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Charting the Course for Family Tech Use
Steering the ship, turbulent teenage seas, and the Postman Pledge
A few days ago I had the opportunity to converse with a bright young woman about her first year of university studies. Reflecting back, she was struck by how the majority of students simply seemed “messed up”. Every other female student sports scratched lines on wrists and has some sort of psychological diagnosis supplied with pills, “resting bitch face” is the expression of choice, partying packed with drinking and a variety of legal and illegal drugs is standard, everyone keeps looking for their vape sticks, and Tinder, Hinge, or some other trendy hook up app feeds the remaining bodily appetites. Almost without exception their faces are in a continuous loop from iphone to laptop screen, submerged into the oblivion of a parallel digital world. As someone who had grown up without an iphone until the age of 16, she found the experience isolating, knowing that at any moment conversations could (and would) get interrupted by yet another alert to return attention to the digital world. iphones and social media are clearly not the only culprit for this “messed up” existence, but they do serve as a potent catalyst to alienation from reality.
As I reflected on our conversation, wondering how so many young people seemed souls lost in a sea of the unreal, these lines from William Henley’s poem Invictus came to mind:
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Which led me to ask, how can we guide our children and teenagers to captain their souls so that they can remain invictus - unconquerable - by digital unreality? While some may choose the Amish or neo-Luddite route, others may not want to shed technology completely. Regardless, one way we can most certainly benefit from imitating the Amish, is in making specific decisions about what technologies we will and will not use, rather than allowing the decision to be made for us by “progress”.1
What follows are some guiding principles, developed over years of experience with our own children, countless conversations with parents, as well as insights shared by teenagers themselves, to help you chart a course for your family’s tech use.
Steering the ship and growing bone marrow
It is commonplace to hear children from the age of eight through the teen years describe the frustration of trying to get the attention of their multitasking parents. Now these same children are insecure about having each other’s attention.
— Sherry Turkle, Alone Together
If your children are still frolicking through the wonderful (and exhausting) babyhood and toddler years, you may assume that thinking about technology use is still years away. Yet, parental device habits are relevant as soon as a baby enters the family. Many of our initial interactions may seem trivial — smiling and chatting, changing a diaper, feeding with an airplane spoon, naming objects in their surroundings, clapping at new achievements etc. — but serve to ingrain in your child the precedence of being human in the real world. When babies grow into toddlers, the time we as parents invest in reading books together, telling stories, play-acting, exploring nature etc. further cements the value of face-to-face relationships and immediate surroundings. None of these interactions will likely be explicitly remembered, but each one of them serves to grow the bone marrow of reality.
We know that the time we spend caring for children, doing the most basic things for them, lays down a crucial substrate. On this ground, children become confident that they are loved no matter what. And we who care for them become confirmed in our capacity to love and care. — Sherry Turkle, Alone Together
So what happens when digital devices fracture our interactions with our young children? Psychologist Eva Unternäher, lead investigator of a Swiss Swipe-Study on preschool screen exposure, points out that parents who are so busy with their mobile phones that they do not even notice that their child is asking a question, or who do not make eye contact because their focus is trained on the latest text, send the message to their child that their device is more important. This creates “inward-looking difficulties” in young infants, and parallels the ‘still face’ paradigm, where a parent plays and interacts with the baby but then suddenly stops showing emotion and stares blankly (at their screen). This triggers discomfort and distress in babies and small children.
The precursor of the mirror is the mother’s face.
— D.W. Winnicott
Campaigns are already underway in the US to draw attention to parental phubbing, i.e. ignoring people because of their smartphones, and the effect on child well-being. The sad part of the story is that the need for attention subsides, not because the child has reached its goal of receiving attention, but because they have given up. Findings from Asia show that these children then exhibit increased problematic digital media consumption themselves and also have lower self-esteem, more emotional difficulties and poorer relationships with their parents.
If you are to steer the ship, first examine your own tech use, and how it may be affecting your children. You as the parent are the one who sets the tone.
Excessive screen use does not start with teens and TikTok; for a growing number of children it starts in the crib. While reading a Swiss newspaper earlier this year, I came across the headline: The disruptive effect of digital media on child development.2 The article discusses various behavioral and developmental problems exhibited by children who are regularly stationed in front of mobile phones. More and more young children are treated in the psychiatry clinic for issues spawned from their digital media use: very small children not wanting to eat unless there is a phone on the table; infants who will only fall asleep after watching an hour or two of videos in their crib; children exhibiting autistic traits, not talking or avoiding eye contact, because of excessive digital media consumption. These examples are quite drastic and the overall research indicates that, “young children who spend a lot of time in front of the screen are more likely to show behavioral problems such as social withdrawal, sadness or anxiety, but also aggressiveness, impulsivity and hyperactivity. Reduced language development can also be the result.” Consequently, the researchers warn that screen time before the age of two “should be taboo” due to brain development.
Given what we know about the fundamental need for face-to-face relationships and tangible reality in child development, the healthiest screen time for young children would be zero. There is literally nothing to be gained from entertainment or “educational games” in the early years.3 Any supposed learning benefit from online activities, is negated by the time it eats away from engaging in the real world. I know of several families whose children have grown up without any screen or film time at all. Others, including ours, opted for no computer time until around age 12, but would have a weekly movie time together starting at around age 5. Your family may find this too loose or too rigid. Thus, rather than providing a specific rule or number it helps to keep the following in mind:
The longer children spend growing up without screens, the more time they have to directly interact with their surroundings, develop an inner self, tolerate boredom and convert it into creativity, and tightly knit their connection to reality.
Turbulent teenage seas - smartphones and video games
The smartphone brought about a planetary rewiring of human interaction. As smartphones became more common, they transformed peer relationships, family relationships and the texture of daily life for everyone.and , 2021 article in the New York Times
If you have children who are part of the school system, you are likely already starting to face the pressure of getting them their first phone by the end of elementary school. Homeschoolers can often hold off on these pressures a few years longer, depending on the support in their community. The average age for phone initiation is 10.3 (although even Bill Gates recommends not giving kids a phone before age 14). If you have not yet read So your tween wants a smartphone? Read this first , I recommend you heed the article’s warning.
All I can say is: wait.strongly supports a group called Wait until 8th, which “helps parents in each school come together and sign a pledge that they will not give their child a smartphone until 8th grade…so that their children will not be the ‘only one’ who don’t have a smartphone.” Haidt actually recommends waiting until 9th grade.
Parents may feel that their teen will be intolerably unhappy if they are the only ones without a phone. I have yet to meet a parent who did not profoundly regret giving their child a smartphone before high school, and even then it is rarely smooth sailing. The assumption is that the device will appease the pestering and provide a certain amount of contentment. The reality is often that the door was instead opened to a legion of overpowering and unpredictable digital demons, resulting in addictive tendencies, loneliness, and far greater unhappiness.
A growing number of teens are rejecting smartphones and either opt for “dumbphones” or forego them altogether. A homeschooled teen reader made the following comment:
I am 15 and don't have a phone, I do not intend on getting one. I have seen too many of my friends' lives go down the tube once they got a phone. It almost always starts with the same innocent excuse: “I’ll only use it to text my friends and call my parents.” Even though it may begin as this, eventually it will move to almost continuous browsing on social media and the internet (e.g. TikTok, instagram, youtube, facebook, etc.). For teens who want a phone solely because all their friends have one, I have this to say: if a friend group relies on you to have a phone, that's no friend group. My advice is, find people who are like you, in real life, not online.
If your teen already has a smartphone, but you would like to support them in reducing their use, this recent article may be helpful in getting the conversation started:
You set the example for phone use. Don’t be a hypocrite. If possible, consider moving to a “dumbphone” or simply use a landline. Your choices will inspire and guide your children.
Wait — ideally until high school age. You will not regret this.
If you want to provide a younger child with a phone consider these alternatives, which are less harmful than smartphones.
If your child/teen already has a phone, set reasonable limits in your home (not at the table or their bedroom).
Prioritize relationship over rules if phone use causes intense battles.
While smartphones represent one of the most significant tech use concerns for parents, and carry particularly negative harms for girls4, video games pose another tremendous challenge, especially for boys. According to a PEW research center study from 2015, the distribution of gamers between the two genders is (surprisingly) almost even, yet when it comes to gaming disorder statistics by gender, 94% of all gaming addicts are males, while only 6% are females. Research demonstrates that video games tap cravings in boys, and even stimulate particular brain areas, that are not activated for girls.
One question posed by a reader will likely resonate with many parents:
I would love any advice in regards to my now 16 year old son. He is my youngest and the only boy. We have homeschooled all three children but video games & YouTube have become his best friend. We live in the country and he’s never been the social type. He’s very much like his father in that way however, his father is a doer. Likes to stay busy all the time. I feel deep regret over even introducing technology into our home but especially video games. It’s a constant battle & I usually give up. He’s a good kid but it upsets me. I don’t want to be the bad guy but I’d love to just see everything go dark for awhile. Meaning loss of tech capabilities. 😔
Our family is no stranger to this battle. Our home had been a video-game free household until about three years ago. We had no x-box, wii, and all video games were off limits. The only video-game exposure our kids got was in the dentist’s waiting room and at their cousins’ Christmas party. When we moved cities three years ago, our older son asked to be allowed to play an online game with his friend (who now lived two hours away) once a week. We reluctantly agreed because life during covid made it harder to connect with new friends. As you can guess, the once a week plea soon morphed into two, the time limit got stretched, and before we knew it, there were other friends that he really wanted to spend time with online. Game time always remained limited to around two hours and no more than two to three days a week, but even so, it was also not long before we observed significant changes. Our son who previously had an incredible attention span for reading books and spending time on writing projects, became distracted, irritated, and listless. Looking back on his experience he relates the following:
As a teenager who has played video games for a couple of years (and subsequently quit), I have had my fair share of negative experiences. They had nothing to do with the online community or the violence in the games that I played, but rather in the effect that they had on my mind. The video games slowly sapped away my creativity, replacing all my interests with the constant yearning for the dopamine that video games satisfy. All my real life hobbies became uninteresting. Suddenly, as soon as I stopped playing video games, everything else was boring. This also impacted my schoolwork negatively (I was taking online classes), I was constantly checking my stats, opening a game to claim a daily reward etc. (even if I was not allowed to play). Eventually I realized the only way to eliminate my addiction was the complete eradication of video games from my life. I deleted all my game related apps and accounts and blocked them from ever coming up again on my computer.
As you can guess, we would not make the same mistake again.
For support in helping your teen to quit video games I recommend Game Quitters which has countless helpful articles, and also offers free support to parents who would like to help their children overcome addictive technology use. A good place to start is the Video Game Addiction Test (for gamers and parents) and Real stories from gaming addicts, which can provide a needed wake-up call.
Video games have highly addictive algorithms that tap into boys vulnerabilities
Removing video games from an addicted child/teen may at first cause intense anger, and may even result in physical withdrawal symptoms
The removal of video games needs to go hand in hand with real life physical activities that engage the body, heart, and mind.
Remain patient and seek help from Game Quitters if necessary
For more personal accounts penned by teenagers on the devastating effect of internet porn addiction and gaming, see these entries forhigh school essay contest: I Had a Helicopter Mom. I Found Pornhub Anyway and Why I Traded My Smartphone for an Ax
The Postman Pledge and a caveat
Some of you may have read about the Postman Pledge in a recent Front Porch Republic article Planting Our Flag in the Real World: Parents Take the Postman Pledge (thanks tofor bringing it to my attention) or in an earlier article in the American Conservative. The group’s founder, Jamie Schindler explains:
The Postman Pledge is a statement of intention (inspired by the insights of media critic and educator Neil Postman) signed by parents who aspire to create a lower-tech environment for their families and who recognize that to change the ethos of a community requires common effort — hence the mutual pledge.
The Pledge encourages parents and children alike to forego the use of smartphones and social media in particular, as “the former radically undermines the capacity for sustained attention and awareness of our surroundings, the latter because it reduces our capacity to build and sustain real relationships in their proper shape and scale.”
Most importantly the Pledge focuses not solely on “no” to certain forms of technology but an enthusiastic “yes” to a rightly ordered world “rooted in real things”. You can read the entire interview as well as the actual text of the Postman Pledge here. Other groups have taken common deliberate steps toward reducing tech use for their families. Last week, a substack edited by members of the Bruderhof (an intentional Christian community with locations around the world), related how their families approach tech in their daily lives.
When I discussed the Postman Pledge with our daughter, who had grown up without a smartphone until the end of high school, she offered the following caveat, which I felt was important to consider, especially if the family Pledge were to include older teenagers:
Of course it is important to guide young children and enforce rules when they are still growing up and learning to make their own decisions. However, there comes a point where they need to feel some amount of responsibility and ownership of their own decisions, not only to help in maturing and forming themselves, but also to allow them to feel that their parents are on the same team and are there to advise them but not to oppress them. It is good to remember that strict parents make sneaky kids.
Parents are a mold for their children, their rules and their values are what shape their kids into becoming the capable adults their elders aim for them to be. But if you leave this mold on until the day they move out, the cast doesn’t have time to settle itself and in some cases your children will be so eager for freedom that all your hard work and reinforcement does not amount to much once they’re finally on their own.
Compromising and allowing your children to make some of their own choices while they are still living in your home not only gives the opportunity for your relationship with them to flourish, but also allows them to gradually grow into an independent human being and to have confidence in making decisions while also being open to looking to your advice and wisdom.
Just after I initially published this post this morning,5 offered such a valuable comment that I decided to include it here:
I wanted to add a corollary to your daughter's wise caveat: Postman Pledge-type commitments happen (or should happen) within a wider context of an agreed-on understanding of what a human being is and what are the roles of parents, family, church, etc. Tech limits are never (or should never!) set within a vacuum, just as limits on eating sweets do not happen in a vacuum. Rather, they take place within the context of raising a child to become an adult—and part of that process is allowing increasing responsibility to the child as he or she grows older.
Indeed, part of wise parenting is recognizing one's own deputed authority and responsibility to raise a self-ruled (in the classical sense) adult. (If a parent were still restricting a teenager on the teenager's choice of whether to eat dessert or not, for instance, that would be clearly concerning!)
What's interesting is that I find that parents who practice tech limits as a family and community tend to have children who grow up into more responsible adults, since if parents are being that intentional, they also tend to understand the broader context of their own responsibilities—and the parent's own limits. If tech limits (or any limits) are merely about control and fear, then they will certainly fail. But if rules are made out of control and fear, then they are almost certainly trespassing the proper bounds of parental (and, for that matter, governmental) authority anyway.
I often return to my dad's example for all of this: He set examples, encouraged good habits, and then apportioned appropriate responsibility to my brothers and me, and never out of a spirit of fear, but rather from a spirit of peace and common sense.
And if the taste for real things is cultivated from youth (I think often of this piece by Joshua Gibbs on this: web.archive.org/web/20220629230149/http…), if the children have been given a feast of good, true, and beautiful things in a home filled with the spirit of charity...my hunch is that that's going to stay with them and bear fruit for many years to come.
“Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person's character lies in their own hands.”
— Anne Frank
Although this was a lengthy post, I only grazed the surface of how we can guide our children and teenagers to captain their souls to remain invictus by digital unreality. The underlying hope is that through our example, and a tightly knit connection to the real world and real relationships, they will not only confidently steer their own families, but will indeed learn to become ship builders, tooling technology into instruments of use6 rather than bowing to them as masters of their souls.
Until next time,
If you found this post helpful (or hopeful), please consider supporting my work by becoming a paid subscriber, or simply show your appreciation with a like, restack, or share.
Please share your family’s successes and struggles with tech use in the home in the comments below. We can all benefit from hearing others’ experiences, encouragement, or offered support and guidance from those who share the struggle. Also add any specific questions that you would like me to address (or maybe even write future posts on).
“Thank you” and a request:
A big “Thank You” to all readers who have purchased my husband’s newly released novel Exogenesis (by Ignatius Press). If you have already read the novel, we would greatly appreciate it if you could provide a rating or review on amazon or goodreads. This is extremely helpful as it serves to spread the word and draw a larger audience. Thanks so much for taking the time!
“The finest dystopian novel I have read in years. A futuristic nightmare that feels all too credible. Peco Gaskovski’s novel is a worthy successor to Huxley’s Brave New World with an added ingredient missing from most dystopian novels—hope.”
—Fiorella de Maria, Author, Father Gabriel Mystery series
Reviewer Steven R. McEvoy included Exogenesis as part of his Catholic Reading plan series for 2023:
With the current antagonism towards Catholics specifically and Christians in general in the west this story could easily be a prophetic look into the future. But it is also a story of home, and about humanity and being in touch. It is a deeply moving story with few true heroes, but with people who can be respected, with a sociopath, and with many just keeping their heads down following the rules. An exceptionally well written science fiction story. One I can recommend and one that would be excellent for a book club or book study. I can easily recommend this story for teens and older readers.
For more on this, see a recent Christian Scholar’s Review article What If All Our Residence Halls Were Tech Free?
To read the article in full, you can translate it into English and gain access with the one-month free subscription.
One specific example of this goes back to 2009, when Disney actually refunded parents money for Baby Einstein videos because they were found to be harmful to child development, reducing verbal development.
Tessa Carman will be speaking at the Front Porch Republic conference this fall. See her article Joining the Dance: Setting Aside Screens to Build the City