Sabbath Switch-Off: Why to Reclaim Sunday From the Digital Domain

COMMENTARY: The importance of unplugging on the Lord’s Day.

(photo: Shutterstock)

I began to notice that Sunday was becoming just another day of work, not a day of rest, and certainly not a day of rest to be kept holy.

So I decided it was time to digitally disconnect.

In hindsight, perhaps, it was really the moment I started to connect. A day dedicated to faith, family and everything free of the worldwide web, Sunday became “Switch-Off Sabbath.”

According to a University of Southern California study, between 2000 and 2018, time spent online every week by the average American rose from 9.4 hours to 23.6 hours, with time spent online at home rising from 3.3 to 17.6 hours a week. During this same period the proportion of Americans accessing the internet from mobile devices rose from 23% in 2010 to 84%. U.S. smartphone email use jumped from 21% to 79%, with music streaming on phones soaring from 13% to 67%. 

In the United Kingdom, a 2018 government report found that two-thirds of British adults (64%) considered the internet “an essential part of their life,” with one in five adults (19%) admitting to spending more than 40 hours per week online. And, for the first time since such surveys were completed, it was found that women were spending more time online than men. Not surprisingly, U.K. smartphone ownership had leapt from 7% in 2008 to 78% 10 years later, but, tellingly, the number of phone calls made from these devices had fallen. Those surveyed said they saw phones as a way of staying digitally connected, not a means of communicating with others.

Let’s not pretend that the majority of time spent online is educative or devoted to harmless entertainment. Pornographic websites have more traffic each year than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined. The nonprofit Fight the New Drug analyzed the world’s most popular porn website. It found: 33.5 billion visits in 2018. This is a daily average of 92 million visitors and equates to the combined populations of Australia, Canada and Poland visiting this site every day. And there seems no end to new material for this audience. To watch the smut-filled films uploaded to this site in 2018 alone would take 115 years.

Just this year, in July, a study by French think tank The Shift Project found that more carbon dioxide was being produced by internet pornography than by the whole of Belgium. If these statistics are correct, it appears that online pornography is not just destroying lives, families and marriages, but also the planet.

For many, however, the real danger of internet use is not so much the toxic content that is being consumed online as the time being spent interacting not with human beings but with a phone, computer or with virtual  “friends.”  If online pornography provides sexual gratification, of a sort, without recourse to human relationship, “social media” provides a social life, again of sorts, without recourse, in many cases, to face-to-face human encounter. This computerized social life evades engagement with flesh-and-blood human beings who, unlike computers and phones, cannot be turned off, blocked and rebooted at whim.

On June 27, 2017, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, proclaimed to the world that the social platform now had 2 billion users online. As of 2018 it has 2.3 billion users.

To give some perspective on the internet leviathan that Facebook has become, comparison with its nearest rivals reveals that YouTube has 1.9 billion monthly users, and WhatsApp (which is owned by Facebook) has 1.5 billion, with other websites lagging well behind these leaders. Twitter, for example, as of 2019, has 330 million monthly active users. Not surprisingly, Facebook is the fourth-most-valuable company in the world, with its 2018 revenue at $55.838 billion.

Two billion-plus users are a major attraction to advertisers. In 2017, it was estimated that two-thirds  of Facebookers visit the site in any 24-hour cycle. It is those billions of users who are creating the content for Facebook: They do the work, the marketing and the selling, and then Facebook sells to them or, better still, sells their information to others keen to access this market. Spending so much time on the social platform may have made Facebook’s 2 billion users worldwide time-poor but, in the process, they have made Facebook’s owners very rich indeed, as Facebookers are busily at work for Facebook every hour of every day — and that includes Sundays.

On the feast of Pentecost 1998, Pope St. John Paul II published the apostolic letter Dies Domini, on keeping the Lord’s Day holy. Twenty years on, it is more pertinent than ever — and never has its message been more urgent.

Dies Domini views Sunday rest as the means to see life in proper perspective. And this means taking the time to “see the true face of the people with whom we live” not “face time” on a screen but the human faces of those around us.

Conscious, even in 1998, that the notion of “free time” in the Western world could degenerate “into emptiness or boredom,” Pope John Paul II reminds us that it is essential that free time, especially on Sundays, should offer spiritual enrichment, greater freedom, opportunities for contemplation and fraternal communion.” Interestingly, the means he suggests to achieve this is shared forms of culture and entertainment. It is imperative, the apostolic letter claims, that these cultural entertainments “must [be] in keeping with a life lived in obedience to the precepts of the Gospel. Sunday rest then becomes prophetic, affirming not only the absolute primacy of God, but also the primacy and dignity of the person.” It is in and through this recreation that Christians anticipate “the ‘new heavens’ and the ‘new earth,’ in which liberation from slavery will be final and complete.” By so living, Sunday becomes not just the Christian “day of the Lord” but, in the truest sense, “the day of man as well.”

Sunday is more than just a Sabbath day of rest, though. For Christians it is “the weekly Easter” (Dies Domini). Pope John Paul maintains that Sunday “reveals the meaning of time” and, with it, the hope to which we look forward at the end of time itself. In keeping Sunday holy, therefore, the Christian witnesses to this reality “so that every stage of human history will be upheld by hope.” Contrast this vision with the endlessly reported surveys suggesting that for many online there is a correlation between virtual time and a depressed hopelessness. Perhaps this is not so surprising, especially if we no longer keep the day of the Lord of Virtue, but, instead, opt for yet more digital enslavement offered to a virtual idol.

When I first “digitally disconnected” on Sunday, initially at least, such a rupture left me feeling lost, but I persisted.

And, week after week, I began to notice that Saturday night started to take on an unexpected excitement, while finding myself looking forward to this digital-free day.

On the natural level, Sundays were transformed, becoming by far the most relaxing and enjoyable day of the week. On a supernatural level, this quiet stillness brought me back to pondering the Sabbath. Seemingly effortlessly, my rest was becoming prayer — a day resting in the Risen Lord.

Register correspondent K.V. Turley writes from London.