Kids now search Google, YouTube, and a myriad of social networks to inform and educate themselves.
While I am responsible for Adventist Review Ministries Media Lab and deeply involved in cutting-edge media and technology, I grew up as a missionary kid in Madagascar and West Africa and was not exposed to high tech until I was 17 years old. Fun and games centered on building toy cars and other trinkets from scrap. I wouldn’t exchange my childhood experience for anything, because it developed in me the ability to think creatively, very much outside of the proverbial “box,” to find different solutions.
In the United States’ Silicon Valley, high-level executives are seeing firsthand that too much technology exposure has the potential to harm children. Some even say that social media platforms and gaming designers create addictions in otherwise normal individuals. Employees of tech giants such as Google, Apple, and Yahoo are sending their children to schools where teachers prefer a more hands-on, experiential approach to learning that contrasts sharply with the increasing trend toward filling classrooms with the latest electronic devices. Instead, these campuses look to the role of imagination in learning with a more wholistic approach.
In our digital age, technology is increasingly a huge part of our lives. But navigating it effectively (for with the good comes the bad) is very important to Christian parents. What are the benefits, and what are the pitfalls? Read on to hear perspectives from parents, educators, and tech professionals as you seek ways to make technology a help rather than a hindrance to your child’s mental, emotional, and spiritual development.
—Daryl Gungadoo, United Kingdom
What’s a Parent to Do? Set an Example
I am a mother of a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old. They get very limited screen time. When they do, it is for when we are on airline flights (they can use a tablet) or when they are sick at home (they can watch a couple episodes of their favorite show). Other than that, they can watch an occasional episode of a cartoon or the Sabbath School lesson story.
While we understand that technology is present in their lives and will remain so, we also believe there is a time and a place for it. They will eventually learn everything they need to learn when it comes to electronic devices and their use, but they have only a very short period of time in their lives when they are able to play, to enjoy the outdoors running free, to get dirty and actually enjoy it, and to experience the world around them with all five senses.
Screens are highly addictive. Once you give in, it’s easy to get hooked. This is true not only of children but also with adults. Everywhere we go, we see people looking at their phones, blank expression in their eyes, immersed in a never-ending scrolling loop. Many are parents. They have little children standing next to them, craving their attention. They ask questions to which parents reply with “aha,” “mmmh,” without really knowing what their kids have asked in the first place.
If we are so addicted ourselves, how can we expect our children not to be?
Electronic devices are an easy and inexpensive babysitter. Media provides such instant gratification and high level of stimulation that it is difficult to switch off. After two hours of videos, how can kids be expected to “go and create something”? The more screen time we give, the more they want. It’s like a drug.
We grew up with no technology whatsoever, so we went outside and played with other kids. Real games, real interaction, and real conversations and problem solving. Nowadays it’s more and more obvious how people hide behind the “safety” of the screen to be who they would like to be in real life but don’t dare for fear of rejection and many other reasons. We are losing the ability to connect with other human beings, of being present without having 20 parallel conversations via Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and so on. What has happened to just being in the moment and enjoying it, giving our full attention to the person we have in front of us?
It’s not fair that for our own convenience our kids are going to miss out on that. They are going to miss out on real friendships, on real experiences, and most important, on a real childhood, where they spend quality time with their parents, laughing, playing, reading, talking, loving, and feeling loved.
We want to create an environment for our children to develop the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control [Gal. 5:22]). An excess of screen time is definitely not conducive to Galatians 5. On the contrary, we observe children lacking in social skills and language skills, impatient, aggressive, and having emotional development delays, shorter attention spans, and even health challenges. The most important question we have to ask ourselves then is, “What is screen time displacing in our children’s lives?” When we look at the answer to that, how can we not act?
—Asun Olivan, Spain
Is Tech Friend or Foe?
As a school principal, I cannot deny that computers have become an integral part of modern education.
At Newbold School our children use laptops for a variety of learning purposes. Our teachers use them to plan and teach lessons, and our administration system is conducted online, all with excellent results. The Internet alone has opened up a world of instant information that allows children to explore their learning independently and to improve their knowledge.
But we all know that computers are not restricted to learning, and this is where problems can arise. The main problems are often associated with the entertainment and social media aspects of computing. These can have a profoundly negative effect on the development of children’s social awareness and their ability to keep themselves safe.
Although hugely popular, social media is not without its problems. On the one hand, we can connect with friends from the past, foster online connections with friends of other friends (usually whom we’ve never met in person), and keep track of anyone who allows us to follow them. We can join chat rooms and talk with people from all over the world. Many people take online interaction even further, using it for dating, listening to music, watching movies, and for shopping. Much of youth culture (particularly early to late teens) is closely linked to social media and gaming, which in turn can negatively affect how young people interact with others.
Equally so, high-speed clicking from site to site on electronic devices can lead to impatience in the real world. The ability to click past something that is irrelevant or takes too long to read can’t be applied to our dealings with human beings directly in our presence. And that can result in excessive impatience with the real world, leading to an inability to cope with the slower pace of “real time.” The volume of communication through computer devices is also creating an evolution of language and the way the written word is presented. Children have to be taught how to separate formal language from informal patter exchanged through social media, often accompanied by emojis that replace words entirely.
One aspect of change that is extremely worrying is safety in our digital lives. It is all too easy for unscrupulous people to groom children into agreeing to dangerous meetings. Grooming for sexual abuse and drug running has become so common that all school staff personnel need to have regular training in order to teach children how to protect themselves online. Fortunately, it has now become a crime in the United Kingdom to groom a child online, so police can immediately make arrests based on inappropriate sexual messaging. Parents should take this threat seriously and always set up strong parental control settings on their children’s computers to ensure their children are safe while using them. The thought of an unwelcome stranger in one’s house, even if it is a virtual presence, is indeed frightening.
Although the use of various tech can present serious threats, it is also extremely valuable, and it is here to stay. Indeed, we should not wish to get rid of it all, as it can help us create and learn amazing things. It is never computers or the Internet that cause problems, but rather the people who use them. Using a computer as a tool that we control rather than allowing it to control us is the first step toward a healthy relationship between humanity and the Internet.
We should teach our children the importance of time management, good manners, and how to keep themselves safe while using tech. Like anything else in life, a computer is only as dangerous as we invite it to be.
—Jaki Crissy, United Kingdom
Games Aren’t Always Just That
As a Bible-based media start-up entrepreneur and a father, the best thing I can do is ensure that the media I create and the media that I allow my child to consume will be wholesome on many different but interconnected levels. While the physical effect of devices on our children (eye development, biological tissue damage from emanating radiation, WiFi, data frequencies) is of utmost importance, the content that they consume has the power either to weaken their moral compass and relationship to God or to strengthen it.
Apart from the more obvious red flags within kids’ programs, there are more subtle areas of content that slip our attention and can have a long-lasting negative impact on our children. These can be separated broadly into two levels: production level and story. As parents we should examine the media we allow our children to consume through specific lenses.
At the production level, besides staying away from programs that have too many flashing lights and excitable and complex high-tempo music, the timing of each scene is often overlooked. Research has shown that for small children, scenes that last only three to five seconds and then cut to a different scene can cause attention deficit issues. The ideal length for scene sequences is 20 seconds. New emerging technologies, such as virtual reality, can present more natural media consumption, where viewers control the exact framing of the action, because their device acts like a portal where they can look around at the present world.
At the story level it becomes trickier to weed out negative programs, but here are a few clues to look for. Is the emphasis more on entertainment rather than the moral of the story? The aim of all media should be to inform and to deliver a message. If the message is more of one of being entertained, then questions should arise in our minds about whether we should allow our children to consume this or not. Are the antagonists portrayed in a way that children will find attractive and cool, even though their actions may be wrong? We have to be very careful here. The enemy of our souls wants us to be attracted and drawn to rebellious attitudes and wrongdoing. We need to teach our children how to reject the wrong and choose the right.
Research has shown that when we watch or engage in media, what we see goes straight past the moral filter of our brains. At a core level we cannot tell the difference between wrong or right, fact or fiction. Consuming media is a bit like dreaming, but we are fully awake. The action we see on the screen gets translated into our subconscious as something that we are doing. So when we witness a violent act on the screen, at the subconscious level it is as if we are doing this act ourselves. It becomes more solidified if the main characters are carrying out these acts. This is even more so in games, as part of the gameplay involves players committing acts that they would be imprisoned for in real life. The secular world does not acknowledge this connection for obvious reasons. But as followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to be more careful and wiser about what we put into our bodies, for by beholding, we become.
-—Karl DaSilva, Scotland
Digital Media Can Shift Culture
I grew up in a different age, a time when library books had index cards stamped with due dates before you went home with them. When we needed the ultimate authority on certain subjects for homework, we went to the library and the reference section where we’d look for Encyclopedia Britannica. Kids now search Google, YouTube, and a myriad of social networks to inform and educate themselves.
In the islands of the South Pacific digital media has had a huge impact on everyone, impacting the very fabric of Pacific Island cultures. There have been reported cases of abuse by men toward their wives stemming from spending too much time on Facebook, rather than having the evening meal ready on time. Petty differences not spoken about publicly are aired on social media instead of being discussed face to face. There is a way that issues are dealt with, and using social media is inappropriate in many family situations.
I can speak only from an indigenous Fijian perspective and share a very small angle of a global phenomenon that I believe we have yet to truly understand. The consumption of digital media within the islands has created a generation of insatiable consumers. The saying “Ignorance is bliss” no longer applies when young people are bombarded with advertising for the latest gadgets, clothes, food, motor vehicles, social activities, etc. Children in the islands are impacted by social media just as much as their counterparts in other parts of the world. The mistake is often made thinking that life in the Pacific Islands is slower, more laid-back, and less sophisticated. This may be true in certain places, but if you live in more urban centers with a data plan on your phone, you have the world in your hands.
Children in the islands used to be seen and not heard. But with the arrival of digital media, it has propelled them onto a platform that they are still (like the rest of us) trying to control. They may not be as addicted to gaming in the same way as their Australian and New Zealand counterparts, but they aren’t that far behind. Young people throughout the Pacific actively update their WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram accounts at a quick pace.
Digital media has also changed some of the cultural practices of the region. For example, when there is an engagement, the birth of a child, or a death announcement, certain traditional protocols are followed. But the entry of social media and digital devices is having an impact on how these significant life events are communicated and celebrated.
It may seem as if the impact of digital media has been totally negative, but it is not completely so. Digital media has given Pacific Island young people an avenue through which they may level the playing field with the rest of the world. The important issue, however, is how parents actively communicate with their children about appropriate uses of this resource.
Digital media is not going away. So the skill set that needs to be learned is how to use it effectively. I have been encouraged in seeing how Fijian youth have used social media to invite and inspire friends to attend church youth activities. Social media is fast becoming the most effective way to reach our young people, so it is in the best interest of parents and those who work with children to understand where the children are and guide them on how to best approach this journey.
—Litiana Turner, Fiji