My husband and I are hardliners when it comes to kids and tech. Granted, our twin eldests are only four, so you might say we haven’t been at it long enough to claim victory here—and fair enough. Even if teenage demands for a smartphone are the tech battle royale of modern parenting, getting through the toddler years without screens is no small skirmish.
I wouldn’t say strictly curtailing screen time for our kids has been easy. I’ve felt the allure of digital entertainment for our children many, many times. When you’ve got two screaming infants on your hands, the prospect of multiple consecutive minutes without crying—bought by a few replays of “Baby Shark” on YouTube—can look awfully like the Promised Land, glittering there across the Jordan.
But avoiding screen time has been comparatively easy for me because our family is fortunate in many ways. My husband and I both work from home, have semi-flexible schedules, and can afford full-time childcare. I can hold out against resorting to a screen to afford me a moment of blessed peace because I have many such moments, like this one—where I’m able to write alone, in my office, in a quiet house.
That’s not the norm for parents of young children, especially for those with more practical constraints than I have: single parenthood, a long commute, a lower income, disability or persistent illness in the family, unreliable or inadequate or unaffordable childcare, less help from nearby family and friends, or less tangible support from local institutions like church and school.
And that reality makes me worry about how we’re communicating the emerging consensus that too much tech use is bad for kids—and particularly how we’re communicating it at church.
On the one hand, it’s a good thing that American society generally—and Christians specifically—are realizing just how negative the excessive smart phone, social media, and other screen use can be on our mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
I’m thankful for the work of people like social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, his colleague Jean Twenge, and Christian authors, including Alan Noble and Andy Crouch, who helped burst our naive optimism about networks like Facebook and our digital attention habits more broadly.
I’m glad it’s increasingly understood that our tech and media habits have formative effects, even competing with Scripture and trusted pastors as discipling influences in our lives. I’m thrilled that it’s ever more conventional wisdom to recommend, as I’ve done at length, putting limits on our tech use and that of our children and building good digital habits so intellectual virtues have room to grow.
But on the other hand, I’ve “been entrusted with much,” so it’s right that “much more will be asked” of me here (Luke 12:48). What about families with less—who can’t get through the toddler years without screens?
I grew up in just such a family. My mom was a single mother, and when I was little, she would sometimes plop me in front of the television so she could exercise. I loved it, of course, plowing through episodes of vintage Looney Toons or enjoying the gentle patter of Mr. Rogers. I don’t do the same thing with my kids when I go running, but that’s because I don’t have to: My husband can hold down the fort. My mom never had that option, because my dad wasn’t there.
Or here’s a more contemporary example from a friend of mine, Austin, who’s a youth ministry worker in Texas.
For several years, Austin told me, his church was recommending Crouch’s rightfully popular book, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place, to families of teenagers who participated in the youth group.
But for a subset of those families, whom he described as “mostly working-class,” “with a handful of single parents in the mix,” Crouch’s suggestions simply were not viable the way they were for the congregation’s “fairly educated, mostly white-collar families in stable living situations.”
“Many of the solutions in Tech-Wise Family assume a stable nuclear family with some degree of education, disposable income, and access to free or low-cost public attractions,” Austin said in our conversation over email. But outside “some public parks, there’s little to do” in his town “that’s cheap or free,” and “many of the families we were working with had some degree of instability with little disposable income and/or lower education levels.”
Ultimately, the “handful of families who took our recommendation to read the book quickly put it down,” Austin said, “because they realized it wasn’t written for them and their lives.” They couldn’t take much of Crouch’s advice even if they tried.
The first time Austin told me this story, I was mortified to realize how oblivious I’d been to this class element when reading and recommending Tech-Wise Family myself. (Worse, I was oblivious even after reading and agreeing with multiple articles noting that limited screen time has become a “social signifier” for middle- and upper-class parents like me.)
For instance, Crouch has a chapter about arranging your home in a way that’s conducive to good habits, which is wonderful advice—if you have the space. “Move the TV to a less central location” than the living room, he suggests. It’s a great idea, and I’ve done it. It’s possible for me because we live in Pittsburgh, where post-industrial population slump means rambling old houses are quite affordable, so we put the TV in a spare bedroom.
But how many people have a spare bedroom? How many have any “less central location” that could house a TV?
Austin wasn’t so oblivious, though, because of his previous career as a pest control technician, largely in low-income neighborhoods. Around the time he quit that job, he said, he was reading a book about the attention economy, which included a brief aside on how the author, in Austin’s paraphrase, “didn’t want her solutions to take away an iPad from a single mother living in a dingy apartment, when that iPad may be the only valuable thing she has for work, school, and play.”
“As someone who had regularly intruded into the apartments of single mothers and other families whose most valuable possession was their TV, gaming console, smartphone, iPad, or PC,” Austin said, “that comment hit me like a ton of bricks.”
It’s not that the deleterious effects of screen time don’t matter in those circumstances—or that the youth group families who abandoned the Tech-Wise approach don’t need discipleship around tech use, Austin reflected. It’s that the discipleship must account for their circumstances, some of which may be unalterable.
Since we talked, I’ve tried to keep Austin’s youth group families in mind when writing about digital habits and virtues, though I’m not sure how well I’ve done. As Austin observed, “those insights land differently if the advice is asymmetrical”—that is, if it’s coming from someone with the privileged means to fight these battles and going to someone without those same resources. And some asymmetry (or, at least, some lack of accommodation) might be unavoidable when the advice is coming from a journalist like me, writing to people whose faces I cannot see and whose lives I cannot know.
But the same is not true of the local church. Pastors and ministry workers, like Austin, can give advice informed by the specific needs and constraints of the people they know and love. They can disciple not “teens with smartphones” in general, but this teenager with these habits and that home life. They can take care to heed Jesus’s warning, in Matthew 18:6, not to cause “one of these little ones” to stumble.
Bonnie Kristian is the editorial director of ideas and books at Christianity Today.