Of all the challenges that come along with parenting, navigating use of technology is among the most difficult for me. Parenting in our technological age feels like a big experiment. As parents, we are held responsible to “train up our in the way should go” (Proverbs 22:6). But, how do we do that when it comes to technology? If ever we need discernment, it is here.
In this article, I use the term “technology” to refer primarily to devices with screens—computers, smartphones, tablets, television, and the like. In his book The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch describes technology as being “easy everywhere.”1 It is ubiquitous, and using it requires little effort on our part. In some ways, our devices are like candy or junk food—everywhere, easy to obtain, and offering a short-term reward of distraction and stimulation. But as with candy and junk food, too much has negative impacts in both the short-term and the long-term.
We have all heard statistics or warnings about digital addictions. Glowing screens offer a seemingly irresistible draw. How, then, can we protect our kids from becoming dependent on them?
Certainly not all technology use is the same. The book The Learning Habit distinguishes three categories of media: media consumption, media communication, and media creation.2 Media consumption is basically passive. Media communication (ex. e-mail, texting, social media) involves interaction with other people, but of a very different sort than in-person communication. Media creation requires work and creativity.
My family uses media in all these ways. My kids love playing online video games. We often interact with far-away family members with texts, e-mails, and video calls. Some of my kids’ schoolwork is done on the computer and on iPods. We listen to lots of audiobooks. One son is learning how to write computer programs. As a family, we love and appreciate technology! But, too much technology—even in the form of digital creation—can be problematic.
God made humans to be creative and connected. He made it so that we grow and thrive when we are challenged, when we interact with others, when we experience our environment with all five senses—sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.
Electronic devices, especially handheld ones, tend to encourage consumption instead of creativity. They often isolate instead of fostering connection; social media in particular can leave us feeling insecure, inadequate, and even depressed. In general, devices tend to promote passivity and laziness, rather than discipline. On this last point, Crouch writes, “Because technology is devoted primarily to making our lives easier, it discourages us from disciplines, especially ones that involve disentangling ourselves from technology itself.”3 The disciplines of which he writes, including spiritual disciplines, are meant to transform us and make us more like Christ.
I think a lot about the impacts of technology. However careful I am to filter and supervise internet content, my children have already been (and will continue to be) exposed to unsavory content online. I recognize the physical effects of too much screen time—for example, poor sleep resulting from constant notifications and from backlit screens that convince our bodies it is daytime all the time. I’ve seen emotional impacts of extended use of devices, such as passivity and a lessened ability to both connect with people face-to-face and to read the nuances of nonverbal communication in body language. I know the mental toll of too much technology, including a shorter attention span, anxiety, and addiction—and evidence exists that our brains’ wiring actually changes over time with technology use.4
As humans, we experience the world in many interconnected ways. All of them are important to how we live before God and with others. After all, the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Anything that diminishes our ability to love God in one of these dimensions lessens the faithfulness of our response to Him.
In all of this, I see several implications for parents:
- Families need to talk about what healthy technology use looks like. I sometimes feel like discussion about Big Topics needs a Big Conversation—however, this is not necessarily true. Rather, Big Topics might require smaller, ongoing conversations as we go about our day. When I hear a startling statistic about technology use, I might bring it up for discussion at the supper table. A child’s question about why he or she can’t have extended screen time is opportunity for discussion.
- Talk is not enough; parents need to model healthy technology use. This can be the real kicker when parents are often as guilty of technology addiction as children are. (I know I feel more than a twinge of guilt when I look up from my own screen and tell my son to get off his tablet.) As difficult as it is, parents need to set an example.
- Because we also struggle to use technology in a healthy way, parents need to set ground rules, for ourselves as well as for our children. None of us—whether child or adult—has enough willpower to convince ourselves (often dozens of times a day) to put down the phone or turn off the screen. But, we can make decisions that over time will turn into habits. It is the parents’ job to set limits in the home. As with most rules and regulations, setting limits can be difficult to implement at first. However, in my experience, the result is much less conflict and nagging.
My family has decided to set limits that have proved helpful for us, even though we sometimes chafe at them. For example:
- We limit what comes into our home by using a service that filters internet content and blocks pornography and other offensive materials.5
- We turn our internet off at night. Once the power bar stops glowing, no more decisions need be made; there will be no more notifications, and no temptation to check e-mail or social media just once more before bed.
- We leave the internet off for much of Sunday, to give ourselves a “screen-free Sabbath.”
- We put devices away while eating meals together.
- Devices are kept on the main floor and are not brought into bedrooms.
- The kids set timers to limit their online game time.
As I think about technology use and my responsibility as a parent, several helpful books also come to mind.
First, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place, by Andy Crouch. In this book, Crouch summarizes research on technology use done by the Barna Group. He also outlines 10 Commitments to consider making as a family, in order to put technology in its proper place of helping make us better people.
Crouch describes the first three Commitments as foundational. First, he suggests that families commit to choosing character by cultivating wisdom and courage. Wisdom is much more than information: it involves understanding (which Crouch describes as “knowing, in a tremendously complex world, what the right thing to do is—what will be most honoring of our Creator and our fellow creatures”).6 Courage includes “the habits of character that allow us to act courageously in the face of difficulty.”7 We can best learn and live wisdom and courage with others—people who know us, love us, and urge us to grow. Second, Crouch recommends that we arrange our homes so that we are led to “create more than we consume.” When you enter your home, do you see machines and screens first, or do you see objects that inspire creativity, such as art supplies, books, musical instruments, and tools for cooking? How could you rearrange your home to prioritize the latter? Third, Crouch suggests that we structure our time by consciously choosing to turn off and put down screens for regular and consistent periods of time (one way to set limits that can keep technology use in check).
Second, Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier and More Secure Kids, by Kim John Payne. Though not written from a Christian perspective, this book is full of wonderful insights, and is especially helpful for parents of younger children. About limiting screens, Payne says, “It is a choice for engagement (with people, and the three-dimensional world) over stimulation, and activity over passivity, especially while kids are young.”8 He then adds, “Simplifying screens and the use of media takes creativity and commitment. But then again, so does everything involved in being a family.” Payne also suggests that parents limit their own media exposure, to reduce anxiety—their own and that of their children, since children pick up on their parents’ fears and worries. He says, “We need to be more than just our desire to protect… We need to live with confidence, to parent with a sense of strength and openness, and perhaps most of all, a sense of humor.”9 I love that, because I do not want my approach to technology (or other topics related to parenting) to be defensive or prompted by fear. Rather, I want to live out of my conviction that a life lived in person has more to offer than a life lived in front of a screen.
Finally, iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know about Selfies, Sexting, Gaming, and Growing Up, by Janell Burley Hoffmann. I have not yet read this entire book, but I love Hoffmann’s example of a contract between parents and children, which makes explicit the expectations around use of a smartphone or device. My oldest son is on the verge of getting a phone, so I have been revisiting this idea a lot lately.
Because technology use is an area about which we are all learning, I’m interested to know: Are you concerned about your children’s use of technology? What has worked for your family when it comes to technology? What do you struggle with as a family concerning technology use?
The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch, Part 1 Chapter 1: Choosing Character ↩
The Tech-Wise Family ↩
The Tech-Wise Family, Part 1 Chapter 1 ↩
The Tech-Wise Family, Part 1 Chapter 2 ↩
Simplicity Parenting, pp. 174, 175 ↩
Ibid, p. 181 ↩