meet you weekly milestone.
Some find competition a great motivator. Challenge a friend or a sibling or a parent to see who can reduce their screen-time usage the most in a given week or who can go the longest without using TikTok, FaceBook, etc. A young woman Leigh shared her trick in a Wall Street Journal interview: “At my boarding school, when we’d go out to eat, we’d put our phones in the middle of the table and whoever grabbed theirs first had to pay for dinner. Ultimately someone would cave. But it made dinner so much better and more fulfilling.”
Sometimes having negative consequences for failing can be effective. For example, if I fail to respond to a parent or spouse because I was absorbed by some digital device, then I will punish the device by not turning it on for 24 hours: “iPhone, you were bad because you kept me from obeying my mother right away. For that I will turn you off for 24 hours…” This will help us be more responsive next time.
Some find that making a commitment to take a cold shower—no hot water!—each time they click on some inappropriate link helps, because it counters the dopamine rush with a strong bodily discomfort, telling the body: if you do that again it isn’t going to be fun.
The main point is to find motives that will help us struggle to live a more all-around virtuous life, not just digital virtue.