"Mom, I'm bored. Can I play on your phone?" My son said this to me as we stood in line, waiting for the doors to open to a sporting event.
I looked at him incredulously, "No. We will only be here a few minutes. You do not need to play a game every time you have a few minutes to spare."
Perhaps it's the story of our times. Our world is increasingly dependent upon and consumed by technology. From the moment we awaken, our time is spent checking emails, sending texts, updating social media, purchasing goods, working, attending school—all on a computer or some technological device. Not only are our lives consumed by technology, but our children's are as well.
For parents, the issue of kids and technology can be troubling. What do we do with technology in an age when we are increasingly more and more dependent upon it? How do we balance our children's use of technology? These are questions I ask myself every day. My own kids use technology in our homeschooling and it has great benefits for them. My oldest is learning computer programming and he's only nine! But I've also seen how my children are increasingly dependent upon technology to entertain them when they're bored, and this concerns me. I worry that my kids are so used to sitting and swiping their fingers in frenzied motions across a screen in imaginary worlds that they aren't able to develop a world in their own imaginations. I am also troubled by the addictive nature of technology. And above all, I am concerned about the spiritual impact of technology on my children's hearts.
Technology's addictive lure
Technology is addictive. I've seen this in myself and in my kids. As parents, we need to be aware of the draw that technology has on our children. We are responsible for their exposure to and participation in the world of apps, social media, search engines, and gaming. The time they spend on the computer and other devices is not harmless and benign; there are consequences. We need to understand the significant impact technology has on the brain so that we can better monitor our children's interaction with it.
Internet addicts have 10 to 20 percent smaller brain areas responsible for speech, memory, motor control, emotion, sensory processing, and other information. This loss is cumulative so the more you use, the more you lose. Digital stress keeps our cortisol levels raging and this excess cortisol can cause obesity, diabetes, heart disease, anxiety, and depression. With Internet Addiction Disorder also comes an increase in ADHD, OCD, and Impulse Control Disorders. It impacts our relationships, and oftentimes, our virtual relationships are superseding our real life relationships, leaving many isolated and depressed. . . . This is how the digital addiction cycle is played out. Every time you get a text, email, tweet or Facebook post, your brain gets a hit of dopamine . . . and just like a gambler you keep looking for the next hit. So, you keep checking your smartphone to see if you will get a hit. It's called intermittent reinforcement and it is fertile soil to produce a digital addiction.
Guard their hearts
In Matthew 22, a man asked Jesus, "Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?" Jesus replied: "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind" (verses 36–37). This same command is in Deuteronomy 6 when the Israelites were charged with teaching their children all that God had commanded them. They were called to instruct their children in the Lord at all times and everywhere. This is our responsibility as well. We are charged with teaching, training, and discipling our kids to know and love God with all their heart, soul, and mind.
The reason we need to be aware of the addictive nature of technology is because it's our job to guard our children's hearts. We want our kids to put Christ first. We want them to grasp the depth of his love for them expressed in the Cross. We want them to live for him alone! But if their lives are consumed by technology, it will take first place in their hearts. More than the negative consequences of changes in the brain, ADHD, or obesity—though these are all critical concerns—our greatest concern about technology use should be helping our kids keep God first place in their hearts.
4 Heart-guarding choices
On a practical level, what does this look like?
1. Monitor time
We need to establish clear rules for how much time our children spend each day using technology. In our home, we have a time limit for "fun time" on devices. We set a timer and when it goes off, they are to turn the device back in to me. It can certainly be tempting for us parents to sit our kids in front of a screen to keep them occupied so we can get something accomplished. But the long-term negative consequences of repeatedly sending our children off to play on a device are ultimately more important than our desire to get something done. Instead of screen time, we can encourage our kids to play, to run outside, and to interact with others. Sometimes it's even a good idea to have completely tech-free days as a family.
2. Monitor content
Children shouldn't have free reign over technological devices, making their own decisions about what they play, what they view, or what they download. It's our job as parents to ensure that our kids aren't viewing or participating in anything that's inappropriate. As a general rule, I don't purchase an app until I've researched it. After all, just because all my children's friends are playing a certain game doesn't mean it's something they should be playing. So read reviews and check ratings. Explore with your kids why they want to play a particular game or visit a particular site. Is it because everyone else is? Discuss heart motivations with them, speaking openly about why certain content is not appropriate or doesn't bring glory to God.
3. Monitor the heart
I know right away when a game or activity is causing problems for my children. How? Because it comes out in their emotional responses. When they won't stop playing after a timer has sounded, or they respond with strong emotions when they're told they can't play for some reason, or when playing a particular game is all they want to do, it's clear that game has become a problem for them. We spend a lot of time talking about the heart and God's place in it. We talk about idols and how easy it is for other things to usurp first place in their hearts. If they have a strong emotional response, we'll talk about how the game is pulling on their heart and we may agree to cut back on how often that particular game is played.
4. Monitor your own example
When kids see their parents on the phone, laptop, tablet, or other device all the time, it sets the tone for the home. If we are always checking email, texting, or participating in social media, how can we expect any different from our children? We need to set an example as parents, demonstrating healthy limits in our own participation with technology and engaging more with our kids rather than a screen.
Technology is here to stay. The once futuristic world of The Jetsons and Star Trek is becoming quite a bit like our everyday reality. But technology does not have to consume us or our children. We can choose to be intentional about monitoring technology use in our children's lives so that their hearts are consumed with God rather than a virtual world behind a screen.
Christina Fox is a homeschooling mom, licensed mental health counselor, and writer. She lives in sunny south Florida with her husband of 16 years and their 2 boys. You can find her sharing her faith journey at www.ToShowThemJesus.com.