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Technology and Education (8) – Parenting

The biggest problem with modern parenting is that far too many parents don’t parent their children.

Adriana Stacey is a psychiatrist who works primarily with high school and college students. In her practice she routinely asks new patients to swipe open their phones and show her how much screen time they’re clocking per day. In a recent article in the Washington Post she said, “I rarely find one that’s under nine hours. So, these teenagers are spending more time on their phone than they are sleeping.” She has found cell phone use so damaging that she will refuse to see patients until they limit their use. Based on these experiences she has determined that she will “never buy a smartphone for any of my children.”

But this isn’t how everyone feels. Many parents feel pressure to let their children do what their peers are doing so that they won’t feel bad or left out. “Part of what makes me uncomfortable with this whole thing is that it just feels like there’s no choice,” says one mother in the same article. “Because everyone feels like the world is just going this way.”

But there are good reasons to prohibit and limit smart phone use in for our children. As Emily Cherkin states in the above cited article, “What really troubles me is that we are giving devices and products and apps that are designed to be addictive to children. And then we’re expecting them to self-regulate and getting upset when they do stupid things.” Indeed, public figures and various experts have argued that social media use is more harmful than smoking and that addiction to it is more difficult to overcome than substance abuse because digital technology is so ubiquitous.  

It is not my purpose here to opine on what types of technology children should use or how many hours they should be allotted. My point is that there need to be parenting norms and that we need to support one another in upholding those norms.

And I know this is difficult. We used to have shared parent norms. It used to be routine for parents to correct neighborhood children and even for parents to correct children they did not know. Sometimes the norms they enforced were good and sometimes they were bad, but this too isn’t the point I want to discuss. Instead, I want to consider how much things have changed. When was the last time you corrected a neighborhood child? When was the last time you corrected a child you did not know? Further, consider the breakdown of our shared parenting norms, especially when it comes to the use of technology: When should a child get his or her first phone? How many hours a week of screen time should a child be allowed? When should a child be able to access social media? And which social media sites should he or she be given access to? Think about how you would answer those questions. Now try to think of four other families that would answer those four basic questions essentially the same way as you do. I can’t do this. What is more, I even doubt that I could find a common basis on which to answer these questions that four families could all agree on. Not only do we as a society not have shared norms,  to a significant extent even people that share the same faith, have children of similar ages, and have a shared approach to marriage and family do not have shared norms.

Because we don’t have assumed and shared parenting norms we as parents have to create norms for our children (and incessantly modify them every minute something changes!) as well as enforce them alone. This is somewhere between difficult and impossible to do well.

So what can we do?

We need to do what we are convinced is best for our children. We simply cannot do things because our children pressure us, because they say they are the only ones(!!!) in their situation, or because we are afraid that they won’t fit in or will feel left out. Over the past decade plus I cannot tell you how many times I have seen parents, against their better judgment, allow their boys to game more than they think wise or allow their daughters to get on Instagram when they are too young. These parents acted against their better judgment in response to pressure from their children, but unbeknownst to them, there were multiple parents holding out. But because each one felt alone, each one thought they were the only one and they got tired and gave in. After the fact, they all regretted it. “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23) The Bible does not give us a clear law on when and how to give technology to our children. That responsibility lies with us and we need act from a place of wisdom and conviction, not fear and pressure.

Second, I think it is healthy for parents to talk with one another about what they do and why they do it. There is a lot we can learn from each other! In oral cultures parents limit what children know by making them leave during conversations; in written cultures it is fairly easy to regulate what books our children read (and books that we don’t want our children to read are often beyond their comprehension). But when information is transmitted via radio and television waves it is much more difficult to limit our children’s access to information—and information received too early or without context can be spiritually, emotionally, and developmentally harmful. We are literally parenting in an unprecedented time and the greater number of wise people that we can walk through this with the better off we and our children will be.

Finally, though we may not all have the same standards we can support and back other parents up in the upholding of their standards. I have said time and again to my children, “I don’t know why they are/are not allowed to watch that movie/listen to that music/have that device, but I am sure their parents have thought it through and made the choice that they think is best for their family. Your mother and I have thought about what is best for you and this is our decision. But even though we think something different we are still going to respect their convictions.”