Russell Moore: One of the top questions that I get from parents is navigating technology, whether that is smartphones, social media, or television time. That’s why I wanted to talk with my friend, Andy Crouch. He is the author of a magnificent book called The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place.
I specifically like this book because it is not a Luddite rejection of technology; it is not a shaming book for parents who may have too much technology in their lives or their children’s lives. You won’t read this book and have someone screaming at you. What you will have is good, practical wisdom and counsel.
Andy, you talk about the use of nudges in our lives and how smartphone technology, especially, has kind of moved us into a tyranny of nudges. What do you mean by that?
Andy Crouch: Yes, the tyranny of the notification—that little buzz in your pocket or blip of audio that says, “Pay attention to me.” I think of nudges as small things that steer us in a certain direction—either a beneficial direction or a direction that’s really distracting. We know how distracting these notifications can be for us as adults, let alone for kids. When you think about all of those nudges that technology provides, I think it is a problem.
On the other hand, what I suggest in the book is that we can build in healthy nudges. We can make some choices about the way we shape the space we live in and the way we use our time—certain times of day where we actually nudge ourselves toward a more healthy use of technology that’s not at the expense of being present with other people in the real world.
RM: Sometimes when people talk about technology as it relates to family life, all they are really talking about is porn or dangerous situations with people on the other end of the internet. But you give a great deal of attention to many other things. One of the primary things that you talk about is the relationship to time. I was especially interested in the sorts of ways that you and your household have tried to redeem time from the smartphone. Can you give some counsel for people who are trying to figure that out?
AC: Well, one of the real challenges about our whole technological age, much deeper than screens and computers, is that everything is always on. The power grid is always on, the telephone is always there, and machines can run 24/7. In fact, many machines run at their best if they are on all the time. It is hard to shut it all down, and it is really hard to shut down our world of Wi-Fi and cell phone and cell data and so forth.
Over against that, we have this fundamental commandment at the heart of the Bible to imitate God in having this rhythm of work and rest in the way that we structure our time. Human beings cannot run 24/7. We need sleep every day, which is, I think, one of the most perplexing and humbling things about being a creature like we are.
So, our family has decided we need to be serious about a couple of things with these always-on devices. Basically, we need to do the thing they are not designed to do easily, and that is turn them all off. We do that one hour a day, one day a week, and at least one week a year.
Also, we realized we need to be careful about bedtime and morning. We did some research for this book, and over 80 percent of parents sleep with a phone next to them, a similar number for teenagers, and a little less for younger kids. So, we’ve started putting our devices to bed before we go to bed.
Actually, the bigger discipline for me is when I get up in the morning. I grew up before all of this technology was so readily available. I remember getting up in the morning and praying. What a thought! Now what do I do? I walk downstairs, and the first thing I am inclined to do is pick up my phone and see whatever nudges have come in. I really want to reclaim that morning time. What I’ve started to do is walk outside every morning before I will let anything glow at me. I just open the door no matter what and feel the air before I immerse myself in this technological world.
RM: You mentioned the guide that you all have [for age] is no screens before double digits of time. I thought that was a helpful way to put it.
AC: [One] dimension of time is human growth and development. I think it is short-sighted to have our children spend a lot of time with screens before they are at least 10 because, honestly, we are all going to spend the rest of our lives staring at these things. I spend a huge amount of my life with this rectangle glowing at me, and childhood, especially the early years of childhood, is this time when we are absolutely wired for three-dimensional, full-body, full-contact engagement with the world and all its sights, sounds, smells, and experiences.
To have our kids already chained to those devices is robbing them of the unique moments of those single-digit years that they will never get back. [Their] brain will never be the same; it will never be as open to experience and learning. [They] have the rest of [their lives] to swipe back and forth on a screen, but [they] don’t have the rest of [their lives] to be a child.
RM: I laughed out loud when I came across the section on boredom because it was right after I was talking to my wife and said that I desperately needed time to be bored. What I meant by that was, so often, the ideas that come to me tend to happen in some situation where there is nothing going on. You have an entire section in your book on boredom as a good thing. How do you convince a 10 year old that it is a good thing to be bored?
AC: Our parenting philosophy was: Some things I can’t convince you of, but they are still true, and we are still going to act on them. I think there are two sides to boredom. I think boredom is, in a way, a sign of what I would call frustrated image-bearing. We are meant to be creative, and we get bored when we are in situations or in environments that don’t seem to allow for creativity. Our reaction is to feel a sense of frustration.
But there is another sense in which it is actually the quiet and the waiting out of which real image-bearing creativity emerges. We need to convey to our kids that on the other side of this frustration is something really amazing that they won’t experience if we just solve their problem of being bored. The great danger about our devices now is that they always offer to solve our boredom problem.
RM: You talk about the use of one technology to combat some of these others, and that technology is the car. I think there are a lot of parents for whom their car experience is: let’s get in the car, put on your headphones, and retreat into wherever. But you’ve got a different prescription for them.
AC: I think car time is the most astonishing time. It is the closest, physically, you are to each other. This is why we are all tempted to turn on those devices, because it is challenging to be that close to your family members, especially if it is a longer ride.
In our family we set up this rule: Car time is conversation time. When we get in the car, it is a chance to talk. Sherry Turkle, who has written some important books about technology and its effect on relationships, says in her book, Reclaiming Conversation, that every conversation hits a decision point at about the seven minute mark, which is about as long as you can do small talk. Someone has to take a risk. The beautiful thing about car rides is you have a chance to get to that seven minute mark and move beyond it.
This was the great upside surprise to me. I was dreading driving places with my kids. I never expected that a great sense of loss would happen when each of our kids got their driver’s licenses. Now they can drive themselves, and we no longer have these conversation opportunities. It ended up being some of the richest times we have had as parents and children.
RM: You talk awhile in the book about where the drive toward pornography comes from and how we can combat it. What I liked about that is you weren’t just putting hedges around the porn. You were really getting at why people are driven to porn. I’m sure we have people reading this right now who are in this endless pattern of porn— feeling horrible, feeling shame, back into the porn, and the cycle just keeps going. What would your counsel for them be?
AC: I don’t go into a lot of detail, but that’s part of my own story as an adult. It’s part of almost everybody’s story, because I think it is actually the technological culture applied to our deepest need and desire, which is for union with another. Ultimately, it’s a pointer toward our drive for union with God. The technological culture says there is a way to have a good enough simulation of this, and it creates the cycle of addiction. Really, all addiction is a quest for a sense of power and connection. So, in the book I try to say we are never going to be able to filter that. There is no internet filter strong enough to remove that powerful need.
RM: Not that we shouldn’t employ internet filters.
AC: No. The example I use in the book is the city of Beijing, a very polluted, major metropolitan area. If you go out on the street, you should absolutely wear a mask. On the most polluted days, you should use all kinds of measures to minimize your exposure, but that is in no way going to address the underlying source of the addiction, right?
I think the deeper thing here is that technology has allowed us to acquire certain kinds of power that don’t involve relationship. And all true forms of power come from relationship. They come from intimacy and connectedness with other people. So the real way out, in a sense, of all of these distortions that technology brings is a deeper connection with the real world, with the God who made the real world, and with other people. The more I have daily satisfying contexts of connection, the less powerful that simulation is in attracting and seducing me into this very isolated, distorted use of technological power. For me, it’s all about reclaiming a connection with my wife, children, the real world, and good embodied experience, rather than the thin options that present themselves to me.
RM: I find that a lot of people assume that what happens is a marriage goes bad, and then the porn starts. I tend to find it works in reverse. One of the things that I’ve noticed in church life is that when I’ve seen a man or a group of men going through unemployment, there is almost always a spiritual warfare going on driving toward porn. This is what you are arguing: When a life doesn’t seem to be full, that’s when you are really in peril.
AC: Absolutely, and we have embraced individualism. The isolation we all live with is made possible by technology, and not just digital technology. The car isolates us if we are driving alone. The phone isolates us because we can have conversations without being present to each other in the same way we would be if we were together.
Compound all of these isolations that technology makes possible and profitable, and it leaves us vulnerable to thin simulations that restore to us some sense of connection, even though it is not really true. This is not just porn. It is also liking things on Instagram and reacting to things on Twitter. All of these are thin versions of what we are actually made for.
RM: What are some things parents can do to try to minimize their children’s exposure to pornography?
AC: There are two things, as well as all of the obvious means of filtering your home internet and so forth. The “easy” one is that we have to realize it is unwise to give children unfettered access to screens on their own. Without even trying, we stumble across pornography. So, the fact that parents give their children smartphones with data plans at ages eight and nine is a bad idea to me. And I think that we need to set a norm in our families that all of us use our devices in view of each other—they aren’t our private devices—as much as possible. Also, establishing that we use these things together for a very specific purpose; we don’t just aimlessly browse around.
The trickier thing is how to handle other parents who will not have those same boundaries. The kids will be with friends who have autonomous devices with untrammeled internet service. The reality is boys in particular, but girls as well, go to and show each other these sites. I think one thing you can do is establish an expectation that your kids will talk with you about what they see on their friends’ phones.
I will say one other thing that I’ve seen done that is really helpful, though we didn’t do this with our kids in the same way that my friend has done. He has four adolescent sons, 11 to 18 or so, and he said to them, “I am your dad. It is my job to know more about what’s going on in your life than anyone else in your life, and that means I can pick up your phone at any moment. I can ask you any question at any moment.”
It’s almost less the practice of actually picking up the device, unless you have some reason to think you need to intervene in that way, and it is more the expectation: I’m your parent, and until you are grown, I am going to be the one who is more invested in your story—not your friends or your pastor. That is the healthy approach that lays the foundation for handling whatever our kids come across.
The article originally appeared in our print publication, Light Magazine. View the latest issue here.