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  • We asked teens what’s the one thing they would like to change in their relationship with their parents. And their number one answer is they wish their parents would spend less time on their phones and more time talking to them.  Tweet This
  • I recommend at least one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year when the whole family is free from anything that glows. Tweet This

Like most parents today, my husband and I spend a lot of time thinking about how to delay and limit screen use for our two children. Up until this year, smartphones and tablets have not been that big of an issue in our family because our kids, who are ages 12 and 6, do not have their own devices. But now that our daughter is in seventh grade, we increasingly find ourselves on the defensive, having to explain to her and even other adults in our social circle why she is one of just a few kids in her middle school without a cell phone and why we plan to keep it that way for as long as possible. 

With new research linking smartphone use to teen loneliness, depression, and even suicide, more experts raising concerns over laptops in the classroom, and the ever-present threat of exposure to harder core pornographic material online, there are legitimate reasons for all of us to be concerned about the effects of technology on children’s well-being and the health of family life. In his new book, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place, former Christianity Today executive editor Andy Crouch digs into these issues, providing concerned parents with both encouragement and guidance. Crouch cites original research on family media use from the Barna Group and offers 10 steps to help families create a home life that is centered more around healthy relationships than on screens. I recently spoke with Crouch about how families can keep the ever-expanding arm of technology from encroaching upon healthy family life (this is a lightly edited version of our conversation). 

Alysse ElHage: How has technology—particularly smartphones and streaming devices—made life more difficult, especially for families?

Andy Crouch: Well, I would put the smartphone, which is only 11 years old this year, in the context of a much more dramatic development, which is the introduction of technology into households generally. I really think of this as only about a 100- year-old story, where we’ve brought into our homes, really in a single lifetime, devices that largely work on their own and purport to make our lives dramatically easier and reduce certain kinds of toil and effort. When you think of how many devices have been introduced into the home over the last 100 years, I actually think the telephone, the microwave, and, of course, the television are at least as significant as the smartphone. A household, where family members used to depend on one another to provide for life together, now can be largely a place of leisure and consumption. 

And this really changes what it is to be family. It notably reduces our dependence on one another. And this has accompanied a tremendous explosion of affluence in the United States and in the West—affluence which isn’t evenly distributed. But the typical middle-class home now has so much more space for privacy, that is, places where you can be entirely alone. All of this has made us less dependent on one another. It means that, in particular, children don’t see their parents exercising skill in the context of the household. And so while their parents may exercise a great deal of skill outside the home in the workplace, what children mainly see their parents doing is very much what they do, enjoying various kinds of leisure and play, watching TV, or checking Facebook or whatever. So I think you have to have that context, and then you add in another layer, which are these ubiquitous, glowing rectangles we have that now are just exquisitely customized to the preferences of each individual. 

And the major decision in the design of the smartphone was really embodied in the name that Apple gave it, the iPhone. It was not the we-Phone. Think about the way that television was portrayed when it was introduced into American households. We have photographs from that time, which are kind of iconic, of the whole family sitting around and watching TV. And in retrospect, that probably wasn’t such a great idea. But on the other hand, think about how communal that picture is of the family, at least the nuclear family, all having an experience together, sharing it in one room, sitting on a couch in physical proximity to one another, laughing at the same jokes, and so forth. 

Now, every member of the household can have their own TV and their own device that is attuned to their particular desires. This is just one more step in a roughly century-long process of dissociating ourselves from one another. And I ultimately think that means dissociating ourselves from ourselves. Because I don’t actually think we know ourselves until we know how we are known by others. And we find ourselves in relation to others, especially in the primary and formative context of the family. And the earlier and to the greater extent you introduce the smartphone into that, the more you disrupt that process of knowing and being known. 

And let me say, there’s a lot of anxiety about how children and teenagers use smartphones. But in some of the research that we did for The Tech-Wise Family, we asked teenagers what’s the one thing they would like to change in their relationship with their parents if they could. And the number one answer the teenagers gave is they wish their parents would spend less time on their phones and more time talking to them. 

My biggest concern is actually not about children or youth’s use of these devices—though I think that is something to be very careful about—but about how parents use them and the effects on their marriages and the way they parent.

We find ourselves in relation to others, especially in the primary, formative context of the family. And the earlier and to the greater extent you introduce the smartphone into that, the more you disrupt that process of knowing and being known.  

Alysse ElHage: In the book, you emphasize the importance of putting technology in its “proper place.” For a healthy family life, if you could sum up the proper place for technology, where does it fit?

Andy Crouch: Well, there’s kind of a literal answer and a more figurative answer. The literal answer is: I think the best place for technology is at the edges or in the least central parts of our homes. I talk in the book about actually rearranging our living spaces as much as we can, so that the place where we spend the most time has the least technology—including screens, but not only screens. What do you really want at the heart of your home? I think even in these latter days when they sit down to dinner, people still want to sit, not around a table full of glowing things, but at a table with a different kind of glow, the glow of candlelight, and food that’s been carefully and, hopefully, skillfully prepared. 

So, in our own home, we have arranged as much as possible to have the devices, of all kinds, in peripheral areas. The only TV in our house is in the basement, which is not a place we go that often. The phones get parked in the kitchen when we come in the door. They get put into that charging station, and we don’t generally carry them around unless we have a specific purpose to use them for. And if you walked into the main living area of our house, you’d have to look really closely to spot any technology in it. Certainly technology is not in the foreground, and it’s not commanding attention. Instead, we have musical instruments. When the kids were younger, we had a place for them to draw and create art. We have books. We’ve got a fireplace, which is the original glowing rectangle, and a table where we eat. And we do not have any devices at that table, at least at the dinner hour or other meal times.

So, the literal sense of where is technology’s proper place? It’s at the margins, rather than taking over the central place where we spend the most time. Just staying literal for a moment, if there’s one place that smartphones really do not belong for anyone, it’s the bedroom. A very high proportion of teenagers, as well as adults, sleep with their smartphones—in the case of kids, literally in the bed with them. Maybe for adults, it’s more often on a bedside table or something like that. But there are so many reasons not to have a smartphone in the bedroom. There are only two good reasons I know of: the concern that you be reached in an emergency by people you care about since a lot of people have “cut the cord” and don’t have a landline phone, and the other is to serve as an alarm clock. But I think the cost of a landline is very low compared to the cost of distraction and disengagement from one another if you’re married. And the cost of having these devices near our beds to a good night’s sleep is well documented at this point, especially for children. Teenagers, in particular, are texting one another all night—literally all night—and those notifications are coming in and disrupting their sleep. There are so many reasons to keep phones out of all our bedrooms. 

The more metaphorical answer to your question about the “proper place” is that technology is wonderful for expressing human capacities. A very broad category for this is any kind of work. We’re able to have this interview together using technology and accomplish work. I can express the result of thinking I’ve done. You can then respond, and we can do really good work together using technology. And there’s work to be done in the home. We have an insanely complicated set of Google calendars for our family, and all that scheduling is made so much easier by technology. There’s no problem with that as far as I can tell. 

But what technology is not good at is forming human capacities. So it’s good at expressing, amplifying, or distributing the fruits of human capacities, but it’s not good at actually making us into the kind of people who have something worth expressing. 

What are the most formative environments for human beings? Well, the home is, for all human beings, the most formative environment. And it’s deeply formative even for adults, not just for children. And then I would say school and church, or religious communities, are the other primal formative environments for human beings. And these are the places we should be most careful. These are the places where technology has the least place. In other settings, like the workplace, I think on the whole it can have lots of benefits, and it’s a wonderful thing. But not when we’re trying to be shaped as people, and that’s what the home is for above all. 

Having these [technology] circuit breakers in our lives really robs these things of their most addictive power, which is their always-on, always-demanding, and always-comforting qualities.

Alysse ElHage: I want to talk with you for a minute about the enormous pressure parents feel to allow our kids to use screens at earlier and earlier ages, and we get this pressure from schools, other family members, and other parents. For example, I have a first grader, and almost all of his friends have their own tablets, watch YouTube on their own, and use video gaming devices (he does none of these things). My 12-year-old daughter is one of maybe two girls in her class to not have a cell phone. In many ways, other parents’ media decisions for their family make things tougher for us as parents. What encouragement do you have for parents who want to keep technology in its proper place, but who feel pressured and also sort of infringed upon by other parents who maybe do not have these same values?

Andy Crouch: Well, it’s absolutely the case that one of the factors that make it hardest to have a sane life with technology as a family is other parents, and I will say sometimes grandparents as well. It is very hard. And I think there is no shortcut to make it a lot easier. 

One decision my wife and I made that served us on the whole well was to not try to exert a lot of control over what the technology environment was like outside of our home. You know, video games are a huge part of boys’ lives today. I think that’s not a good thing, and I don’t think it’s the best for boys. But we did not insist that our son not play video games when he was at a friend’s house. We just didn’t have video games at our house. And I will say, children [are] quite resilient, and they can bounce back from a lot of unfortunate experiences, and they have to. I mean, life has hardships of all kinds. If children are in a primary environment that is really healthy, I actually am not that worried about sort of limited-time exposure to things that are less healthy. 

Now, obviously, there are limits. And there have always been risks in trusting your child to any other family, all the way up to abuse, and that has happened for all human history. And there are modern equivalents to that level of abuse that can happen in other homes. Of course, we have to be aware of that. We have to have the kind of relationship with our children that when they encounter something like that, they talk with us about it. 

But we found that it was more workable to not try to dictate what other families did, but just to be very clear about what the expectations were in our house. Now, that being said, that meant, especially for our son at a certain age (I would say 8-10 years old) that none of his friends wanted to come to our house because to them it was just the most boring possible environment! And it was very painful to watch these boys come over once and have it not go well. An 8-year-old boy isn’t going to be that good at coming up with alternatives. And to see those friends not come back, and to see a degree of loneliness from that, was hard as a parent. 

But I will also say—and this may not apply in the same way to people who are not trying to raise their children within a particular faith tradition—but if you are raising your children within a faith tradition, whatever it is, you are—by definition—asking them to believe and act in ways that are different from the mainstream. And the choices that are going to come their way later in life are honestly much more consequential than whether they watch YouTube when their friends come over. And our children need practice saying these magic words: “Our family is different.” Every Jewish family that keeps Kosher knows this, intrinsically. Every Christian family that has standards that are different from the world’s about, say, sexuality in the teenage years and beyond, knows this. And we want our kids to be the kind of adults who are able to resist actually much more fearsome pressure. So, as hard as it is, it’s training for adulthood when we’re going to have to be saying the rest of our lives in as gracious a way as we can, “Our family is different.” 

Alysse ElHage: That’s really great advice, and it is something we frequently say to our kids, although it doesn't always go over so well! 

I also want to ask you about keeping kids safe from pornography because, honestly, this is my number one concern as a parent. You address online pornography in Chapter 8 of the book, and what I found interesting is that you talk more about limiting exposure rather than completely protecting against it. Why is that?

Andy Crouch: I think the evidence is quite overwhelming that one way or another there are so many vectors for children to be exposed to sexually explicit material that by age 13, the great majority of children have been exposed to it. This is a terrible thing, and we should certainly do everything we can to limit it. I think of it as being very much like living in a place like Beijing, in this sense: as I understand it, many days of the year, the city of Beijing has quite serious air pollution. If you live there, as a parent or just a person, there is pollution in the air. To live in that city is to breathe it in. And I do believe that these kinds of images—not just images, but that’s certainly the most visceral and powerful form of pornography—are polluting. But they are also all around us. So, what would you do if you live in Beijing? Well, families that have the means [to do so], install a filter, literally, to filter the air. And so certainly in our homes and certainly on any device that we give our children, we need to have the most robust possible filtering. 

Our children need practice saying these magic words: "Our family is different."

But right now, the number one way that adolescents are exposed to sexual content is not through a website, but through text messaging and images that are sent by other students. There’s very little web-based filtering that can filter that out. So, the more important thing than filtering is actually getting over a very bad idea in Western culture, which is privacy. Privacy is, of course, a good thing when the government grants it to individual citizens. But as a categorical need for human beings, it’s very doubtful that we thrive in private. I don’t think human beings are meant to live that way. I certainly don’t think that’s what family is meant to be. So, the most important thing we can do, once we have the basic filters set up, is to create as little privacy as possible.

Alysse ElHage: Yes, and I love the way you put it in the book. You write that a tech-wise family has “no technology secrets and no place to hide them” and that we need to practice this as parents and as couples.  

Andy Crouch: Exactly. So certainly with children and youth, to the extent they have access to screens, screens should be used only in public places where it’s very straightforward for parents to look over their shoulder to see what they’re getting. I think it absolutely makes sense to say to your children, "You can expect me to turn your phone on at any time and read all your text messages." I know that kids can delete things. Children are going to test all kinds of boundaries—adolescents in particular. But there’s a big difference between them testing those boundaries, knowing they are there and that they are doing something their parents would consider wrong, and getting the impression that their parents really don’t care. 

So, you’re not going to be able to prevent your children from testing boundaries. It’s very unlikely to prevent them from encountering things that we would really not want them to encounter. But you can create an environment where the default is, we’re connected to each other, we know what’s going on in each other’s lives and on each other’s phones. So, we have kind of the relationships that support us when we encounter things that we shouldn’t, that kind of help bring us back to health and sanity. 

Alysse ElHage: Before we go, what is your top piece of advice for parents regarding becoming a tech-wise family?

Andy Crouch: Well, I’ll tell you the one that people seem to find the most helpful. It’s the simple principle of our devices not always being on. I recommend a rhythm of at least one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, the whole family being free from anything that glows, and as much as possible from other forms of technology as well. So we have a day a week largely free. Our “hour a day” is around dinnertime for us—for families with smaller children, bedtime may make the most sense. And then I think it’s important to have a week or more a year that is technology-free. Not every family has the means or the opportunity to take a week of vacation. But many do, and to the extent that you can, make that a technology-free week for everyone, not just kids, but parents as well. 

Having these [technology] circuit breakers in our lives really robs these things of their most addictive power, which is their always-on and always-demanding and always-comforting qualities, which may be the essence of addiction. These little disciplines—if they are built into every day, every week, and every year—can really help all of us have much more healthy relationships when the screens are on. 

*Photo credit: LightStock