Making Room for Deeper Pleasures

Putting Technology in its Proper Place

DAVID SEIBEL

“Who do we want to be as a family, and how does [fill in the blank] form of technology advance us towards that goal?

Andy Crouch, the author of The Tech-Wise Family, offers the above question as an initial step for putting technology in its proper place. This question enables families to determine the primary goal they are pursuing together, and the role technology could play in that pursuit.

          Of course, you could also use this question to assess the value of any potential endeavor: purchasing a dog, finishing the basement, going to Florida, hosting a birthday party, adopting a child, etc. For all these examples, the trade-offs are concrete. If you decide to visit Florida instead of Indiana Beach for spring break, you are trading a good time for a smaller bank account. If your family buys a dog, you gain fun memories and companionship, but you lose uninterrupted sleep and a fur-free home. In these cases, you are well aware of the potential consequences.

          But herein lies the heart of the problem with digital devices: parents are largely unaware of the possible outcomes of letting devices disciple their children. In light of this reality, here are four landmines to avoid with technology – and a high-level strategy to use it well.

AVOIDING THE LANDMINES

#1: Disconnecting from Community

Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, has written the most systematic study about iGen, those children born 1995-2012. She ran the datasets, conducted the interviews, and voiced her concerns in a feature article for the Atlantic titled, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” This article later became the book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

          Twenge’s extensive study includes a few critical observations about this upcoming generation. iGen’ers are the generation most protected by parents. By preference, the teenagers among them are the most self-cloistered. In other words, iGen teens are likely to be homebodies.

          Unfortunately, iGen is also the loneliest generation in America, now more isolated than even the 72-year-old and above demographic. Twenge notes that between 2012-2015, depression rates rose 50% among girls and 21% among boys. The normalcy of depression and loneliness for the next generation ought to encourage parents’ heightened vigilance.

          Combine this information with recent statistics. The average age for children receiving their first smartphone in the U.S. has now hit 10.3 years old. Although technology cannot take the blame for the entirety of iGen’s challenges, its abuse has certainly caused these issues to grow. By using technology without discernment, we have allowed even the youngest children to become dependent on devices and disconnected from others.

“By using technology without discernment, we have allowed even the youngest children to become dependent on devices and disconnected from others.”

#2: Destroying Imagination

According to a 2014 report from JAMA Pediatrics, “Children under 2 spent about 1.32 hours per day in front of screens in 1997. In 2014, the daily amount was 3.05 hours.” This increase in screen time brings up another point. Visual stimulation, while helpful in some cases, can weaken a child’s ability to learn if not used intentionally. Video dependence, or the need for visual stimuli rather than auditory content, is an essential ingredient to destroying the active imagination of a child.

Consider this quote from Douglas Wilson’s book Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning:

“One time, our family was seated around the dinner table, and I was giving my kids the ‘TV-rots-the-brain-talk.’ The example I used was something like this: Suppose I said that Frodo was running down the hillside with a pack of orcs hot after him. How many pictures of this scene were there at the dinner table? The answer was five because five minds were imagining it in five different ways.

Now suppose further that we all saw the same screen in a movie. How many pictures of the incident are there now? Just one. The imagination of the filmmaker may be running riot, but the imagination of the viewers has been limited.”

          We cannot allow visuals to do all the work for children. If you hand your child a crutch when they can walk perfectly fine on their own, you may be doing more harm than good. Consider your family’s goals. Do you desire for your children to learn and grow? If so, train your child to appreciate other mediums of content, rather than relying solely on visual stimuli.

#3: Weakening Critical Thinking

While there is an apparent surplus in screen time and devices today, there is a nationwide famine when it comes to critical thought. For example, consider the laws of video production. Even for educational purposes, they differ drastically from auditory production. Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, describes the three commandments that all informative videos abide by: 1) Thou shalt have no prerequisites. 2) Thou shalt induce no perplexity. 3) Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues of Egypt. In other words, the content comes secondary to the medium. Because of these unspoken rules, the screen has transformed us into a sound bite and GIF culture.

          Authentic learning requires sequence and continuity, building knowledge upon knowledge. But to satisfy today’s market, shows and movies must be able to stand on their own. In addition, creators typically shy away from content that kids might find difficult or unpleasant. As such, many programs designed to educate children function as mere entertainment with the veneer of learning.

          What’s the consequence of all this? Really, it is the spurning of critical thought and reasoned discourse. If your goals for your children involve the ability to think for themselves and to love learning, consider whether their video consumption is conducive to hitting that goal.

“Consider your family’s goals. Do you desire for your children to learn and grow?”

#4: Misordering Priorities

Really, misordered priorities start with the parents’ hearts. Once we as parents can humbly acknowledge our own device abuse, we can turn and help our kids, too. It is difficult to accept, but the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. As Luke 6:40 says, “The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.” We parents may not be worthy of imitation in how we use our free time when it comes to technology. I am the chief of sinners here, and my screen report is evidence to the point.

          Parents also need to be careful about how they talk about technology. Kids can read between the lines. Imagine a mother saying to her son, “If the grades come back up, the headset can go back on.” Although well-intended, this type of comment can present technology as a pleasure worth pursuing, while learning is a necessary evil to be endured.

          To paraphrase Douglas Wilson, we should not confuse between restricting devices as a punishment and restricting devices as a discipline. So instead of rewarding your child with technology, consider rewarding them with evenings spent reading literature together or exploring the biography of a notable historical figure. Such an approach, while initially daunting, boasts long-term benefits for your family’s growth and your children’s learning.

“Authentic learning requires sequence and continuity, not merely sound bites.”

A STRATEGIC SKETCH

The digital age can be exhausting, but it offers unique opportunities for discipleship. Of course, discipleship can only occur in the context of a mission. Thus, parents should set clear goals and priorities for their families. Once you have set these goals, consider designing a strategy to achieve them that incorporates the following two principles.

#1 Digital Discipleship

Technology has not created new sins. It has merely emphasized many. An idolatrous love of technology is sinful, but the same applies to money, music, clothing, etc. After all, there is nothing new under the sun. Parents have always had to compete for the hearts and minds of the next generation.

          So view this whole situation as an opportunity from God for discipleship. Such a perspective will prevent you from becoming a relentless fundamentalist who focuses on the minor issues, as well as a slippery liberal who doesn’t think major issues exist. If you are intentionally teaching your children God’s Word through reading, singing, and catechizing, you are well on your way to proper priorities.

#2 Deliberate Delays

Our devices are not isolated gadgets. With unlimited data and social media, your child can access places you would not let him go and be with people you would not allow him around. I find it concerning that we have given even ten-year-olds the freedom to utilize technology as they please. When putting technology in its proper place in your home, consider setting up intentional delays to its use.

          Here’s how my wife and I created a timeline for introducing our children to technology. On a piece of paper, draw a big box. Label the left corner “age 0” and the right corner “age 18.” Left to right, this now represents your child’s first 18 years with technology.

          Now draw stairs diagonally across the box. These stairs illustrate points at which you’ll introduce new pieces of technology to your child. At an early point, you might introduce a tablet with coloring and educational games. One stair up, you introduce a tablet with instructional videos. Then at some point, you add a family computer to the living room for writing projects. Next, you allow Google searches for research. Perhaps you later introduce Facebook or messenger apps to connect with a few select friends. And so forth.

MAKING ROOM

By implementing a strategy that includes these principles, you can encourage your entire family to use technology responsibly. More importantly, putting technology in its proper place will enable your family to make room for the deeper pleasures of life.

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