Just the other day I had to wait for two of my children to complete a music exam. The hallways of the conservatory were lined with parents and siblings waiting. I was struck by the unsettling picture of all the siblings of all ages looking at phones or devices. Not one child was reading a book or looking around. When my children pulled their books out to read as they waited, I felt like we were characters from another era who were dropped down into the future.
My last post was about meditation and the need for less media to enable a life of the mind. This one is a deeper call to action. During Lent is a great time to evaluate our lives and change habits to make sure that we are living in what is most Real.
As we walk through Lent, thinking on the unfolding life of Christ, who came in the flesh, I am reminded of the call to all of us to live as Jesus did--where we are, in the flesh. All the devices in our lives require some kind of absence to function. Television, Telephone (prefix, "tele," meaning at a distance) They transport us to another place or another person that is not physically present. Sometimes this is a gift, but it should not be a way of life. It is almost impossible now for people to be separated from their devices, which sadly and strangely, make them always a little "at a distance," less present to where they are physically in any given moment.
The alarming rate at which this change to constant mediation is coming over our children should disturb us. Concerns are for young children as well as for teens.
Sociologists are concerned that this is affecting basic attachment in children--attachment, which is the foundation stone to all other relationships and to an inner well being that protects from addictions and mental dysfunction. They are attaching to devices, not people.
It is so easy to hand young children phones to keep them quiet. It is the natural course of events now to buy a child his own phone. This is disconnecting children from the moment, from the people around them, and from their own thoughts. I watched a mom at the chiropractor's office hand her three year old daughter, who was happily looking around and chatting with her mother, a phone so she could watch scenes from the movie, "Frozen." Children have begun to expect constant entertainment and amusement. No wonder they have little capacity to sit still, listen, or read a difficult book, much less navigate a conversation about ideas or simply follow the train of their own thoughts.
Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple and so much other technology, severely limited his children's access to technology. He understood the effects it has on their brain development and on their creativity. His own children hadn't even used the iPad. Many Hi-tech Silicone Valley CEO's are low-tech parents. They know that to do all the inventive, creative work they have done, they could not have spent their childhood on devices. See the link to the New York Times article about this: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/11/fashion/steve-jobs-apple-was-a-low-tech-parent.html?_r=0
Children's exposure to technology affects their brain development. Executive function, impulse control, critical thinking, creativity, all of these require active imaginative play and dialogue with others.
One of the deepest concerns for researchers is the rise of addictive behavior in children that could be a result of structure, chemistry, and function changes in the brain due to early exposure to technology. The "Learning Paradox" is the term being used for the educational fact that early exposure to technology (which is often done under the misguided idea that in a technological age, children must use it to be successful in a technological world) is not helping children learn. In actuality, children will do much better in learning if they do not use technology in the early years.
This is not a new diatribe. The research is available, and I encourage every parent to do the reading.
The form itself is a problem--connecting with devices. But the access to content is another problem. Having access to the internet at all times is an unmanageable temptation for adults, even more so for children. As one high school guidance counselor said to the parents in a meeting, "I hope you understand that when you give your boys smartphones, they are looking at pornography. It is accessible to them at all times." And now with Snapchat, sexting is becoming rampant among teenagers, which is the exchange of pornographic photos of themselves.
So what is to be done? Something radical must be done. Parents have to believe that the health of their children is more important to them than their children keeping up with the culture. If more and more parents stood up and said, "Sorry, you can't have a smartphone," or, "Sorry, you can't see that movie," children would have a growing community of "non-users" and wouldn't feel so marginalized. But parents are afraid to lose their children if they say, "No." We should be afraid to lose our children if we don't learn to say, "No."
I have sat with my teenagers when they are almost in tears because they feel they are the only one of their friends who has not seen a particular movie. We have had to say to them, "We are not raising you to be comfortable in this world. You should feel a certain level of discomfort because you should be different."
Do not be afraid to re-set boundaries that may have slipped. You can cast a new vision for your children and institute new limits. Make it a family mission to work together and help one another with this.
Here are some ideas for parents (If Steve Jobs and other creative CEO's can do this, so can we!):
1. Let's put away our own phones and devices in the evening when at home with our children. We are the example. If we can't live without it, they'll think they can't either.
2. Let's be honest and confront the deep fear in all of us that we will be left out if we are not in on every thread of chat and text. Should this fear motivate our choices of how we spend our time, and is there something more valuable that we give up if we are living in a constant frenzy of tele-communication?
3. Consider not allowing your children to have access to phones or any other devices in the evening, including computers, unless it is for school work. This encourages communication with one another and reading. One of my friends whose children are in the public school do not have phones but they have tablets they can check at the end of the day after all their school work is done. These tablets are kept in a common drawer for everyone. They have managed to preserve a wonderful wholesomeness in their children and a proper investment of their time in reading and learning skills they will use the rest of their lives.
4. Do not allow young children to use devices for entertainment when you are out and about. They can be in a grocery cart and do what children have done for years--irritate their parents--but also learn what a "sale" means, what bread we buy, why we choose this cheese; they can count gray tiles on the floor, and ask you endless questions (BTW, this is VERY important). I can walk into our small grocery store and send all my kids, including my 5 year old out to get items on our list in the store, and they know exactly what to get and where it is in the store. We need to be casting the vision for our children of the reward of engagement with the community of family and beyond that requires their contribution and hard work, instead of creating an expectation that for something to require their attention it must be entertaining.
5. Choose to take books with you for meaningful activity when waiting. But if you get caught up without them, play word games, tell stories, or simply talk to one another. Use audio books or good music in the car.
6. Resist giving your children smartphones. There is absolutely no need to do this except to be "in." A dumb phone is sufficient for texting when they need it. And set limits on when they can use it.
7. Don't accrue new devices or add apps unless it is absolutely necessary for school work. Teens have to check so many apps and devices all day (Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest), and when they are not doing this, they are watching movies or playing video games. The most impressionable time of our children's lives is open access to anyone who has no real love for them or investment in their future.
8. Try a family fast from all media, including movies, T.V., video games, phones, computers and devices. Use ONLY what is necessary for school or work. We cannot ask Jesus to come into our world and our regular lives if we ourselves are not in our lives. It requires us FIRST to have a private inner life that is not at all public, a quiet place for thoughts and musings that are not posted to the world. It also makes us be fully present to the moment and the people in that moment and give them priority.
9. Have an intentional conversation in the car or at the table about current events or a report from a missionary or an idea or a book that someone is reading, and insist that everyone stay focused on the topic at hand. Sometimes we will ask at dinner for each one to go around and share something he or she thought about or learned that day. We have to train our children to think and converse. Encourage your children to sit in on adult conversation.
10. Have your teens host a social evening that does not include any kind of media. Have them require that all leave their phones in a basket at the door. Believe it or not, this takes great courage, but yields great results. You may find that kids don't know what to do without devices. So have a plan. Try to plan parties for younger children that does not involve watching movies or playing video games.
11. Pray for discernment and ask for God to reveal to you how to fight this battle in your home, recognizing that it is a spiritual battle. Be willing to do whatever God shows you, no matter what you think the fallout may be. Ask God to help you cast a vision for your children of a life lived in the present with meaning that requires reflection, attention, dialogue, and true connection with those beside us.
I don't want to give the impression that I have won this battle. I fight it everyday. I do think that the battle can be made easier simply by refusing to have certain devices in your home. I am glad I have not had to fight the battle of video games or cable TV. We have never had them. Our children don't have phones or iPads; when they drive they get a dumb phone.
In spite of all of this boundary and limitation, we have to be constantly on our guard. It is movies, YouTubes, the computer access to so many things, the parents' phones that can be used, etc., etc. We make mistakes in our exhaustion and realize we have to renew boundaries sometimes. But over all, even with some push back and the constant desire for more media among our children, our older children thank us now, as they see the difference it has made in their lives. We reap the benefits of these decisions everyday.
I feel battle weary trying to remain vigilant. It is very hard. This is a battle for our children's minds and imaginations. This is a fight for who they will become. "Do not grow weary in doing good; in due season, you will reap a harvest if you do not give up."