The average age for a child to receive his or her first cell phone is now 11.6. If that seems young, consider that since this is an average, for every teen who is given a phone several years later than this, there is a child given a phone a few years younger than this.
Technology can be a helpful tool but it also confronts kids and parents with new challenges and dangers: easy access to pornography, online taunting, foolish sharing of information and pictures, constant texting and addiction. Technology also changes how we think, how we process information, and how we relate to people.
I recently taught a three-week class on the topic of parenting in an age of technology. I found that parents have deep concerns about these issues but feel unequipped about how to respond. Technology keeps changing. It is impossible to discuss every piece of technology and every issue, but there are a few foundational principles that can help parents to navigate these waters.
1. Parents need to ask themselves what their ultimate goal is for their kids. Everything else is going to be influenced by this. If the goal is merely to get peace and quiet, then it makes sense to throw a screen in front of a child a as babysitter or to give a him an iPad to keep him out of your hair. If your goal is to have a trophy child, then you will be tempted to equip her with the best technological status symbols. If the goal is mere happiness, you will give your child whatever will make him happy. If your main concern is that your child likes you, it will be hard to enforce any rules that she may resent. On the other hand, if your ultimate desire is for your son or daughter to grow as a disciple of Jesus, then your decisions about the use of technology need to flow from that goal. [See my article: Five Potential Goals for Parents.]
2. Christian families need to think about technology from a Christian worldview. I recommend viewing the film by David Murray titled God’s Technology. In this well-produced video Murray walks parents through four Biblical principles, three possible responses, and a seven step training program for parents to use with their kids. The four Biblical principles are that (1) technology is created by God, (2) technology is not essentially sinful, (3) technology has many good uses, but (4) technology has been perverted and abused by sinners. With these balanced principles in mind, our response should be neither an enthusiastic embrace of all technology, which is foolish, nor a strict separation from technology, which is impossible—even though it is sometimes tempting to go live in a cave. Instead, we need to cultivate what Murray calls “disciplined discernment.” [See my article: Teens and Technology for some talking points.]
3. Think of technology like a rifle. Like a rifle or a chainsaw, technology is a tool that can be useful but can also cause great harm. Parents need to know how technology works and what the potential dangers are before giving it to their kids. For example, parents need to realize that teens can access the internet with an iPod touch or most mobile game systems. Remember that technology is constantly changing and you need to keep up. Sites like CovenentEyes.com (and their blog) & GetNetWise.org can be a great help. It is essential to train your kids before giving them each new tool. Teach them how to use it safely. Would you give your kid a rifle without a safety class?
4. Discuss what is appropriate and inappropriate. Ask your kids to tell you specific examples of ways that technology can be misused. For example, ask them what things they have seen other teens post that they think are a bad idea. By asking for examples you are helping your son or daughter develop discernment. It also helps you see what standards they have or don’t have. Your child isn’t going to think of everything, so be prepared to give your own examples as well. For example, ask your daughter, “Do you think it is good when other girls post bikini pictures to facebook? Why not?”
5. Use a two-fold approach: HEART and HARDWARE. You can’t control your kids with filters and firewalls alone. They can always find a way. Parents need to target the hearts of their children rather than merely relying on hardware and software to do the job for them. As a parent, your goal isn’t just to keep your kids safe now, but to prepare them for eventual release into the world. If your filters were the only thing keeping them out of moral sewage, they will plunge themselves into it the moment they are no longer under your roof. The heart is the real target for discipleship anyway—our loves and desires define who we are. On the other hand, don’t fail to take advantage of help such as filters and parental controls. Blind trust is foolishness on the part of parents. Even the most moral of teens are still sinners with the potential to do very bad things. Wise parents will apply Ronald Reagan’s words, “Trust but verify.” A consistent track record of responsibility leads to greater trust and freedom.
6. Combat unhealthy modern views of privacy. Young people are growing up with a very strange view of privacy. It is an infringement on their right to privacy if mom or dad checks on their internet history, but on the other hand they will share personal and inappropriate information with the entire internet. Today’s ethos of privacy has us hidden from the people we should be open to, and open and exposed to those we shouldn’t be. Instead, young people need to realize that accountability is a good thing. Sin loves secrecy. I recommend using Covenant Eyes on internet devices, especially with teenage boys. Also, start getting your kids to think of any technology entrusted to them as “family technology” rather than private property. Explain to them what it is like in the adult world when a company gives their employee technology to use. The employee usually does not have a right to complete privacy concerning how the technology is used. In the same way, give your kids technology with the understanding that even if they are the primary user it is not their private property. Also consider having them sign a “User Agreement” before giving the technology to them. [Click here for one you can use.]
In some ways, we face challenges unlike any other generation. On the other hand, there is nothing new under the sun. Past generations had to figure out how to handle the introduction of the telephone and the automobile. Every generation from this time forward will be faced with technological game-changers. We need to learn to adapt while we keep our eyes on that which does not change.