I’m a walking contradiction when it comes to technology. I spend far too much time on the internet—some productive, such as paying bills, researching for my work and reading the news, but mostly wasted time on one-too-many funny cat videos—but I’m still using a Nokia E71 mobile phone bought in 2009. (Don’t laugh! It did win Mobile Choice’s phone of the year in 2008, beating the Apple iPhone.)
Technology. We may love to loathe it, blaming it for making us stupid (according to Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows), damaging our children’s brains (writes Dr Liraz Margalit in Psychology Today) and causing us to feel lonelier than ever (as reported by The Guardian), but for most of us, it is still a ubiquitous part of our lives. There is something about those glowing screens that seems to draw the attention of people big and small, like a moth to a glowing bug zapper. The very second the television screen lights up or if I power up my computer, my little crawler is in front of the monitor in a flash, large eyes staring.
So on one hand, I love technology and can’t imagine life without it, but when it comes to raising my child, I take on the technology-disdaining values of the Amish. And according to The Barna Group, a market research firm specialising in studying the religious beliefs and behaviour of Americans, and the intersection of faith and culture, I am not alone (when it comes to struggling, not in wanting to be Amish).
Barna’s latest research reveals technology is the number one reason why parents today believe it is harder than ever to raise teenagers, beating “the world is more dangerous” and “financial factors.” Except I don’t think the problem is limited to teenagers: I have some years to go before Elliott becomes a teenager and I’m already finding it difficult to raise him amidst technology.
Barna’s research on the topic is published in the book The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place, written by Andy Crouch, a cultural commentator, communication strategist and a Christian. And it’s an interesting insight into how other families are trying to cope with raising children in a technological age.
It is helpful because as Crouch admits in a TV interview with Barna, “We’re the first ones who have to deal with [raising children in a technological age]. There is no inherited cultural tradition and [so] we are all just figuring it out as we go along.” So while we may not be able to get a definitive answer as to what is right or wrong, learning how other families deal with technology can perhaps help us to discover our own attitudes and strategies.
“Figuring out the proper place for technology in our particular family and stage of life requires discernment rather than a simple formula,” says Crouch.
At a point in time when I get mild panic attacks the second Elliott lays eyes on a screen with flashing images (Skype calls with Grandma notwithstanding), it is interesting to learn that most parents don’t actually eliminate device usage for their children, but they do limit it (to an average of 4.65 hours a day for children aged four to 17).
What is surprising though is that, according to Barna, “Millennial parents—perhaps because they have younger children or perhaps because they are more likely to be immersed in and therefore experiencing their own angst around electronic usage—are more likely (73 per cent) than Gen-Xer (57 per cent) or Boomer parents (57 per cent) to limit their children’s time on electronic devices.”
In other words, we can’t fight the fact technology exists and we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, but it doesn’t have to consume our lives either. As King Solomon once said, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).
The Bible also says, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). How can we ensure our children aren’t addicted to technology when we ourselves can’t seem to tear ourselves away from our mobile phones?
An alarming seven out of 10 parents say they sleep with their phone next to them, but what is most heartbreaking isn’t the fact we are modelling such behaviour to our children or that they’re equally addicted, it’s that our children would actually rather have us spend time with them than with our phones!
“When we asked kids, ‘What do you most wish was different in your relationship with your parents?,’ their number one answer is, ‘I wish my parents would get off their screens and talk to me,’ ” Crouch revealed.
If there ever is a wake-up call, it is this: That our children want to spend time with us; that for all our complaints that they are addicted to their devices, we can be just as guilty. I think back to all the times when I’ve been on Facebook, browsing through my newsfeed, when little Elliott was crawling around at my feet, and I hang my head in shame. Whatever is more precious than spending time with my baby, who, as everybody warns me, will grow up way too fast?
Heart and soul
Where do we go from here? Technology, as Barna’s research shows, is practically an inseparable part of our lives. But how do we, as The Tech-Wise Family book trailer promises, “Create a home where kids, parents and technology live in harmony”?
Crouch has a couple of suggestions, the first of which was set in place by God when our world was created: the Sabbath—one day a week where we take the time to shift our focus from ourselves, to rest from the busyness of our lives and to simply soak in, worship and contemplate the beauty and wonder of God.
“We were created for a rhythm of work and rest, but our new devices tell us we don’t need to do that anymore. We can work any time anywhere,” says Crouch. “It’s very dangerous as it’s not what God created us for.” Crouch and his family take a technological Sabbath every so often, where they unplug and simply focus on being a family.
Barna’s research also found that we spend the most amount of time as a family in the living room, a place where for many of us, our television set resides. Crouch’s second suggestion is this: “The way you shape the space of your home really matters. All the glowing things, the glowing rectangles, are placed in the very edges of our house. They’re not at the centre of our house. The heart of our home, where we spend the most time as a family, there’s nothing technological visible.” Crouch’s television set is in the basement of his home and the rule he has for his family is that their devices go to bed before they do, and they wake up before they turn their devices on.
It may be a little challenging for me to move my television set to my non-existent basement since I live in a small two-bedroom apartment, but it’s a principle I understand.
“Technology is in its proper place when it helps us bond with the real people we have been given to love,” says Crouch. “Technology is in its proper place when it starts great conversations; when it helps us take care of the fragile bodies we inhabit; when it helps us acquire skills and mastery of domains that are the glory of human culture (sports, music, the arts, cooking, writing, accounting; the list could go on and on). Technology is in its proper place when it helps us cultivate awe for the created world we are part of and responsible for stewarding. Technology is in its proper place only when we use it with intention and care.”
Melody Tan is project manager of Mums at the Table. She lives in Sydney with her husband and son. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished with permission.