A few weeks ago, I sat down to watch the cult classic horror film The Ring.
The very brief synopsis of the movie comes to us from IMDB, “a journalist must investigate a videotape which seems to cause the death of anyone one week after they view it.” Even though this is a movie that revolves around a VHS, it actually holds up pretty well. The aforementioned journalist, played by Naomi Watts, keeps a copy of the VHS in her house while investigating its origins and if it truly causes the death of those who watch it. This seems reasonable enough. However, she has a young son, and she wakes up one morning and her son is watching this potentially deadly video. This, obviously, leads her to suffer from great anxiety.
After watching, the irresponsibility of it all hit me. Here is a mother who has a VHS she believes has the potential of leading to the death of anyone watching and it’s just sitting around for anyone, including her young son, to pop in and watch. I don’t mean to be a fearmonger, but it struck me that this is how a lot of parents operate. Our smartphones, tablets, and other internet-connected devices aren’t filled with mystical movies that will lead to our impending deaths, but there is plenty of material we want to keep away from younger eyes.
At least 12% of all websites contain pornographic material and the average age of first exposure to pornography is around 11 years old. There are other concerns outside of pornography. According to an internal study conducted by Instagram and obtained by the Wall Street Journal, “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse…They often feel ‘addicted’ and know that what they’re seeing is bad for their mental health but feel unable to stop themselves.”
Atlantic staff writer, Derek Thompson, likened the results of this study to the use of alcohol saying that Instagram plays the role of “a social lubricant that can be delightful but also depressing, a popular experience that blends short-term euphoria with long-term regret, a product that leads to painful and even addictive behavior among a significant minority. Like booze, social media seems to offer an intoxicating cocktail of dopamine, disorientation, and, for some, dependency.”
The list of reasons to protect our children from what they may encounter through their devices could go on. Knowing that their pre-frontal cortexes won’t be fully developed until they are in their 20s, means they’ll need our guidance in helping them discern helpful media habits. For most parents, the question isn’t whether to limit what is made available to our children, but how to do so wisely.
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey offers some advice that I think would be helpful here. “’Begin with the End in Mind’ means to begin each day, task, or project with a clear vision of your desired direction and destination, and then continue by flexing your proactive muscles to make things happen.” With a similar sentiment in mind, author and speaker Jonathan McKee encourages parents to understand that by the age of 18 their kids are legally free to walk out the door and never return. Of course, that’s not the goal of any parent but the truth is that as your kids age there is naturally more freedom given to them and whether at 18 or some time thereafter, they will be out from under your watch care. His advice is to parent them toward freedom. Make it the goal that when they turn 17 ½, graduate high school, or whenever makes sense for you and your family there are no rules imposed on them. This, I’m sure, sounds radical to some and it would be wise to think through all the implications and what this would look like before implementing this strategy. But isn’t it wiser for our children to experience freedom for the first time under our roof rather than far away? What could this look like in terms of media consumption? Trying to give specifics seems like an exercise in futility, so I’ll offer a few principles that you can apply however makes sense given your family dynamics.
- Set the example. Controlling your child’s behavior with technology is difficult, but even if you manage to do it effectively the lessons they learn will be from watching you not what they hear from you. This principle is probably most relevant with your phone. Set rules with your phone that you and the whole family follow, not just your kids.
- Create, don’t just consume. In both Culture Making and My Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch discusses the importance for Christians to create. Part of being made in the image of God means that like our Creator, we are called to make culture not just consume it. As Americans, we often fall into the trap of simply being consumers. Teach your kids to create. This can be painting, storytelling, songwriting, recording videos, or whatever seems fun and makes sense for your family.
- Talk about it at home before they talk about it somewhere else. Remember the idea of starting with the ending in mind? It makes sense that you would want your child to experience complete freedom under the safety of your care rather than experiencing it for the first time on their own. It also means that, as parents, we want to educate our kids on issues of sexuality before they are educated by friends and/or Google searches. This same principle can help you in deciding what they can and cannot watch or listen to. What kind of language, topics, and behaviors are your kids likely to experience in their schools, sports teams, and workplaces? Obviously, we don’t want to expose our kids to anything gratuitous or traumatizing, but if the first time they are experiencing questionable language and sensitive topics is at the lunch table, they’ll be ill equipped to respond in healthy, Christlike ways. Perhaps it’s wise for them to be exposed to those things in a place where they can digest them with you first. Age-appropriate media can help bring up these conversations in natural ways.
- Talk about this with your kids. Be explicit about rules, expectations, and the why behind them. Invite them to be a part of the process. Who do they want to be? How can you work together to get them there? Talk with them about what you’re watching. Tell them how it’s forming you and ask them how they are being formed by it. All of this invites them to engage with their media with intentionality.
There are, obviously, many more principles that could be laid out. Tuning into Project Six 19’s blog series and podcasts, checking out youth workers like Jonathan McKee and Kara Powell, and reading books like Andy Crouch’s are all ways to glean more principles for you and your family. Just remember you want to start with the ending in mind and you’re not just doing this for your kids, but with them. This will allow you to keep clarity on the goal and invite them to be a part of the process.