Twenty Something

No Cell Phones, No Problems: Saluting the Digital Minimalists


It started with news from Camp Wapo, the Bible camp I’d attended as a kid. The camp counselors in Amery, Wis., enforce a strict no cell-phone policy: Ditch your iPhone when you arrive, get it back when you leave.

My reaction surprised me. I felt relief, triumph, a sense that the arc of the moral universe, to quote MLK, had been snapped toward justice by noble adults undeterred by the protests of preteens.

This meant that kids today can have the same authentic camp experience I’d had, that generations have had. New friends, tippy canoes, midnight adventures. Sun tanning, star gazing, soul searching. Camp could mean something more—not just be a backdrop for TikTok videos.

Georgetown professor Cal Newport makes the case for less screen time in his 2019 book “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.” A digital minimalist, he explains, is someone who gets lost in a book, a sunset or a woodworking project. These people have developed “a philosophy that puts our aspirations and values once again in charge of our daily experience…a philosophy that prioritizes long-term meaning over short-term satisfaction.”

I love this wording, which hints at the spiritual underpinnings: values pave the way, the big picture trumps fleeting pleasures.

Christian author Shauna Niequist explores the spiritual impact of social media in her new book “I Guess I Haven’t Learned That Yet.”

“It’s like standing in the center of a packed stadium every single day and expecting the constant noise and jostling not to take their toll on your spirit,” she writes.

How can we hear the still, small voice of God in a stadium?

There are Catholics who understand this. To discern their vocations and their next steps, they are eliminating the noise.

The St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., runs a propaedeutic stage program, a year of preparation before young men enter seminary (or pursue other paths). They may only use their cellphones on Saturdays, a policy the men have come to appreciate.

“It pushed us to encounter each other, to engage with each other on a much deeper level than we might initially do right away. It was challenging but also deeply enriching,” said Dominic Wolters, 23, a St. Paul native who participated in the program last year and is now in his first year of theological studies at the seminary.

Meanwhile, first-year FOCUS missionaries are asked to cool off romantic relationships, making fewer phone calls to a boyfriend or girlfriend and not texting at all. Instead, they’re encouraged to write letters to communicate “in more intentional ways,” as Shannon Hicks, a formation director, put it.

The policy is designed to give them “a freedom of heart,” Hicks said. “We’re asking them to examine whether electronic communication carries with it the meaning their relationship deserves. I have seen it give missionaries the space to take a step back and look at their motivations for romantic relationships.”

Tessa Soukup, a 22-year-old from Duluth, Minn., serving at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, struggled with the policy at first, wishing she could connect more readily with her boyfriend, Jacob.

“Is it hard?” she said. “Yes. But is it worth it? Even more so, yes. It truly is an opportunity to be stretched to learn how to love better, to discover where some of my priorities were not ordered. Now I think of him throughout my week in moments and think of ways I can share that with him when we do have our conversations. I look forward to sharing my week with him in that way, and I’ve learned to pray for him when I can’t have that immediate gratification.”

We can cave to the addiction of scrolling or we can pursue a freedom of heart.

Will it be hard? Yes.

But will it be worth it? Even more so, yes.

Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn.