Tech Talk: Parenting, Virtue, and Technology

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As children and teens are ever more plugged in, parents urgently need a positive strategy for training their sons and daughters to face the technology monster and tame it. Virtue is the spiritual strength that infuses goodness into family living. The dilemma confronting every family is HOW to keep a balance between building healthy real-life relationships and managing life’s responsibilities with virtue, amidst the sweet lure of highly sophisticated addiction-based entertainment devices. An article in The Guardian on smartphone addiction shows how the technology designers themselves are concerned about the damaging addictive-ness of the mechanisms they created.

Go Beyond Punitive Reactivity

Most families fall into a reactive/punitive stance in which children and teens are grounded from gaming or screens as a punishment for irresponsible, disrespectful or otherwise bad behavior. This makes the parent the “bad guy” and can put a destructive wedge in family relationships. Technology CEOs don’t like the drug metaphors, but the corporate cyber wizards have created the gaming and smartphone user experiences to give a rush like cocaine…for “free”, in the palm of your hand, accessible anytime day and night. Coping with it all is even more difficult because we adults are personally battling the same beast. How can we parents effectively guide and discipline our kids toward the healthy wise wholeness of virtue while straddling a continual technology tug-of-war?

Reboot Flawed Assumptions

In school, very clear boundaries are in place about the use of technology. But at home, children and teens now assume the use of technology-based entertainment is a natural part of baseline living experiences. They bounce from a TV, to a laptop, to a gaming system, to an IPod, to a smartphone. Kids now consider tech a basic human right. As natural as turning the lights on. Families can, and need to, reboot this assumption. As essential as it may feel, all technology experiences are varying degrees of entertainment. In real life you work to earn money to spend on enjoying some relaxing entertainment. Time and attention are very valuable forms of currency that our young people are spending recklessly. But we can reconnect the work-to-earn-the-entertainment loop for them.

Choose to Strategically Unplug

Amazing parenting advisor Dr. Ray Guarendi gives parents lots of common-sense encouragement to maintain productive discipline in the home. He describes a technique he calls BLACKOUT in which parents withhold all privileges to redirect stubbornly bad behavior. We can make a form of blackout the new baseline to build virtue in our families. I call it being Virtue-ally Unplugged. The default is no longer open access to screens until punitively removed. The new default is that there is NO access to screens until it is earned by positive, cooperative, virtue-directed behavior.

Your children can begin each day with a status of an uncharged battery. The good behavior they exhibit during that day charges their battery to earn them power to use devices the next day or over the week-end. You can set the target and the amount of time for screen use. It’s good to keep the time limit tight. Perhaps no more than 1 hour private screen use in a day. It’s better to start small where they can earn bonus time, rather than automatically planning on larger amounts that you have to later reduce. The goal is to have clear boundaries for kids and positivity from parents.

Virtue Levels to Unlock

Since we are talking about moderating the use of technology, let’s frame this in the language of technology. The logic of on-line gaming can energize this strategy for parenting that makes virtue the priority. Here’s how it can work. In most forms of gaming, there are levels to be achieved to open or unlock various desired functions or rewards. We can give our kids clear virtue behavior goals that will charge their battery to unlock the use of their devices.  The battle cry for this plan for self-mastery is a group of six ways to behave with virtue strength: Believe. Perceive. Think. Feel. Decide. DO. They are the internal steps each person goes through in the process of doing any genuinely good action. These can be the six virtue target levels you set for them to achieve. So they are doing good actions for truly noble reasons. It helps to have clear goals. The intense addictive desire for technology can be used as a tremendous motivation in this process. Here are the six “levels” of virtue they can apply in their relationships and responsibilities at home:

  • Believe:

    They need to show you that sustaining core beliefs is a priority. Spending some time in prayer and a little scripture reading daily are simple ways to achieve the belief level. When you observe glimpses of the virtues of faith, acceptance, humility, mercy and/or hope in the child or teen, it shows progress on this level.

  • Perceive: 

    They need to show they have a filter. Achieving the level of perception is where they choose virtue in the attitudes motivating their behavior. Kids earn the next level toward technology access when you see a kindly sense of humor, peace-making, adaptability, modesty and/or a clear eye for true justice demonstrated in their attitudes.

  • Think: 

    They also need to show intentionality in their thinking.  Watch for virtues of faithfulness, wisdom, steadfastness, integrity and/or a thoughtful disposition for charity to achieve the next level and are one step closer to their screens.

  • Feel: 

    They need to show you some progress on self-mastery of emotions. Virtues that give evidence of growth in emotional strength are: joyfulness (regardless of circumstances), confident trust, loving devotion, empathy and/or gratitude. Kids demonstrating any of those emotional virtues can achieve the feeling level.

  • Decide:

    Decision-making is where virtue becomes more externally obvious. Watch for cooperation, patience, fortitude, prudence and/or self-discipline in their decisions. When they are making good choices based on virtue they earn the decision level.

  • Do:  

    Action virtues are the easiest for you as parents to spot, but can sometimes be the most difficult for the child or teen to execute. Give ample support and celebrate small successes with them. As you witness their honesty, kindness, courage, perseverance and/or enthusiasm to inspire others, celebrate achieving the final level to open access to their technology screens.

"Tech Talk: Parenting, Virtue, and Technology" by Cathy Gilmore (CatholicMom.com)

Print this Modern Moral Compass graphic. Copyright 2018 Cathy Gilmore. All rights reserved.

Print out the Everyday Virtues Modern Moral Compass and keep it as a handy reference where each member of the family can see. You can set the bar however you like. You can start super simply, achieving one virtue on the page in a day to open access to screens for the next day. Then increase the degree of difficulty to one virtue in each category, and more. Bonus time can be earned for more instances of virtuous behavior.

Benefits and Bonuses

Remember also, while we want to be positive and not punitive, if the child or teen behaves badly while using screens, that forfeits the access for that day. For dramatically  bad behavior, perhaps several days. Then they can start the process of earning it back again. Earning perks and benefits from hard work is real life. Simply engaging in this process is a valuable experience.

As you begin, there will be a learning curve for mom and dad as well as the kids. This is a huge paradigm shift. Re-framing your children’s assumptions about technology in a positive pro-active work-focused virtue-building way will be met with some resistance. Stick with it. The results ARE worth it. It may seem outrageous to them, but there truly is no downside if children or teens have to be unplugged for a few days or weeks at a time as they build their virtue muscles. The internal virtue habits you help them to cultivate in this process will directly impact their success in school, in relationships and in their life. Virtues are the most valuable life skills we can ever instill in our kids.

When you try out being VIRTUE-ally Unplugged as the way to put family technology access to use as a virtue behavior incentive, let us know how it goes!

Read more of our Tech Talk columns.


Copyright 2018 Cathy Gilmore

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About Author

Cathy Gilmore is an author, educator and Virtue Works Media Ministry founder. Virtue Works Media is pioneering an innovative approach to family virtue formation. This non-profit ministry is FUNDRAISING to build the only online VIRTUE-based search engine for media and entertainment. Cathy works to help everyone look at books, movies, music...and life through the lens of virtue. Follow Cathy on twitter @PowerofParable.

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