A Summer to Remember: A Cautionary Tech-Tale for Parents
You’re at the playground with your daughter. Where’s the smartphone? In your hand, of course. You have eyes on your child, and yet a quick check-in on Facebook won’t hurt, right? While you’re at it, you scroll through the emails stacking up. The minutes tick by. Your daughter calls for you now and then. You smile and wave, make sure she’s ok, and then go back to the phone. Just one more text, you think.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, The Dangers of Distracted Parenting, Erika Christakis focuses on the increasing time that not only children but also adults spend on their smartphones. The dangers of excessive screen time for kids is a well-known: young minds are damaged and even re-wired by screens, not just by exposure to violent or immoral content but by the very act of viewing benign images on screens, time not spend conversing with other kids or adults or exploring the world around them. Yet the damage that screens cause to the parent-child relationship is often overlooked.
Christakis notes how the emotionally resonant adult-child cueing system (think: back-and-forth conversation) is interrupted by the quick check-in on Facebook or Instagram. While occasional parental inattention is not catastrophic, continuous distraction is different;”a parent is witha child but communicating through his or her non-engagement that the child is less valuable than an email.” We are all guilty of slavishly obeying these distractions, not just with children but also adults, and yet children are less able to deflect the ill-results.
Two books offer help. In 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, Tony Reinke provides a list of negative impacts, things like “We are addicted to distraction,” “We crave immediate approval,” and “We become harsh to one another.” Far from smartphone-bashing, he recognizes the good that mobile computing has brought us but makes us aware of the subtle and not so subtle ways it impacts us. Why, after all, are you posting that photo of yourself on Facebook? Why must you respond immediately to a text? When you forget your phone, why do you feel like you’re missing an appendage? If you can read nothing else, read the concluding chapter, “Living Smartphone Smart,” for 12 tips on how to gain some control over this runaway tech-train, things like “At night, keep your phone out of the bedroom,” When eating with family members or friends, keep your phone out of sight,” and “Recognize that much of what you respond to quickly can wait.” In the forward, pastor John Piper compares the smartphone to a good mule: Make it serve you. Don’t wind up a slave to it.
For families, Andy Crouch’s short book, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in It’s Proper Place, has a wealth of wisdom and practical advice. He kicks off with ten tech-wise commitments, things like “We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play, and rest together.” Another: “Car time is conversation time.” Or “We show up in person for the big events of life.” Crouch fleshes these principles out in the life of his family. And he admits failure, even abject failure: At the end of each chapter is a “Crouch Family Reality Check” where the “preacher” says how things are really going in his household. It’ll remind us of imperfection of our own homes. It’ll give us hope.
In the end, we don’t want to live unembodied, virtual lives, with reality - relationships, life events, and the world around us - mediated through a screen. We want to be present. Christ showed up in the flesh. He walked in real places and talked with flesh-and-blood people. To dirty, snotty-nosed children, he said, “come.” The lessons: Reality won’t all be pleasant but it will be shockingly yet blessedly real. People matter more than getting things done. Presence is a priority.
This Summer just do it: Put the phone down. Take up life. Have a conversation with your kids. “Waste” time with them. Be fully present in their world. You may just find it a Summer to remember.
Steve West is a Ruling Elder at Peace and the parent, along with Juliana, of two adult children.