As things start moving back to a post-pandemic “normal,” many parents are looking forward to their children returning to in-person learning. In addition to improving their concentration, reconnecting with in-person friends, and reestablishing rigorous standards, one of the key benefits will be less time on screens. None of this will be without effort and intentionality, but what may prove most difficult is dialing back kids’ dependence on screens.
The battle over devices
The battle over devices was already a problem before the pandemic. Books like Naomi Scaeffer Riley’s Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat sounded the alarm in January 2019. Real harm comes to children of all ages from unsupervised, unfiltered access to all things online and virtual, confirms Riley. The pandemic only made that worse. Once schools went online, there was little hope for limitations. Not only were children expected to be on their iPads or computers for all of each school day, they were typically given looser restrictions during after-school hours by parents who, scrambling to get their own work done and anxious about all the bad news, were glad for their children, who had nowhere to go, to have something to do.
Last spring, when most kids didn’t have a choice about being on a connected device for hours a day, experts tried to be reassuring. They said some screen time is okay, but still agreed that too much is detrimental. “Spending an hour or two a day with devices during leisure time doesn’t seem to be harmful for mental health,” wrote psychology professor Jean Twenge, at the Institute for Family Studies. “And doing homework or educational activities on devices for a few hours a day is a virtual necessity and is unlikely to be harmful, so we can cross that off our list of worries as well.”
Even when screen time was considered essential, Twenge wasn’t giving unqualified support. “[This] doesn’t mean parents should give up on managing kids’ screen time during this extended period of staying at home. Watching videos and scrolling through Instagram all day might keep them quiet, but it’s not the best for their mental health or development.” As virtual school winds down, it’s time to revisit prior concerns about how much screen time is too much, and even more urgently, how much of what’s online is harmful, regardless of time limits.
In addition to the angst all parents generally feel about what kids are watching and doing on social media these days, Christian parents have a biblical imperative to disciple their children — to oversee not just their mental and physical health, but most importantly, their spiritual growth (Deut. 6:6–9; Eph. 6:4). That includes shepherding their media use. We need renewed vigor to reclaim — or introduce for the first time — God-honoring digital habits.
The Wall Street Journal’s family and tech columnist, Julie Jargon, says, “After more than a year of being glued to their devices, a lot of kids will have trouble easing up on the tech that brought them comfort and connection during the pandemic.” It’s not just children who will have to work at this. Parents, too, likely spent more time online and on devices in 2020, and their modeling is a primary influence on their kids.
Jargon’s article, “How to Wean Your Kids—and Yourself—Off Screens,” recommends a family “digital reset” including things like phone-free times and spaces (the dinner table, car rides), shared rather than solo screens, and even a one-day-a-week tech sabbath. She suggests going back to pre-COVID tech rules. “Use the start of summer as an opportunity to re-establish any tech rules you let slide during the pandemic, like allowing devices in bedrooms at night or allowing videogames before homework or chores are done.”
Assuming you had pre-COVID tech rules, that’s a good place to start. But many Christian parents need to honestly ask themselves what their kids ’— and their own — habits were before the pandemic. What’s needed may not be a return to pre-pandemic normal, but a better, more biblical, normal. That includes a better rhythm of shared family culture, analog learning, creative real-life (not virtual) endeavors, and using technology for the glory of God. Some examples include reading books aloud together, asking good questions to foster substantive conversations at meal time, going outside to explore nature together, re-engaging with or developing shared hobbies, playing instruments and singing, playing board games, cooking together, exercising as a family, and the list could go on.
It is up to parents to set expectations for life together in the family. That life is shaped in large part by how much, or how little, time is given to screens. Children need us to help them answer questions like: What does it look like to faithfully steward our time? How does social media use affect our thoughts, our affections, our desires? What might we do together if we put down our phones? And in the absence of those phones, how might we advance the kingdom of God in our childrens’ hearts and minds?
Here’s what might that look like in everyday life:
Meet with God before you meet with people: My husband and I both wait until after we’ve met with the Lord, praying and reading our Bibles, to even pick up our phones. Giving our first thoughts to what’s essential, seeking God’s will for the day, meditating on his revealed truth — all of this grounds us in what’s most important and makes us less vulnerable to the voices of the world that flood our phones (Psa.1:1-2).
Study the Bible and pray together: After seeking God personally, we seek him together as a family. Last fall we started spending between 10–15 minutes together on weekday mornings before we all headed in different directions, reading Lord Teach Us to Pray, a family study on the Lord’s Prayer. With our kids’ help, we read the text selections together and answer the questions provided in the study about what we just read in the Bible.
Use screens in community: Proverbs 18:1 says, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” That reality is a warning against giving kids connected devices to use by themselves. We limit screen use to shared family spaces where they can be easily seen by more than just the person using them.
Model what you require: (Or plan to when your children are old enough). Let your children see you stewarding your phone, your iPad, and your other smart devices the way you want them to steward theirs.
Put screens to bed early: Rather than scrolling ourselves to a fitful sleep, we spend the last hour of most days together reading a story aloud, or reading books to ourselves, unwinding the stress of the day with restful “slow” entertainment, and closing the day’s activity with a family prayer.
As we celebrate a return to normal, these, and other similar embodied, relational practices can keep us from losing our way in the fog of media that grows thicker by the day.