On our daughter’s sixth birthday, my wife and I made a big parenting blunder—although, we didn’t know it at the time. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. At the time, we felt like the greatest parents in the world. But we weren’t. Far from it.
My daughter loves to sing. She sings everywhere—in the shower, in her bedroom, in the car. So getting her an iPod for her birthday made sense.
Looking back, we made a mistake. We never considered how this little device could change our little girl. We were unaware of the power of technology to transform its user. And I don’t think we’re alone. My suspicion is, most parents haven’t considered the impact smartphones and screens are having on their kids.
I want to share with you some of the things I’ve learned and offer some practical steps to help our kids navigate the world of screens.
When it comes to technology, there are two temptations to avoid. On the one hand, there are people who think technology is totally neutral. On the other hand, there are people who think technology is totally evil. Both views are mistaken.
Technology isn’t evil. From a biblical perspective, technology is a God-given tool. We know that God is a creator (Gen. 1:1). Since we are created in His image, we display God’s image when we create.
It’s interesting that Jesus is described as a tekton in Scripture. This Greek word is related to the English word “technology.” It means craftsman or artisan. When applied to Jesus, it’s translated “carpenter.”
Technology can be a tool for human flourishing, but human beings in their depravity can use it as a tool for human destruction. We see examples of both in Scripture.
For example, God instructs Noah to build a boat (Gen. 6:13–16). God uses this piece of technology to save the human race. But technology is also used for evil. God warns against making and worshiping idols (Ex. 20:1–4).
Technology isn’t neutral, either. Whether we realize it or not, the technology we use is always communicating something—a worldview. And that worldview will, ultimately, shape who we become.
For example, if you saw that 2020 Super Bowl halftime show on your TV, you were streaming a worldview into your living room. And that worldview—set of beliefs—has the ability to transform our beliefs, values, and behaviors. After all, what we believe will determine what we value, which will determine how we behave, which will determine who we become.
Anyone watching J. Lo and Shakira perform at this year’s Super Bowl halfime show could come to believe that women are sex objects. And if you believe women are sex objects, you will begin to value them as such. Once you begin to value them as sex objects, you will begin treat them as sex objects.
This isn’t complicated. Technology communicates ideas, and ideas have consequences.
Technology is a God-given tool for our good. But it has the power to transform the user—for good or for ill. Just as a microphone has the ability to transform my voice, a smartphone has the ability to transform everything about us—our mind, our relationships, and our identity.
Helping Kids Navigate Screens
So, how do we help our kids use screens well? Here are some suggestions.
First, inoculate your kids.
There are two different extremes we need to avoid. We can’t simply isolate our kids from technology. That isn’t going to work. We can attempt to hold off on using screens as long as possible. But our kids are going to eventually encounter screens. It’s inevitable. If it’s not at your house, it might be at a friend’s house. So, isolation isn’t the answer.
I’m not saying we jump in with both feet. Immersion isn’t the answer either. We can’t just toss our kids into the deep end of the culture and hope they learn to swim. That would be irresponsible parenting.
I think the best approach is inoculation. We gradually introduce technology in a way that supports the health of our kids while warning them about the possible dangers.
Second, model healthy screen use.
We often expect more from our kids than we expect from ourselves. For many of us, our phone is the first thing we look at when we wake up and the last thing we see before going to sleep. If we want our kids to practice healthy screen habits, we need to model healthy screen habits.
For many of us, this is going to be hard because we have bad screen habits. Remember, your kids are looking to you to be an example. Don’t let them down.
Third, create screen-free times and screen-free locations.
When it comes to screens and social media, boundaries are blessings. So here are some boundaries that will help.
First, set aside specific times when screen use is not allowed. For example, you could make Sunday a tech-free day. Instead, go for walks. Play a board game. Build a puzzle. Kids talk when they are busy doing something.
Second, create screen-free locations. For example, the dinner table should be a “no phone zone.” The dinner table is a place where our kids should build relationships with each other and with their parents. Screens at the table rob our children of this.
Here’s a principle to put into practice: Wherever you eat a meal, there should be no devices.
These are just two ways to confront the problem of the “omnipresent screen.” Our kids need time away from screens. Their physical and mental health depends on it.
Fourth, be brave.
We need to be better at standing up against our kids. We are the grown-ups. That means we’re in charge. There are many situations where we don’t ask; we tell.
By the way, this goes for a whole host of decisions. What my girls eat for dinner, whether they go to church, and what they watch on TV aren’t up for debate. It’s not a democracy. Dad and mom know best.
We’ve been socialized by the culture to think it’s normal to give a three-year-old an iPad so she can binge-watch Paw Patrol, or to hand a ten-year-old your smartphone so he can play Fortnite with his friends.
If you start saying “no” to your kids when they ask to use their favorite screen, they aren’t going to be happy. But your job isn’t to keep them happy; it’s to keep them healthy. So, be brave.
Find A Balance
The struggle over when and how to use technology is not easy. It’s also not new. The apostle John wrestled with this same question—albeit with a different technology. He said,
Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete. (2 John 1:12)
John had a dilemma. Should he continue to use technology—paper and ink—or not? Notice John isn’t saying technology is bad. We wouldn’t have the Gospel of John if he had. He seems to be saying there is a time to use technology. And there is a time to put it away. As parents, we need to do our best to find a balance that works best for our kids.