Mental Health and Technology as Christians: An Interview with Heidi Goehmann

January 6, 2023 Katy Crawford


Mystery, tension, data, connection, and creativity. These were recurring threads throughout my discussion with licensed clinical social worker, author, and hope-driven mental health advocate Heidi Goehmann. We talked about weariness, God’s Word, belief schemata, and setting flexible boundaries along with the fun we find through technology. Fill your favorite mug with something to sip and join us.

What are some questions you find helpful when evaluating the impact technology has on our mental health?

From my vantage point, I’m always looking for two things. One is, Where’s the data? Show me the research on that. I think it’s so easy to make broad, sweeping statements and try to craft our lives around things that we know nothing about. We know so little about the way our brain works.

We have a relationship with technology, so we want to treat it like that. We want to ask, What is the role of this thing, and what kind of values and stuff are interacting in our relationship with this thing? So, where’s the data, and what does Scripture have to say?

We know so little about God. We’re learning all the time and He reveals Himself in Christ. We need to state what we know and be clear about what the mystery is. That serves us well.

It sounds so silly because technology is so “new,” although someone invented fire and that was technology at one point. Someone invented metal and agriculture, right? Our societies, our cultures have always been changing and I think that is part of what the Bible reveals to us. It looks at the story of human experience through change and an unchanging God. Looking at that and diving into what God has to say about this thing is not because I’m looking for the way He prescribes my interaction with technology, but I’m looking for the way He describes the human experience in His interaction with our experience as humans. 

In Emotions and the Gospel you write about weariness. How can we process the tension between weariness and connection that we (and those we serve) experience through our use of technology?

Tension—I like to call it the secret sauce of spirituality and mental health. Living in the tension and allowing ourselves to be in that tension instead of trying to choose a right or a wrong or a left or right or an exact place we need to be.

There is good and evil in the world, so there are certainly things that move us toward health and things that move us toward unhealth. However, when we’re able to exist and look at both the clarity of God and the clarity of what we know about our mental health—as well as the things we don’t know about that—and hold those two together, I really think we can move forward more authentically for where we should be with this thing called technology or where we should be in this specific relationship.

Clarity is good—it’s awesome—but mystery is also part faith and our mental health. And so, when we live in that tension we feel more congruent: where we’re walking in who we believe we’re supposed to be, we’re walking in the things we believe, instead of feeling off.  

I would say that it’s exhausting for our mental health when we don’t have a belief schema about something very concretely. And really, that is the tension: the work every day of us figuring out how things fit in our belief schemata.

When I say "belief schemata," I mean both the very spiritually intimate ones (like “What do I value?” "Do I believe in forgiveness?" and “How do I believe in that and what does it look like?”) as well as belief schemata like “That thing has wheels and there’s a roof on it, so it must be a car.” We’re intersecting in both those conversations with technology.

I think those layers of belief schema, along with actually having to use technology to do the work, along with the pandemic and it amping up technology's place in our life—that’s uniquely exhausting for our mental health. I’m trying to figure something out at a very deep level, as well as do the thing that is in front of me for today. 

It’s uniquely exhausting to figure out that deep level of identity as well as what that looks like for me today. That’s the same interaction, I think, we currently have culturally with technology. So then we have that layer of weariness, because we’re asking so many questions at so many levels about the thing, as well as being just tired from the work of daily life.  

There seems to be research that points to the benefit of boundaries when it comes to technology use, for our mental, physical, and relational health. How can we approach this part of the conversation?

I would start with our understanding of living in freedom and boundaries as one of those tensional dialectics that serves us well in our mental health and also our spiritual health.

So, we live in the freedom of Christ, first of all. This is a very clear thing that we have as part of our biblical understanding: when we believe in Him, our salvation’s been won, I’m no longer fighting that battle, and, so, I have freedom each day in my life. It is for freedom Christ has set us free. He values our freedom and being able to live in that.

That’s important. However, boundaries also matter. They’re created by a good God for us to have and that’s actually part of our freedom to some degree: that we have boundaries and can live in them. I notice in all things (but since we’re talking technology, let’s utilize that) that if I just live in freedom, it’s going to look like a hot mess. I’m going to be in a really unhealthy place, a place moving toward unhealth more and more.

But the same thing can happen with boundaries and I think in the Christian life we tend to swing one way or the other. Because, I think, we have so much talk in our culture about right and wrong and trying to discern that, we also tend toward this conversation about boundaries more often recently. Then sometimes we give up our freedom.

We want to have boundaries, but within that context of understanding that those boundaries don’t define us. The freedom of Christ is what’s been given to us as a gift in salvation, so we want to live in that. In therapy world, we call this “boundaries with flexibility.” My boundaries a) are not what saves me and b) don’t rule my life. I make choices and, also, I live in a world that has restrictions and freedoms for me.

Then, we are challenged to hold those things together. I see a lot of judgment, for ourselves and also for one another. So, we post on social media something like “I only let my kids have a cell phone when they’re 16 or older.” We create some rule.

Rules are not boundaries. Those are in the same sphere, but the boundary serves us better than the rule because the boundary moves toward us in freedom, whereas the rule is the edge of that, the other side. So, yeah, you can create some rules. But understand that there has to be some flexibility otherwise we will be giving up that freedom and that is bad for our mental health. We will feel the impact of that. It’s also bad for our spiritual health because we don’t see God holistically—we see Him as a rule maker, as a boundary giver, instead of someone who wants us to live in freedom.

Have you found any conventional or creative tactics that support your well-being in this area?

Sometimes I set an intention to try to navigate my relationship with technology a little differently. And usually it’s a subset of it, not just technology in general. I do think we have to define that. Are we talking about social media? Or do I want to address my email relationship and how I interact with email? Do I want to address how much streaming I’m watching or what kinds of streaming I’m watching? Define the thing, not just technology broadly.

I set an intention for two to six weeks to try a new practice. I’ve done this in very different ways, but currently I took Facebook off my phone and I check it only on my computer. It just takes another step to get to it, but there’s less scrolling in my life, as well as very specific interactions.

Another example would be, I had some problems online with spaces that did not feel encouraging … so I had to decide how to limit what I saw in those discouraging spaces or limit my response to them. I decided to try to limit how much I saw it. What you put in matters, just like it’s a nutrient for our bodies—is this nutritional or not? And so, I unfollowed some accounts.

I love the Hide feature on different social media or the Out-of-Office feature on your email. I think it is a very helpful way to just practice a boundary and see that it’s something that’s life-giving to you.

That’s really what we’re looking for, I think. For mental and spiritual health with technology: is it life-giving or is it life-draining? I just recently learned that from Rebekah Freed on a retreat I was on with some directors of Christian education. Just being honest, some things will drain us. We will have that weariness in certain parts of our job, certain parts of our relationships. However, when we can label whether it’s draining or life-giving, then we can begin to navigate it a little bit more.

How do you navigate this as a family?

I notice in our culture, and maybe it’s because I’m a mom, but this is where we hold some of the most judgment of how people interact with technology—how we raise our children with technology. I think we have to be extra cautious. Rigidity means shame in our mental health. That’s the way shame is transmitted in our mental health: through very rigid rules.

We want to, I believe, be as flexible as possible in areas of parenting while offering boundaries that are helpful for our children. So, for us, we live in a lot of flexibility and, again, we try an intention for like a two- to six-week period and see how it works. If it sticks, we keep it for a while.

We are always willing to reassess in our family and I think that’s how I’ve seen us move to the most health. Being willing to reassess, open the conversation. We do not set technology intentions without conversations with our children.  

That’s the other thing I would say is a huge piece of this: conversing with yourself internally, conversing with the relationships in your life and in family life. How are we going to navigate this together, and what are everyone’s concerns? What do you see that is really helpful and healthy that we need to address and where do you see places of unhealth?

Is there anything else you’d like to share? 

When we say technology, I think a lot of times we mean digital technology and that is its own unique, awesome gift in our time and place. That’s what we’ve been given to wrestle with and figure out. When we wrestle with changes that are given to us in our time and place, we can also rest in an unchanging God.

I think being able to enter the wrestling of whatever technology’s going to look like in our life but also knowing that God Himself is unchanging will set us at a really good place for being able to figure out the kind of interactions we want and what is healthy for our mental and spiritual health. 

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