[these are loosely joined reflections on some ‘temptations of new media’ that I wrote about last Lent. I decided to post them now after I happened on an article that seemed to offer a perfect coda]
Today the modern media, which are an essential part of life for young people in particular, can be both a help and a hindrance to communication in and between families. The media can be a hindrance if they become a way to avoid listening to others, to evade physical contact, to fill up every moment of silence and rest, so that we forget that silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist. — Pope Francis
I think I can speak for most parents with younger children when I say that one of the greatest struggles these days is how to manage — and teach them to manage — their use of digital technologies and new (especially social) media. Just a very few thoughts on this today.
It’s ubiquitous, what my wife and I call the “screen face.” That blank zombie-like stare, bathed in a dim glow, that eloquently captures the existential state of a child (or adult) caught in the act of tuning out their immediate surroundings in order to enter into a virtual world mediated through silicon chips and LED screens. More and more studies are uncovering the deleterious effects the over-use of screen time can have, including the rewiring of brains in a manner that inverts virtual and real worlds or that produces effects in the brain similar to heroine addiction. Yes, of course, immense good can be accomplished through the medium of screens. This blog I am typing right now betrays too harsh of a protest. And, as Pope Benedict said, “Do not be afraid of new technologies!” I’m presupposing that. But then there’s an insidiously addictive, dissociating effect that over-exposure to phones, laptops and tablets can produce that causes Patti and me — and so many others we know — terrible parenting anxiety.
What to do? When I am asked that, I say that we’re figuring it out with every other parent who has had this challenge thrust upon them from every direction, including school. I will share a very few, mostly general, musings. And all personal examples I use first received permission for anonymous sharing from the main characters.
First, parents must themselves model healthy, balanced, disciplined habits of technology use. What I call techno-asceticism (asceticism refers to habits of discipline that help one achieve self-mastery in pursuit of excellence). Your words mean nothing at all if you are abusing your own rules, or worse, if you have no rules at all and leave technology use to whim. And I don’t mean abusing only when children are around you, watching you, but always, because in the spiritual world every action, even the most secret and interior one, affects all; and especially affects those entrusted to your care. In the realm of the spirit there is no such thing as a purely private sin or vice, as the “butterfly effect” obtains in that unseen realm 24/7. As Fr. Tom Hopko often said, “One secret lustful or hateful thought poisons the whole universe. That’s why we confess those dark secrets aloud in the light of Confession. But just the same, every virtuous act perfumes the world.”
Limits, limits, limits. Strong and smart limits, which include time-use, space limits (e.g. never a phone used at a meal) or content limits with age-appropriate parental supervision & the use of good filters. Our household motto: never never ever allow your child to use devices after bedtime. Sleep should be a screen-free time zone. I know a parent who fairly recently told me that she did not feel she could ever take the phone away from her teenage daughter, even at night, because she feared her daughter would resent her and shut down. But as a result, she said, her daughter is continuously sleep deprived and lost her faith by becoming deeply involved (at night) in a goth-atheist reddit community. I asked her, “What first prevented you from taking the phone away at night?” She described to me her daughter’s reaction when she first took the phone away from her one night. She said, “She screamed and threatened to kill herself. It really terrified me because she seemed to act like a drug addict being deprived of a hit. I felt paralyzed and just gave in because I was afraid of facing those threats, or what was beneath them. I regret it now. I feel guilty about it. But I feel it’s too late.” I said, “It’s never too late.”
As a family we have, for the last 9 or 10 years, practiced “Screen-Free Sundays.” That means extremely restricted use of all screens, limited to communication necessity, family movies, sports on TV. But because negation itself is not sufficient to cultivate character and joy, we work hard to make Sunday a creative, fun, meaningful day with interactive activities like family Mass, cooking, eating out (rarely), board games, feeding the homeless at a local shelter, outdoor activities, zoo, fishing, walking, biking, drawing, painting, visiting with friends. And all homework that requires computers must be completed by Saturday evening, which teaches time management and advance planning.
Once every 4 months or so we have Sunday Mass in our home, inviting our children’s friends and various other people to join us for an afternoon of food, fellowship, secular and sacred music ending with the celebration of Mass on our dining room table. We invite different priests each time to come and share their vocation story and offer some catechesis. We are so grateful for these priests’ generous gift of time and faith to do this!
I have to say with great gusto that the whole screen-free thing is a liberating practice, and my wife is the genius behind it.
Face to face relating with people and things, we insist to our children unto irritation, always remains the Queen, while virtual relating with people and things through screens remains the Queen’s Handmaiden. The temptation is immense to drift off into an online fantasy world to escape immediate life commitments and relationships. Even if it’s called FaceTime or Facebook, it’s not the same as the faces of flesh and blood.
Sacraments are all about “real” presence, about encountering God through the material world and flesh-and-blood neighbors. It’s why Sacraments can never be done through the Ethernet or the Internet. Or why Mass on TV, which does offer enormous benefits for the home-bound, can never equal Mass in person. Spiritual Communion, though marvelously efficacious, always begs for consummation in bodily ingestion of the Flesh and Blood of God. Icons, which allow us to see into the Age to Come through a “mirror dimly,” always lead us toward a face to face and embodied encounter with the Realities they mediate. Otherwise they become idols and illusions, keeping us at a safe distance from Christ and His Mystical Body.
Living at the speed of life. Digital technology too easily gives us the false impression that life, dislikes or boredom can be clicked or swiped away, and that only interesting, entertaining and pleasurable things that I like are worth engaging and hold my attention. This can quickly become a whole worldview. This digital-culture A.D.D. makes it difficult to live life at its real pace, which is an uneven pace. A culture of swipe also makes it really tough to love the people we’re stuck with, people who take time and patience and sustained attention to love. Digital A.D.D. can make it agonizing to listen, in un-skippable silence, to a slowly revolving world that only gradually yields its deep secrets to those who wait long and listen closely.
A college student once asked me to give him spiritual counsel. We met several times and I quickly discerned he was a digital media junkie. So I asked him to spend 10 minutes every morning in total silence, repeating the Jesus prayer. When I met with him the next month and asked him how it went, he said: “Torture. I hated every moment of it. I’d rather have my eyes plucked out.”
Suffering life’s coming at each moment is essential to being human, and our culture of escape, of entertainment-on-demand, of binge-watching, of deletion and x-ing out or scrolling down is no friend to the real work of living, loving, working and growing in wisdom, charity, heroism and faithfulness amid the often droning dull daily duties that are the substance of lasting joy and penetrating sanctity.
One dad I know at our parish told me that one of his ‘tweenage’ sons once said to him, while he was in the middle of trying to explain to his son a consequence he was imposing, “Man I wish I could x you out.” Well, let’s just say that the next month for that child was 100% screen free, and the child had to work out a plan with his teachers of how to do his homework without a computer. #dadpower
Okay, I’ll just stop here and end with (1) an excerpt from an article last week in the Times-Picayune by Laura A. Jayne and (2) a cool video on this topic:
Parents use the devices to keep children entertained during errands and long car rides. OK, whatever. But now they hand the phone over to a child at home so they can make dinner without listening to the kid whine. Listening to your child whine is a time-honored part of parenting. It makes you glad they (you hope) eventually move out on their own. And now children are playing electronic games at parades. We have to decide something is wrong with just turning over a smart phone to a child any time he or she wants it.
I teach at Loyola University, and it can be a challenge getting students to listen in class and ignore their phones. And we are fascinating here! (As fun as Nyx!) So it’s no surprise that researchers also have found that high use of mobile devices is linked to anxiety in college students. Anxiety to stay on top of things. Anxiety that they are missing out. Anxiety when the phone is lost or broken. I see it. We know our kids are using phones too often for too much – but while we complain about the usage of our teenagers, we are handing the phones over to our toddlers. By the time they come to college, the phone is a security device.
Do we want to be a nation of anxiety-ridden adults incapable of enjoying the world around us? No, we do not. So, take the smart phone away from your kid. Relish the boredom.