A woman approached me recently at a seminar I was giving in Minneapolis. She was wondering how I dealt with the time I needed to give to my family versus the time I spend in front of my computer. Great question. I admit that many times I know that I should be cleaning, reading a book to my child, or even just trying to be present to my family, but instead, I find myself attached to my keyboard. I have struggled with this issue a lot.
I sometimes feel as though technology has taken over me and the rest of my family. When the 11 month old gets fussy on her brother’s watch, he immediately hands her his phone. She holds it to her ear, slides open the lock, and pushes different buttons to get responding lights and sounds. On any given evening, every family member can be found staring at his own screen. I am on my computer fiddling with my webpage or checking those endless emails. My husband is on his Ipad reading the newspaper and listening to his favorite classical albums. One son is talking or texting to his girlfriend, another is on Facebook, another is playing video games online with his friends, and still a couple more sons are watching Arthur on TV. This is not what I envisioned for my family twenty-five years ago when we brought that first baby home. This is what I was picturing: we’d all be sitting in a family room in front of a fire in the fireplace with some children playing Parcheesi and others reading. I was probably knitting while my dear hubby was reading the paper (well, at least that is the same.)
What has happened to my family? Are we too plugged in? Is this just a symptom of modern times? Or is it a sign of parenting gone soft?
Before drawing any conclusions and taking any drastic measures, I want to take a real look at the situation. I need to ask these two important parenting questions: How does living like this potentially harm my family? And is living like this pleasing to God?
The harm that comes from too much screen time are obvious: less time doing other productive things, potential exposure to violence, profanity, etc., less face time with other people (isolation), and shortened attention spans from instant gratification that screens can provide to name a few about which I am most concerned.
If these results are happening, then we certainly aren’t pleasing God. The easiest solution might be to just get rid of them all. Ban all screens and all technology. There is certainly no harm in that. However, I don’t think that this is realistic for our family. I believe God wants us to be ”in the world, but not of the world,” to use technology but not let it rule us. This is the key for our family. We want to use technology, but not to let it rule us.
How can we do this? Well our family has come up with four ways to use technology but not be ruled by it. By following these 4 rules, we can reduce some of the harmful effects of too much screen time, and at the same time, be pleasing to God.
1) Use technology to help with our relationship to God. There are many ways that we can use technology to help with our relationship to God. For example, during this year of Faith, the Pope has asked us to spend some time reading our Catechism. Now I could just pull it from my shelf, blow off the dust, and begin reading, but that probably wouldn’t happen on a very consistent basis. Instead, I have signed up on Flocknotes.com to Read Through the Catechism in a Year. Everyday a portion of the Catechism comes into my inbox. Most days, I read the passage, reflect, and then go about reading my other emails. I do a similar thing with the Saint of the Day from AmericanCatholic.org. Normally I can never do all 9 days of a novena. Now, I am signed up for PrayMoreNovenas.com and consistently pray for all of the 9 days. All this, and I don’t even own a Smartphone. With apps, there are even more opportunities for easier prayer because now you can pray with your Smartphone wherever you happen to be waiting. On the Subway? Liturgy of the Hours App. At the doctor’s office? A Rosary App. We can even set alarms on our devices to remind us that it is time to pray the Angelus.
Can our children use technology to help with their relationship to God. Sure. Facebook is the primary tool today’s teens use to connect with the world and “express” themselves. I’ve seen a great number of join this “pro-life” cause or other quotes that support a Catholic position. Many youth groups and young adult groups use Facebook and Twitter to announce meetings and events as well as hosting an open forum on the topics they are discussing. Even when a recent viral YouTube denied the idea of an organized church founded by Jesus, many young people responded with videos of their own showing the inconsistency and inaccuracies of the viral video. Pope Benedict has called on young people to use technology to proclaim the faith. These are just some ways that I have seen our family involved in that call. Technology is a big part of the new evangelization.
Can video games and internet sites have content that is evil? Sure, but just as we have always prevented TV shows and movies from coming into our home that don’t meet our standards, so too, has this standard been applied to computer screens and video games. With a house full of boys (and many are young men, now.) Porn is prayed about and preached about consistently in our home. For the most part, the kids have adopted this higher standard as their own and even keep a watch over their younger siblings. I make an effort to know what my kids are playing and watching by simply being interested in what interests them. I don’t play Halo with my son, but I’ve talked with him enough about the video game to know that the bad guys are called, the Covenant. (Why is that?) My son reminds me that at least they aren’t into Assasin’s Creed which has a definite dislike of a hierarchical church. They are really into some of these video games so I listen. I have one son that keeps me up to speed on all things computer. Communicating about technology can be a way to use technology to improve our relationships.
2) Use technology to help us in our relationships to one another. There is a great need for real life, face-to-face relationships between people. We would be a troubled society if all our relationships were based on text messages. Yet, in days of old, relationships were maintained for months, even years, by the simple letter. Perhaps it comes down to the quality of the messages we communicate to one another and not simply the mode of communication. This quality is established with the face-to-face, but can be maintained to a certain extent with communication via technology. Here is a good example. My daughter is 500 miles away at college. We Skype every week. We exchange texts several times a week. I check her Facebook for recent pictures and happenings. I even follow her on Pinterest to see what she’s been cooking and crafting. I have never had such a great relationship with my daughter! In high school, we barely spoke to each other. Sure this has something to do with her maturity and homesickness, but without all this technology our relationship would not be flourishing as well as it is. These modes of communication have helped us to easily share our thoughts and ideas with one another. This is why I let my children have Facebook pages when they get into high school. They share events, pictures, “news”, with their friends. Most are friends that they see in school daily. Some are friends that have moved away. My kids are friends with their cousins who they see only a couple of times a year. By high school age, my kids have a sense of the “good” way to use Facebook—not to get caught up in gossip or a popularity race. Sure they can mess up, but that’s why it’s good to be an acquaintance of your child on Facebook to keep this “good” way in check. Again, older siblings who are friends on their younger siblings’ FaceBook do this best. For us, social networks and email doesn’t replace the face-to-face relationship, it just facilitates it.
3) Use technology to serve us in our daily duties. My primary vocation is wife and mother. This career usually doesn’t bring to mind a lot of technology. We think of diapers, minivans, soccer games, and lots of laundry. Truth be told, I would be lost without my computer. Every schedule, chore, recipe, contact information, etc. is just a click away. All communication about school, clubs, organizations, and even the parish is done with email. I even use electronic sticky notes to keep current to-dos right in front of my face. Perhaps what seems to really take the cake is using my Ipad when I nurse my baby. This may seem extreme, but in the past, I’ve always read a book while nursing the baby. The Ipad works better. Not only can I read my daily Catechism passage, but I also can read various articles and even a novel. With a book, it was often tricky holding the pages open—not so with an Ipad or other electronic reader. I don’t even have to worry about having enough light to read, my Ipad provides its own. I’ve also watched episodes from EWTN on YouTube that I otherwise would have never taken the time to view.
4) Have enough non-screen time alone and together. For us, this is key! Sometimes this actually means time limits. If we don’t turn off the Phineas and Ferb cartoon, our younger boys wouldn’t open a game of Monopoly, shoot arrows in the backyard, or build their Lego models. The younger boys have parental-enforced, strict time limits regarding video games. As our children get older, we begin to let them manage their own time regarding screen time. We oversee and help our children monitor this with indicators like grades in school, time spent with friends, and even books they’ve read (When’s the last time you picked up a book?). For everyone, we insist on turning it off at a certain time in the evening realizing it can affect sleep, so desperately needed by adolescents. It sometimes isn’t just a matter of limiting time. Just as most families try to have “family” time together, we have found this idea even more crucial since we are now competing against not only busy schedules, but also their screens. My husband and I do this together naturally. After we have had our hour in the evening finishing up work or leisurely looking online, we meet together in the family room to talk. Another practice I have adopted for myself is that I never take the Ipad to bed. Bedtime is peaceful downtime. Mentally I need that break from the cyber, electronic world. And it allows for better pillow talk. For our “family”, non-screen time, we really work hard to have relaxed dinners together as often as possible. We also have time together on Sundays when we hike, bike, go to museums, or visit family. If the kids know about these outings in advance, they are more likely to go along with little or no resistance. They come to expect them every Sunday. During Lent and Advent we pick additional time together that can involve adoration or service activities. We have found that we need to be purposeful about spending time together and to look for opportunities to do this.
For now, I am at peace with these terms. I don’t want to be a lazy parent or on the other hand, be too scrupulous. With God’s grace I hope I can stay in that balance between the two. But like all other aspects of parenting, this takes constant prayer, open lines of communication between all, and don’t forget that grace which comes with your sacrament of marriage.
Copyright 2013 Tami Kiser