By / Dec 28

When we hear about being more disciplined with our social media diet or crafting better habits with our devices like our smartphones or tablets, we are often bombarded with helpful tips and tricks about time limits, device-free dinners, digital sabbaths, or even using internet filters. There are a plethora of apps and tools available today, but these tools usually fail to address the real problem lying behind the screens. We fall prey to the temptation to believe that “more technology is needed to meet the emergencies which technology has produced,” as Canadian philosopher George Grant noted in his well-known work, Technology and Justice

While most of these tips or tricks can be incredibly helpful in limiting our usage of social media and may even reveal some of the ways that technology is shaping us, it is a mistake to think that merely cutting something out of your life will help with long-term change and help in developing lasting healthy habits with technology.

A better habit  

In the popular 2020 Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, we meet a family struggling with many of the very things our families deal with in terms of our addictions to our devices and social media. The mother in this fictional family heard about a way to limit screen time and purchased a new lock box for the entire family to use at dinners. At one point, the daughter breaks open the box to get her device back, and the son makes a deal to stop using his phone for a period of time, which ultimately (and predictably) fails. The filmmakers use this illustration to show how addictive these devices can really be, but I think it shows a much broader point than they may have originally intended in the film.

One of the most obvious—yet least implemented—elements of curbing our digital dependence is not just putting down our phones but actually picking up new and better habits. To curb or break a bad habit, you cannot just stop doing something. You must start doing something else. You may experience short-term success by cutting down your screen time, limiting your interactions online, or even deleting a particular app. But to truly have your mind renewed and refreshed by the power of the Holy Spirit, you have to replace it with something else (Rom. 12:1-2). 

Paul, in the letter to the Church at Ephesus, highlights this general idea of putting off the old way of living and putting on the new self as he spoke about the radical transformation that the gospel makes in our lives. He calls these believers “to take off your former way of life, the old self that is corrupted by deceitful desires . . . and to put on the new self, the one created according to God’s likeness in righteousness and purity of the truth” (Eph. 4:22,24, CSB).

While it is clear in context that Paul is not directly speaking about reshaping our digital habits, this concept nevertheless reveals something about human nature and is helpful as we think about navigating our dependence on these devices and the ways that technology is discipling us every day. Simply “taking off” our old ways of using technology like locking up our phones, setting time limits, or blocking certain features is only a half measure. You may experience temporary victories, but it will likely not last very long. The desire to check your feed and the FOMO (fear of missing out) will probably cause you to give in or at least cut back on certain aspects of your ambitious plan of change.

What’s your new habit? 

What if we embraced this idea of “taking off” certain things as well as “putting on” new habits and disciplines in light of our digital age? For some of us, this might mean starting a new habit at dinner of sharing stories with one another or even praying through all of those Christmas cards to remind you of family and friends that may not come to mind immediately during prayer time. It could mean committing to read a few pages in a new book each day, journaling, starting a new workout routine, or even writing a letter to a friend. 

The goal here is to do something that you would enjoy or that is life giving to you in lieu of the digital distractions and addictions you are trying to curb. You will form new (and better) habits and will experience the joy and fulfillment of doing a different activity. Just putting down your phone doesn’t change your fixation with it. Instead, we must seek to redirect our passions, longings, and habits—by God’s grace—to something greater if we are to really turn away from our old habits and have our minds and hearts renewed in a digital age. 

Human nature reminds us that we are creatures of habit and have created certain liturgies or ways of living. To alter those, we must actively seek to craft new habits and liturgies rather than passively seek to avoid certain things. As we start a new year, eager to follow Jesus well in our digital age, we need to remind ourselves that our bad habits or patterns were not formed overnight. Likewise, new ones will take time to establish. But by putting off the old and putting on the new habits, we might come to see how the Spirit renews and refreshes us to pursue wisdom for the days ahead.

By / May 26

Recently, I wrote a short post on Facebook about some of the difficult decisions my husband and I are facing in parenting, echoing conversations I’m having with other parents. Our kids are 13 and 10, and like every parent for all of time, I frequently hear myself saying, “Things are just so different than they were when we were growing up.” And while this has been true through the ages, it does seem especially difficult to raise children in an era when technology is advancing so rapidly and contributes to a vastly different childhood experience than the one in which we grew up in the 80s and 90s. 

In the Facebook post, I reflected on a recent conversation I had with a friend in which I joked, “If we could just get all the parents in a room and agree to not do cell phones or travel sports for kids, we could solve all the problems.” While this was a joke, it was also my simplistic way of expressing some of the difficult decisions we face at this stage of parenting. And judging from the responses from friends, we’re certainly not alone in wrestling with these things. There are unique challenges facing parents right now, and we need wisdom to parent our kids well.

Kids and phones

There’s a scene in the 2008 film adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who in which one of the daughters of Whoville’s mayor pleads with her father, “Can I please have a Who-phone, Dad? Everyone else in my class has one.” Like so many parents, myself included, the mayor responds with sarcasm, “Oh really? Everyone?” The daughter then presents him with photographic evidence — a picture of herself standing alone in the midst of 11 other students, all of whom are happily talking away on their phones. Most parents can relate to this scene. It is no exaggeration for my child to tell me she’s the only seventh grader without a phone. In fact, it’s only a slight exaggeration for my fourth grader to say the same. 

The statistics back up our childrens’ claims. The website SellCell surveyed 1,135 parents in the U.S. with children between the ages of 4 and 14 in 2019. They found that:

  • 40% of U.S. parents let their kids have their own phone by the age of 10
  • 56% of pre-teenage kids have a phone by the time they reach 13
  • 20% of kids first received phones at 13 or 14 years old
  • 7% were 15 or 16 when they received their first phone

The study also reported that 42% of kids are spending 30 hours each week on cell phones.

You have probably seen the statistics on the links between smartphones and anxiety, depression, lack of sleep, and other issues in kids. The past year has only exacerbated many of these things. Parents who were holding off on phones have made the decision to give their child one during the pandemic because of the combination of the child’s need for socialization and the parent’s difficulty managing working from home. I spoke with a counselor who said his practice has seen a dramatic increase in children who have been exposed to pornographic content through device usage in the past year. 

Looking at the statistics, it seems like a simple decision to just say, “No phone until 16,” or some other age in the distant future. But as with most parenting decisions, it’s not that simple. Decisions around safety and the ability to stay in communication during after school activities cause many parents to allow phones. Some are intentional about starting with phones that limit access to the internet or social media. Others use smartwatches for the same purpose. For some parents, the gradual exposure to phones allows them to teach their children how to use technology responsibly. You can read more about making decisions like this here

I have spoken with parents who have allowed their children to have phones in middle school or earlier, while others have waited until high school. Some have had good experiences, although most admit it’s an additional burden to themselves as parents to stay on top of their children’s tech use. They have their kids sign contracts and treat a phone much like they would a car — as a tool that is a privilege, and one that can be taken away with irresponsible use. Other parents have admitted they regret giving in to their children’s pleas and wish they had waited longer. 

There are no easy answers when it comes to our kids and phones. 

Kids and sports

Another area in which parents feel pressure is that of youth sports. Studies consistently show that kids involved in athletics develop long-lasting skills helpful beyond the court or field such as confidence in relationships, empathy, problem-solving, and accountability. Most of us who have children in middle or high school grew up in a time when you could try out several different sports, and even play two or three in high school. It was rare for an athlete to specialize in one sport from an early age, and club or travel teams were the exception, not the rule.

I went to volleyball tryouts at my high school as a ninth grader in 2000 having never played before. Without any club experience, I was able to make a small NAIA college team four years later. If I could transport my ninth grade self to 2021, I wouldn’t have been able to make most middle school teams. Friends whose daughters have played on their schools’ sixth grade teams have received a lot of pressure to have their daughters play club ball. It’s common knowledge that they won’t be able to play in high school unless they spend time and money playing year-round. This for a sport in which less than 4% of high school players go on to play in the NCAA, with only 1.2% playing in Division I. 

This problem is not unique to volleyball. The statistics are similar for most sports. (Although, if you want your daughter to play college sports, ice hockey is your best bet; 26.2% of female high school ice hockey players go on to play in the NCAA.) 

As the popularity of travel sports has risen, the overall participation rate in sports has declined. Families who are able to pay are funneling money into more elite teams, while those who cannot pay are forced out of competitive athletics. A 2017 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office revealed that the overall student participation rate in sports is now only 39%, with rates the lowest in urban (32%), high-poverty (27%), and charter (19%) schools. 

It can feel a bit like a chicken and egg scenario. We don’t want to do travel sports, but we want our kids to have the benefits of playing competitively. Because it’s so hard to make teams or get playing time, we pay the often exorbitant costs and sacrifice our time to ensure our kids get the experience of playing the sports we loved at their ages. For some families, it’s about setting kids up for college scholarships. But for many, they see the benefits of discipline, commitment, and team building — things we all want for our kids. Of course, the sacrifice often includes missing things like gathering with a local church family. And what we prioritize as a family speaks volumes to our kids about what’s important in life.

Where is wisdom?

These are just two out of many issues we are wrestling with as parents. Each generation has its own struggles, and in that way there’s nothing new under the sun. But even as we encounter new challenges, we need timeless wisdom.

I remember sitting in a Bible study as the mom of a 1-year-old when a new mom shared that she had been convicted to go to God in prayer, asking for wisdom in parenting decisions rather than just going straight to Google. It was as if a lightbulb went off in my mind. I was a Google mom. My kid wouldn’t sleep through the night, so I went to Google. She would only eat orange foods, so I went to Google. She wasn’t walking yet, so I went to Google. 

I didn’t solely look to Google for solutions; I often asked friends. We would compare notes on milestones and tips on what was working for us. Often, both the internet and my friends were helpful. God has given us the common grace of wisdom through experience and the research conducted by experts.

The problem I’ve found with looking to these conventional methods first for obtaining wisdom is that I’m prone to make and justify decisions based on what my peers are doing. In that way, I’m not much different from the children I’m trying to raise. We can easily find people arguing for one side or another of a difficult decision, and it’s convenient to look for opinions and evidence that confirm our natural inclinations. 

Twelve years later, I’m still trying to learn the lesson my friend taught me in that Bible study. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” It’s such a comfort to know that we can go to God first with all our needs for wisdom, and to know that he doesn’t reproach us for not already knowing the answers. 

God will often answer our prayers for wisdom through the words of Scripture, the words of another person, or through circumstances. As we wrestle through the challenges of parenting, there will always be new issues that arise, and we will frequently lack the wisdom we need. Statistics, firsthand reports, and the words of friends can be helpful and wise, but we need wisdom to sift through the noise and determine what is best for our individual children, and the grace to not fault our friends for the decisions they make. 

I am trying to learn to respond to my children’s requests with this statement: “I need to pray and ask God for wisdom about that.” Whatever the decision, I hope this reminds my children and myself that he is the ultimate authority in our lives and source of wisdom. I also hope it reminds my kids that we’re on the same team and that their parents want God’s best for them. 

As we prayerfully submit our decisions to the Lord, we can trust him to guide us in the right direction. And we can trust that he will do the same for our children when they leave our home one day. This is, after all, the message of the book of Proverbs: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight (Prov. 4:7b).

Whether our kids have phones or become college athletes, may our greater desire be that they get wisdom. And may God give us the wisdom that we need to impart to them.