In 1948 George Orwell penned his classic novel, 1984, about a futuristic world in which telescreens watch a person’s every move and report it to Big Brother in an attempt to control the masses.
1984 is now a dot in the rearview mirror, but perhaps Orwell wasn’t completely off-base. Only it’s not monitors watching us, but we’re watching monitors. And some would argue the monitors are still in control.
The Constant Battle
As reported by Quartz, widely-respected internet analyst Mary Meeker shared that on average Americans spend nearly eight hours a day with our “faces glued to TVs, computers, smartphones, and tablets.” And if viewing one screen at a time wasn’t enough, the Business Insider found that 88 percent of Americans use a second mobile screen while watching their primary TV screen.
When it comes to digital natives—kids who have grown up on screens—data shows 71 percent of teens use more than one social media platform, 92 percent use the internet daily, and 33 percent use their smartphone apps to communicate with peers.
Facebook turned ten years old last year and has 1.4 billion users. In eight years Twitter has gone from 400,000 daily tweets to 500 million, and Instagram has amassed 300 million followers in just four years. In addition, many tweens and teens have migrated to apps such as Snapchat, Whisper, Vine, Tinder, 9Gag, and Yik Yak.
“It’s a constant battle with my 14-year-old son,” shares Estela Arellano, a working mom of two in Los Angeles, “If I shut off the Xbox he goes straight to his iPad. I feel like it requires constant management, which frustrates us both. It can be a big distraction for him. He rushes through homework so he can get on games or videos, and I worry that there will be negative effects to his development.”
Screen Time Effects
The effects of all that screen time are still being studied with some experts wondering if internet addiction and social media addiction are real conditions akin to gambling, alcohol, or pornography addictions. The American Psychiatric Association affirms that similar to other addictions, inordinate screen time does change brain chemistry—chiefly, in the release of dopamine. In May 2013, the APA added “internet use disorder” to their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders. Other problems that are now being linked to excessive screen time in young people include loss of social skills, impaired cognitive functioning and sleep disruption, escalating exposure to cyberbullying, and depression.
None of this surprises parenting expert Dr. Kathy Koch, founder and president of Celebrate Kids, who has been studying the effects of technology on this generation of digital natives. Her newest book, Screens and Teens, takes a look at some of the lies screen time technology creates and how parents can help their children recognize the truth and find a healthy balance. Koch identifies several lies perpetuated by screen time technology, including I am the center of my own universe; I deserve to be happy all the time; and information is all I need so I don’t need teachers.
Koch is by no means a Luddite, recognizing that screen time technology is firmly woven into the fabric of modern life. It has created amazing educational and entrepreneurial opportunities, but she believes that caution is warranted. “Parents should always be teaching their children to be discerning, to know what is a good use or bad use of their time or if something is true or false. If we don’t do that when our children are young and starting to engage with technology they will get the message that technology is bad, and we lose an opportunity to help them evaluate.”
While adolescents have always gone through a phase of self-absorption and resistance to authority, Koch believes the inherently narcissistic nature of social media has made parenting harder and inhibits maturation. Indeed, in 2013 the Oxford Dictionary word of the year was selfie, due to the explosion of self-images uploaded on social media.
“All teens go through a phase of self-centeredness, but a lot of us think this generation is not going to outgrow this, and it may last into their adult years unless they choose to view themselves and others through a better biblical perspective,” she shares.
Part of that perspective would be to practice the “one another’s” taught in Scripture: “Through love serve one another (Galatians 5:13); “Give preference to one another” (Romans 12:10); “Bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), to name a few. Koch observes, “The ‘one another’s’ are huge because they keep us from the ‘It’s all about me being happy’ mentality that is so dangerous. And certainly the fruit of the spirit—joy, patience, goodness—is important; those kinds of qualities are ones that technology can rip from us.”
One school of thought, Koch says, predicts young people who think they must be continually happy, have unlimited choice, and are their own authority will have difficulty holding down jobs and committing to marriage. The more optimistic perspective is that they will scale back from screen technology after they reach a saturation point and come back to face-to-face communication, realizing it’s the quality of relationships that satisfy their needs for security, identity, belonging, purpose, and competence.
To help them choose the latter path, Koch believes adults themselves must model discernment and restraint when it comes to technology. “Children tell me that if Mom has the phone in her hand or if Dad has it clipped to his belt and it buzzes, they recognize they immediately are going to be second place,” she says. Instead Koch encourages parents to practice the concept of being fully present for their children. That means putting the device down, eye-to-eye contact, and full conversations.
Even children as young as four or five can benefit from this modeling behavior. In fact, the earlier children are modeled and taught boundaries when it comes to screen time the better.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero screen time for children two and under and then a graduated scale for children three and up with an average of no more than two hours a day. Unfortunately, that can feel almost impossible to achieve. Besides hours of entertainment and social media, students do utilize technology for homework and research. Tired parents and single parents may automatically default to the devices as babysitters when they feel overwhelmed.
Arlene Pellicane, popular author and speaker, recognizes that parents often feel ill-equipped to navigate a digital world that exerts a strong pull on their children. In her book Growing Up Social: Raising Relational Children in a Screen-Driven World (co-authored with Gary Chapman), she explores the adverse effects of too much screen time on young children in key areas of skill learning, such as affection, appreciation, attention, anger management, and apology, and she also discusses how parents can find balance.
If not managed, screen time overload, she believes, can create children who aren’t capable of being appreciative because they are used to instant gratification. These children may also not be able to tolerate boredom or may lack the discipline to get through a book. “Intentionality is huge. Do we just mindlessly flip on the TV and waste two hours, or do we look for the shows or videos that are going to teach, educate, and, yes, entertain but in an appropriate way?” she asks.
Pellicane advises parents to set boundaries that are based on a biblical perspective and heed the words of Deuteronomy 6 to teach our children God’s precepts while they are walking and lying down. “If our kids are the average and they are spending seven hours a day on the screen, what is teaching them?” she asks. “They watch a cartoon at breakfast, see a movie at school, ride home and the DVD player is on, they go to a restaurant and a screen is on, and finally they catch a TV show before bed. What is imprinting their hearts? Popular culture! If you look at kids using screens, rarely are they on their Bible app.”
Pellicane encourages parents to take back that time and use it for conversations at breakfast and listening to audio Scripture or books while driving. She also believe families can do practical things like create screen-free days or screen-free times that are rewarded by a visit to a favorite restaurant or outing. Families should also evaluate screen time use: Is it reasonable and needed? Does your family’s use of screen time enhance your love for God or stunt your spiritual growth?
A Whole-Family Transition
But what if parents feel they have really blown it or have never set boundaries? How do they implement changes that aren’t perceived as draconian?
“The first thing we do is have compassion for them and us. We say to our kids—especially our first borns—‘We have allowed you to have too much, too fast, too soon, and we are going to make changes. We aren’t doing this because you are bad but because we have made mistakes. You are so important to us, and we want you back,’” Koch says. “‘For our connection to get healthier, we have to remove some of the technology, at least for a while. I understand why technology is your default. You have been raised with it, you breathe it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s right. We cannot allow this particular rhythm of life to continue any longer.’”
Parents must also be ready to withstand the pushback that will come. They need to know their values, Koch says, in order to handle the inevitable “I hate you, and you don’t love me.” They need to have the strength to put up with that kind of response for a while, recognizing that anger will diminish and the kids will come back.
“I tell parents all the time that if your child says, ‘But everybody has one,’ look them right in the eye and say, ‘That’s a lie. It’s not true and we are not everybody. God has called us to raise you. We are not responsible for what other parents are doing.’” In fact, Koch notes that children have come back and told their parents that they actually like themselves better and feel less stress on the days when they reduce their screen time.
Pellicane urges that changes must be introduced gradually and increased as the family gets used to the new normal. “It’s hard to go from five hours to zero, but you could say we are all going to turn off all our electronics at 10 P.M. once a week, Mom and Dad included. The more they see you buy into it, the more they will do it too. The goal is not to torture your kids but to have meaningful conversations and connection.”
Unplugging from the world requires dedication and even some sacrifice, but the conversations to come and memories yet to be made should motivate you to actively pursue a relationship with your kids by putting down your iPhones and picking up a few rounds of Uno or Monopoly.