Think before you hand your kids a smartphone: Challies

Parents are handing new devices over to their kids without assessing the risks, according to Christian author and blogger Tim Challies.

The author of The Next Story: Life and Faith after the digital explosion, Challies was in Australia last week and spoke to a group of parents in Sydney on the challenges of being a parent in the digital age.

“My particular interest isn’t in telling people how to raise their children, but just looking at it from this angle: what are some of the new realities we have to deal with?”

One of Challies’ main concerns is the assumption that new technologies are primarily beneficial. When your child wants an iPhone, they have a long list of opportunities and benefits: “I’ll be out with my friends and you’ll be able to get in touch with me anytime you want.” Or “I need this to do my homework better.”

All this opportunity is easy to see. “But the risk is far harder to see,” says Challies. “The benefits are immediately apparent. The risks take time to learn.”

“If we’re thinking as Christians, we know there’ll be risks to this technology. It’s a fallen world. Satan wants to use these things. There’s a cosmic war going on around us, and also, I think, in our devices.”

Failing to assess the risks of new technology is like handing cyber-bullying or pornography over to your kids for Christmas, says Challies.

Pointing to statistics, he says children between 8 and 18 are consuming seven hours of digital media per day. Teens send an average of 60-100 texts per day. “Children are spending a lot of their lives glaring at screens,” he says.

Meanwhile, 52 per cent of pornography is viewed on mobile devices, immune to much of the software used by parents to block inappropriate content. The age of first encounter with pornography is dropping rapidly, currently at 12 years.

Challies uses this statistics to deliberately shock. But, he says, “Parents aren’t adapting quickly enough.”

“Once we’re shocked, we’re more likely to try to think Christianly about these things. To act Christianly and hopefully to have families that are distinctly Christian in a digital world.”

To help parents do this, here are a few of Challies’ tips that answer parents’ most frequently asked questions on how to navigate the digital world.

Is it really possible to shield children from all the dangers of the online world?

Challies says parents have tended to rely on software and tools available to do their work for them.

“There’s a place for those tools, but ultimately I think we’ve got to be communicating with our kids an awful lot, doing the best we can to train them in how to use technology well.”

In Challies’ own family, he and his wife teach their young children what to do when they encounter pornography, not if. “Unfortunately there’s a sad inevitability about much of the dangers, unless you choose to lock it down forever.”

But even that is no solution.

“Refusing to allow [kids] to use these devices at all isn’t going to work because when they finally do get access they’ll have no idea how to use it well. So train them to use it well, and then trust them to the Lord.”

How do you know when to let our children use this technology?

Challies suggests taking down the barriers for children’s access to the internet as they grow. “It’s like driving a car. You don’t just hand a 16 year old they keys to your car and say ‘go have fun’ … We should take the same approach with digital technologies.

Using technology to block inappropriate content and monitor the household’s online activity is something Challies does advocate. For his eight year old, the internet is pretty locked down. But as his children prove their responsibility, he can adjust access accordingly.

“Give them the ability to handle it well, and then open it up a little bit wider.”

Where should we go for help in raising our kids in a digital world?

Sure, he’s written books about this, but Challies says some of the best advice he can give is to find parents of children in their churches who they want their kids to emulate.

“The Lord puts us in church contexts so we can find those parents and say ‘I want my kids to be like your kids, teach me what you’ve done’. That’s the joy of Christian community.”

And if you’re overwhelmed by the rate at which new digital technologies come and go, you’re not alone. Challies goes to the youth pastor at his church to find out “what the kids are using these days”. So, for example, as teens are migrating away from Facebook, parents are eager to learn where they’re going—places like Instagram and Snapchat (“Danger!” says Challies. “These are all involving cameras, so there’s all sorts of trouble you can get into there.”) But teenagers will always be one step ahead of parents – “They go there until the adults show up and then they move on.”

Three things parents should do:

  1. Emphasise face-to-face communication with your children. “Kids and parents are communicating more and more through media, or in the presence of media. That can be a great thing, but if I’m always doing it when I’m in the same place as my kids, or if that’s my preference, then we’ve got a problem.”
  2. Train your children to use digital technologies well, “knowing that we’ll probably have to spend a fair amount of time doing mop up after they’ve messed up or been exposed to something they shouldn’t have.”
  3. Deal with any problems with pornography you have yourself. “You don’t have a lot of moral authority if you’re telling your kids to not do something that you’re doing yourself. The best thing you can do for your family, guarding your children, is to stop looking at it yourself.”