How to think about screen time and our kids

Diagnosing our digital motives

November 4, 2019

A new survey about tweens and teenagers confirms what most of us already knew: our kids are spending a lot of time online and watching video content. Common Sense Media released a survey about online video consumption and children last week that reveals that the percentage of those watching online content has doubled in the last four years, with the average child spending four to seven hours engaged in entertainment media every day. These figures do not include time spent online for homework, reading, or even listening to music. The increase of those watching online videos shouldn’t surprise us because many parents have similar issues with screen time and media usage, too.

As parents of two boys under four, my wife and I understand why many parents—including us at times—have allowed this much time online in light of the daily demands on our families and the ease of entertainment via screens. Whether in the car, at home, or even in the classroom, our kids are inundated with technology and are not prepared to navigate this complex world by themselves. This digital landscape is unprecedented in size and scale, leaving many children and parents glued to their devices as we gloss over many of the potential downfalls that come with the rise of online entertainment. Are we to simply accept the fact that this is the way things will be from now on, or do we have options to disciple our children in ways that defy the cultural momentum and point them to Christ?

Our new digital landscape

My wife and I have these conversations all the time, and you probably do as well. We debate the merits of screen time amid the seeming chaos of our daily schedules of school, doctor appointments, extra-curricular activities, and bedtime routines. Our lives feel busier than ever precisely because we are more connected than ever in society and as family. We have been sold a bill of goods that being more connected will lead to more happiness and a sense of belonging. All the while, we feel more isolated and disconnected from the communities around us.

But on top of the disconnection and isolation that we all feel as we live in our perfected, curated worlds of smart entertainment, we have grown numb to the reality of issues like privacy and increased media consumption. We fail to see that the things we purchase, play, and pursue online are tracked in order to get new goods before our eyes and sell us more stuff. This data is cataloged, tracked, and redeployed as predictive behavioral tools that are used to strengthen the advertising models that drive the large technology companies.

As much as we may long for the days of old without all of the online tracking and digital tools, there is good that comes from these innovations. And the reality is that we will never be able to roll back the clock to a time before the advent of these tools. Although we may fight against their infiltration into the daily lives of our children, this is the world that God has created them to inherit. We are each called to engage the world as it is rather than how we might hope for it to be. We should embrace the good uses of these tools and reject the bad as we seek to raise a new generation of disciples who are guided by wisdom rather than by the winds of cultural innovation.

Redeeming the time

We should keep some key concepts in mind as we seek to lead our children with wisdom in this digital age. First, we must remember that God has created each of us as his image-bearers (Gen. 1:26-27) with the responsibility to steward the gifts he has bestowed on us. Second, technology is not an evil or immoral pursuit when used in moderation and with the right orientation of loving God and our neighbor (Matt. 22:37-39). The truth that technology is a gift to be used by us rather thank control us can help give guidelines as we move forward in this digital age.

We should embrace the good uses of these tools and reject the bad as we seek to raise a new generation of disciples who are guided by wisdom rather than by the winds of cultural innovation.

This means that we are to be thoughtful about how we use technology—not embracing every new tool or service but evaluating how we can use them to help us deepen our love for God and our love for each other. Here are some simple diagnostic questions you can ask yourself and your kids: 

Watching online videos and using these tools can be a blessing to our lives and the lives of our kids if we keep our priorities straight. One of the most enlightening perspectives on screen time comes from my friend John Dyer of Dallas Theological Seminary. He writes at his blog:

“Sometimes you just want to passively consume something, and in moderation there’s a place for that. But in that moment, I judged that we’d had enough consumption for the weekend, and I wanted to encourage my kids to find something that would express their God-given creativity rather than sit passively and consume more.”

Dyer hits right at the heart of the matter concerning discernment in our digital age. We need to embrace these digital tools because we are creators not simply consumers. This shift in focus helps us put these tools in perspective and to use them to build up rather than just chill out. This could simply mean that we choose to play games, create art, or learn something new rather than passively watch video content online. Screen time is not the issue, per se, but rather what we are doing on the screen.

As we move further into our digital age, let’s train up a new generation of creators and image-bearers who see technology as a tool to be used by us rather than something to control us. The goal is to follow Christ’s words of loving God and loving our neighbor as we seek to influence them with the hope of the world. Rather than longing for yesteryear, let’s embrace the day and redeem the time on our screens.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24