Children and Technology

If you have children, it is your job to think carefully and Biblically about how and when your children use the computing devices in your home. The issue is not fundamentally technological; rather, it is about discipling your children to love God and to know their own sin and to hate it.

That means you may not be an idiot when it comes to sin and temptation in your own home.

There is a technological component to doing that work, and it can feel very overwhelming to many parents. Many parents are oblivious to the dangers that come with, say, giving your child an iPhone. Or, you rationalize the decision to do so because of your child’s intense desire for an iPhone.

For the last few months, I’ve been paying attention to a website called ProtectYoungEyes.com, and I’ve really appreciated what I’ve seen. Here is a sampling of some of the helpful articles they’ve published recently:

They were also involved heavily in a documentary released earlier this year titled Childhood 2.0. I don’t consider myself a dead-beat dad when it comes to this stuff, but watching the documentary was a kick in the pants. Definitely not good to watch it with children around, but I do recommend giving both the website and the documentary a look.

It is not at all too early (or too late!) to get a handle on this stuff in your home!

What other recommendations do you folks have?

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Thank you for posting these! I’ve spent the last seven years, since the day my oldest was born, worrying about how to protect my kids from the internet.

My first step is to wrap my head around DNS filters, and how to make them effective (I didn’t even know this was a thing!). Then get my wife to the same place of concern as me.

And finally not let my kids have social media accounts until they can vote?

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When I read your comment about waiting until your kids are voting-age before they are allowed to have social media accounts, I assumed you were joking. But then I remembered that I have a daughter who is eleven… and now the idea doesn’t sound so bad! Honestly. I cannot think of one good reason for my children to have social media accounts while they are still in my home.

That said, I thought I’d follow up this post with a recommendation for a product that we have been using in our home for over a year: Relay. It’s really great. It’s a $50 device with a $10/month data plan. There is no screen on the device, but the children use it like a walkie-talkie to talk with their mother and me. It has GPS, so I can always see where the children are when I send them off on an afternoon bike ride.

A couple weeks after purchasing it originally, we received the following email:

Hi Lucas,

We wanted to check in and see how things are going with your Relay service. We’ve reviewed your Relay account/coverage and it looks like you may be experiencing connectivity issues with Relay in your area. We have partnerships that give us access to 3 of the 4 big carriers and we want to ensure you’re getting the best service we can provide you!

To improve your Relay service reliability, we would like to send you new SIM card(s) to insert into your Relay(s). The new SIM card(s) use a different cell provider then the cell provider your service is currently using. The process to change is pretty simple and we’re here to answer any questions you may have on Relay coverage and changing your Relay’s cellular network

If you are interested in changing to a different cellular network (no extra cost), would you mind providing us with a shipping address for us to send the new SIM card(s) to?

We look forward to your response!

Thank you,
Relay Support

That was without any prompting on our part. When we have contacted customer service, the response has been great.

Finally, Relay regularly pushes out updates that are truly helpful. Here’s an example. From the beginning, they’ve had a feature where the child using the device can push the big button five times in a row to indicate that there is an emergency. This week, they announced a new feature in the app (the part that I, as a parent, interact with) where I can escalate the situation by contacting 911 if I find that it is a serious emergency. Relay (the company) will then contact the 911 dispatch that is closest to the Relay and pass along the Relay’s location information so that the response team goes there.

Young children simply do not need to carry around a screen in their pocket. A dumb phone would be another reasonable option, but then you don’t get some of the neat features of a device like the Relay. Another drawback of a dumb phone, though, is that it still gives literally anyone in the world with a phone the ability to contact my children. Who needs that?

Again, anyone else have good recommendations or ideas about securing your digital environment?

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In my opinion L.M. Sacasas is the most thoughtful person writing about technology today - though he is likely much more tech skeptical than most of the crowd here. A few months ago he wrote (and recorded) a piece called Children and Technology which is well worth a read.

It is well worth consideration.

I certainly approve of the “no social media accounts until voting age” approach. Common sense (and lots of social science research) shows that social media is terrible for kids, especially teenage girls (“social” video games often fill the same pernicious role for boys). The problem is that much social interaction has moved to virtual platforms, even in conservative churches, and the real life analogs have eroded along the way. There is no way out of the trap - either your kids will feel that they are missing out (and they really will be, in some sense), or you will be putting them in harms ways.

I will definitely give it a listen. I am familiar with Sacasas’ work, and I even paid for access to his class through the Greystone Institute. That said…

I couldn’t bear to finish it. While I have appreciated some of Sacasas’ insights, I wish he wouldn’t talk and write like such… an academic. I’m also a huge fan of Neil Postman, like Mr. Sacasas, but Postman figured out how to be an academic intellectual and also… interesting.

:man_shrugging:

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Yeah - I agree with your critique. His writing (and speaking) is ponderous. But there aren’t many people writing and thinking well on the topic. Alastair Roberts is another person who has writing on technology and adjacent issues I have enjoyed, but he is even more difficult for many people to read (and enjoy) than Sacasas.

For example:

ETA: Unfortunately being a talented and original thinker and writing good crisp prose aren’t always linked!

Here are some comments from my experience.

  1. At first, my wife liked the idea of no electronic devices in the house, or at least none for children. This foundered on the fact that Daddy sometimes plays games on his phone. Plus, I have never discovered anything that comes close to motivating my kids as the prospect of earning videogame time.

  2. The ability to search the Internet for information is so helpful for education that it is difficult to not allow kids access. Plus, there are so many good online resources that I thought it worth it for my older kids to have the Gmail account necessary to access them.

  3. I’ve kept my kids off of most social media, but it’s difficult to say no to everything, especially in this time of COVID, because they want to keep in touch with their friends.

  4. We have a dumb phone for kids to use in case of emergency or in case the sixteen-year-old needs to be picked up early from work. No smart phones for kids – they have cheap tablets on which to play games and do some work.

  5. Due to surreptitious, unauthorized gaming, we instituted a rule that all tablet use must occur in the living room.

  6. When one of the kids was discovered to be using a laptop for unauthorized chatting and gaming instead of schoolwork, we instituted a rule of working at the dining room table. This lasted for three days, at which time we realized the dining room table would be a terrible location for a Zoom class, so the laptop went back in use in a private bedroom during class time.

  1. There is no software that monitors use on a Linux system, but I’ve let my kids use a Linux laptop because it is so much easier to learn and do real programming in a Linux environment.

  2. I have software that monitors the tablets, but I had to remove it from my desktop because it “did not play well with others.” Several times I faced obscure problems that interfered with my ability to work that I eventually identified were caused by the monitoring software. Perhaps a different package would work better, but I am not confident. In order for monitoring software to do its job, it must have control over the computer and communications, but that sometimes interferes with the proper working of other software or is perceived as a “man-in-the-middle” attack by malware.

  3. My feeling now is that monitoring software can mostly prevent inadvertent access to bad material or catch an inexperienced kid, but I doubt that it will be able to stop a determined and clever kid. So far we have been blessed that the kid most likely to transgress is also the most likely to have a guilty conscience and 'fess up afterward.

Joel

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Relay is a brilliant idea! However, I think I can optimistically justify this until a learner’s permit. Realistically, I’d likely start getting hard pushback halfway through middle school.

What age range are you kids using Relay?

My kids are ages 6-11 right now. I suspect this will work for a year or two more, and then we will likely need to supplement or come up with a new solution entirely.

Thanks for taking the time to write that all down, Joel!

As I mentioned above, my oldest four children are between the ages of 6 (whoops!) 7 and 11. We have an iPad that is “their” iPad - they can use it if they ask. We have added a few games to it, and they play them occasionally. But aside from casual games like an iPad racing game, I generally recommend giving video games a pass entirely.

This is the wonder of the internet. The problem is that the internet needs to be filtered, and, unfortunately, it’s not straight-forward to know how to do it. For instance, we’ve been using Hoopla and Libby for a while, and they allow my kids to check out books from the local public library - both audio and print version. That’s great! But we also discovered that there is literally no way to filter the content within those apps. Period. So that means that if I make those apps available on the kids iPad, they will be able to check out literally anything they want. And, if you don’t know already, the library loans movies as well as books these days.

This is the kicker when it comes to social media, and there is no easy way around it. In the short term, I believe that our children will just have to miss out. Sorry, but the risks are no where near commensurate with the potential benefits of allowing social media accounts.

That said, I really believe that more groups - churches, organizations, cities… maybe even families should find ways to provide “digital spaces” for people to interact online. The fact that we talk about Facebook as “the global public square” is just ridiculous. It’s not, and won’t ever be.

I certainly understand the reason for this, but, if I may give a word of exhortation: don’t be lax about keeping the laptop out of private rooms at all other times! It can be so destructive.

This is definitely my experience with monitoring software, and it is very irritating. I try to avoid it as much as I can. Kind of like installing anti-virus software - you begin to wonder whether the anti-virus software isn’t as bad as just getting a virus.

Filtering software is what can prevent inadvertent access, and I believe in filters. I’m less sanguine about actual monitoring software where you see what your children or an accountability partner is seeing. I would prefer for people to learn good habits with their tools - keep your phone or computer out of private bedrooms, delete social media apps from your phone if you find yourself constantly looking at them, etc.

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I would say that our kids are undergamed – they think it’s fun to play a game I first did on a mainframe computer back in the mid-1980s. Otherwise it is casual games on tablets for only 1-2 hours over a week, sometimes as a means to interact with grandparents. For good or for bad, I’ve not seen anything work better as a carrot than videogame time.

Our kids don’t check out any (physical) book from the library or watch any video/movie without first receiving permission (and assessment of suitability) from us.

Our kids are not on “general” social media. But I’ve allowed the older ones to chat with other kids on a forum for math nerds that is monitored by adults or use Google hangouts and Discord with known friends. That doesn’t eliminate all risk, of course.

Agreed.

Even if I had the software capability of following everything my kids did, I wouldn’t have time to review it. So I am using the monitoring software not as a foolproof system but rather to increase the likelihood of spotting trouble.

I’ve realized it’s not going to help to be super locked down through the teen years only to have them let loose when they turn 18 and move out.

From what I’ve read, the biggest source of danger is not creepers hanging out on social media or an Internet search gone awry, but other kids with unrestricted access to smart phones showing your kid bad stuff. That’s where the weak point seems to be.

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We’ve let our kids use zoom to talk with and play games with friends during the pandemic. We didn’t even think about the prospect of screen sharing until we saw their friend using his browser to google (innocuous) stuff while screen sharing with my kids. I know his household doesn’t restrict. Fortunately nothing terrible was shared, but we made a rule on the spot that they may not participate screen share, or risk losing zoom privileges. Our machines are all in public spaces, so we keep half an eye on them. The kids seem to be honoring the rule.

Just read the article. My thoughts:

  1. Resist technocratic models of what it means to raise a child

In plain speak, this means you shouldn’t trying to think of your children as an engineering project that simply requires the right inputs to get the right output. Precisely right. There is no formula for how much screen time - or anything else - would be good for your children.

  1. Resist a reactionary approach to technology

You shouldn’t just react to technology - you should think about what you want your family to be like and then use technology in service to your leadership. Tru dat.

  1. Resist technologies that erode the space for childhood

Children should spend a lot of time running around outside. Yep.

  1. Resist technologically mediated liturgies of consumption

I have no idea what he’s talking about here.

  1. Be skeptical of running unprecedented social experiments on children

From the article: “Whether we’re talking about ubiquitous visual stimulation, unrelenting documentation, networks of monitoring and surveillance from infancy to adolescence, or offloading our care of children to AI assistants, for example, I’m not keen on thoughtlessly submitting children to this experiment.”

Translation: Feel free to ignore what “everyone else is doing” when it comes to tech and children. We already know that a lot of it is bad for them.

  1. Embrace Limits

Not sure what this has to do with “tech and children.”

  1. Embrace Convivial Tools

Tech is a tool that is there to serve you, not the other way around.

  1. Cultivate wonder

Teach your children to pay attention to the world around them. Very good advice.

  1. Tell stories, read poetry

More good advice.

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I think the thing that has been most motivating to me in thinking about tech with our kids has been reading books and summaries of studies about the research on kids and technology. The more studies I’ve come in contact with, the more I find myself wondering, what are we even giving up here? Nothing much. Even the question in the back of my mind wondering if they’ll be behind by not using tech until later has been studied and apparently older kids catch up within weeks to kids who have gamed/used the gamut of technology since early childhood. I can’t speak to adolescence yet but I know for now I have no qualms about only allowing very limited access especially while they’re in the early stages of brain development in early childhood and elementary school.

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