Hope, encouragement and guidance for parents who want their kids to be both tech-savvy and tech-wise
by Darryl Dash
Two iPhones. One iPad. One iPod Touch. One Nintendo DS. One Wii. Three computers. And I’m just getting started. I haven’t counted the cell phone, the TV and the other gadgets lying around the house.
That’s probably enough for you to get the picture: we are one wired family. But we’re not that different from others. Children today have access to all kinds of electronic devices that existed only in my dreams when I was a kid. How do we monitor and regulate our children’s use of this technology? It’s a question our parents never had to face.
Some parents choose to eliminate most of the electronic devices. This seems a bit extreme, although it’s crossed my mind a few times when my daughter’s been playing music videos on YouTube.
There’s no way to retreat to the past. Our children will need to learn how to live in a world of screens, a world of almost unlimited distractions. It seems that part of our role as fathers is to help our children learn to live in this world, not to avoid it.
Besides, the devices bring a lot of good into our lives. I gave my daughter some fatherly advice a couple of years ago. She rejected it until she found the same advice on a Christian forum from someone she respected. I resented this at first, but then I realized that she is accessing some excellent material from some of the sharpest minds in Christian youth ministry. The results in her life have been profound. I’m not arguing that all technology is good for our families, but I can think of a number of times that it’s enhanced the lives of my kids.
I want my children to be tech-savvy. I want them to experience the benefits of some of the online resources. I want them to be prepared to use technology appropriately as adults. And I also want to be able to phone my teenaged daughter on a Friday night when she’s out with friends. So there’s no going back: the gadgets are here to stay. How do we help our children learn how to use these technologies appropriately?
Set time limits
I talked to a young adult this week who says that he spends 40 hours a week playing World of Warcraft. I don’t want my kids to follow his example. One of the skills they’re going to have to learn is setting limits. Electronics can take over our lives.
I need to be honest: it’s hard to teach my kids this because I’m learning it myself. I hear an e-mail ping from the phone in my pocket, and I suddenly become one of Pavlov’s dogs, salivating with excitement. E-mails, tweets, Facebook messages and blogs consume more time than I realize. Unless I learn to set limits, it’s going to be hard to teach my kids how to do the same.
My 11-year-old son recently decided to fast from technology for a week. We asked him why, and he said, “I’m addicted.” For a week he refused to look at or touch anything that had a screen. We were amazed at his decision, and even more amazed that he lasted a week. He recognized his own need for limits.
I think of this sometimes when I see him watching TV and playing on his handheld games system at the same time. We’ve set a limit of two hours of media time per day, including TV, computers and all electronics. When you do two things at once, does that count as time concurrently served? I still haven’t figured it out, but I think it may be a problem that he’s got two screens going at a time.
We all need limits. Families can probably benefit by talking about time limits. This includes the quantity of time, but it also includes hours that electronics are off-limits. We’ve programmed our computers so that the kids can’t log on early in the morning or late at night. We generally turn the TV off on Saturday nights. It’s important to set limits for the kids, but it’s also important to set limits for ourselves, so we can teach the kids by our example.
Set content limits
It’s not just a matter of setting time limits. We also need to watch the content our children are consuming, whether online, on the phone, in media and even in games.
This is enough to scare any parent. Our kids are in danger of being exposed to all kinds of harmful material. We read statistics about the average age for a child’s first exposure to online porn. It doesn’t even matter that many of the statistics seem hard to verify. Then we read the stories about sexting—sending sexually explicit messages and pictures between cell phones. It can be scary to read about how technology is being misused by kids.
When our children are young, it’s appropriate to limit access to some technologies. We bought our daughter a cell phone when she started taking public transit to school, but it didn’t have a camera. We don’t allow our kids to sign up for Facebook until they’re the minimum age specified by Facebook (13). I know parents who have revoked cell phone and Internet privileges based on problem behaviour. We can’t assume our children are mature enough to handle every temptation. Sometimes we need to make it hard for the temptation to even reach our children.
No parent can shield their children from temptation forever. As our children grow, we need to begin preparing them to meet these challenges. We can gradually give them more freedom while monitoring their progress. We allow our children to go on the Internet, for instance, but we have their e-mail passwords, and we check their accounts occasionally to see what’s there. We’re gradually relaxing this as they build trust. We have free monitoring software on all of our computers (X3Watch) so we know if anyone visits inappropriate sites. Our computers are in the kitchen and living room, so there’s always someone else around who can see what’s going on.
Paranoid? I hope not. When my kids ask if I trust them, I tell them I don’t trust myself with unfettered freedom. We all need accountability and limits.
Talking to our kids turns out to be the best way to meet some of these challenges. This can begin with covering the basics at an early age: don’t give your name to strangers online; don’t assume that people are who they say they are; never agree to meet a stranger on the Internet and so on. We can explain why we don’t allow certain video games or DVDs. Gradually, as our children grow, this can become a conversation in which we wrestle through issues together. We can also explain how we’re protecting ourselves from some of these temptations, so it’s not all about them.
We can protect our kids all we want, and set up all kinds of safeguards, but ultimately we want their hearts, not just grudging compliance. We have to set limits, but limits are only part of the answer.
Get to the heart
Do you remember when your parents set limits for you? Some of them worked. But some of us became very good at finding ways to get around the rules. Kids are good at outsmarting their parents. Sometimes they’re openly rebellious; a lot of times they take the sneaky approach.
I remember a scene from the allegory Pilgrim’s Progress. One of the characters makes a mistake. Somebody—it turns out to be Moses, representing the Law—comes and beats him. “That man that overtook you was Moses: He spares none, neither does he know to show mercy to those that transgress his Law.” The point is a good one. Rules can point out what’s wrong, but they can’t change the heart. They can actually leave us feeling beaten up.
That’s why I want my kids to experience grace. Grace can reach places in the heart that rules never can. I want them to see that I’m someone who’s experienced grace. And I want to extend it to them as well, pointing to the place where I found it myself. Grace makes room for the mistakes that will inevitably take place, both for us as parents and for our children.
I want my kids to be tech-savvy. But I want them to know that technology has its place, and that it also has its dangers. Most of all, I want them to know that the best way to handle all these gadgets and technologies is to make sure our hearts are focused on more important things, like relationships for instance. Maybe then they’ll be prepared not only for themselves, but to help with the challenges their children are going to face one day. I want them to know technology. More importantly, I want them to know God and His grace.
Darryl Dash is lead pastor of Richview, a Fellowship Baptist congregation in Etobicoke, Ontario. He blogs at www.dashhouse.com
The article above was featured in the special July/August 2010 issue of SEVEN magazine.