Opinion  |  

Navigating the digital world as a family

Counting the costs of screen time

Some years ago, when I was working full time in the office of a parliamentarian – glued to my mobile phone even while at home – I began to worry about not just my mental health but the kind of role model I had become for my three children.

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The job, while rewarding, was stressful. It also made me more tribal, more prone to engaging in conflict rather than dialogue in cyberspace, something I am not even sure is possible online.

At the same time, my older children were being asked by their schools to use computers, and even phones, in their classrooms.

There’s no evidence that computer screens improve student performance, quite the reverse. Not only do they seem to harm critical thinking but also interpersonal skills. Further, there are plenty of suggested links now between screen time and increased screen addiction, aggression, depression and anxiety.

I took the dramatic step of helping myself first by quitting my phone-dependent job, quitting Facebook, and going to art school.

I began to do an audit of what it was doing to us as a family and to count the costs.

Key costs emerged:

  • emotional brittleness
  • thinned relationships
  • greater exposure to commerce and market manipulation, and
  • loss of boundaries around what is private and public.

Adults should have more wherewithal and life experience to establish boundaries around screens but children far less so. Children have less impulse control than adults.

How to help my children? I took the dramatic step of helping myself first by quitting my phone-dependent job, quitting Facebook, and going to art school. I wanted to model an off-screen way of being and to immerse myself in real-world tactile messiness.

“I have a student who loves his computer games, but drawing from observation has helped him see – sadly you have to teach play these days,” a teacher told me.

I began to tease out evidence about what could be useful for my children and helpful for parents. My research became a book.

I encourage all of us, at every age, to use as many modes to experience the world as possible – vision, sound, smell, sense of space and touch.

Even the simplest exercise of drawing with charcoal or ink is therapeutic, especially for young people for whom play dates increasingly involve screens.

“I have a student who loves his computer games, but drawing from observation has helped him see – sadly you have to teach play these days,” a teacher told me.

For me, these strategies have enhanced and deepened by my faith in a creative, loving and relational God. But they are also just good for me.

Parenting is among the most important and potentially rewarding jobs we can do. Our children are more likely to do what we do than what we tell them to do.

The lyricist Stephen Sondheim said it better than I can in the words for one of his songs in the musical Into the Woods:

“Careful the things you say, children will listen. Careful the things you do, children will see and learn. Children may not obey, but children will listen. Children will look to you for which way to turn.”

Reclaiming conversation is a key idea. It means active listening. God asks us to be present in every way, to be open to the possibilities that emerge from the deep connections of love and service. Rolling newsfeeds and smartphone notifications put us on edge and make it harder to tune into the concerns of the people who matter to us.

Rolling newsfeeds and smartphone notifications put us on edge and make it harder to tune into the concerns of the people who matter to us.

Finding a way out, towards solutions and balance with our habitual screens requires, I argue, being reminded of the basics of healthy relationships, development and personal formation.  For children, it must include quality face-to-face and conflict-free time with others, especially affirming adults from early in life. Hospitality and mealtimes offer that.

Theologian and writer Henri Nouwen says mealtimes and hospitality enable the “creation of a free space”.

“Hospitality is not to change people but to offer them space where change can take place,” Nouwen says, noting that hospitality is a primary facet of community across all faith traditions.

Another ingredient is protected space to imagine. The online world can turn on imagination (undoubtedly) but usually in a packaged form. Without protected spaces for undirected imagination and improvised and free-range play, children become less good at resisting impulses.

Imagining requires having time to get bored – to do “nothing” in order to discover and build the inner resources to improvise. It can lead to projects with real materials, which are messy but can offer more possibilities.

Simple activities like walking or drawing can also relieve rather than create anxiety. They can come without pressure.

Meditation (prayer included) can help us communicate better  and more thoughtfully both offline and online. It quietens the noise in our heads. Catholic phenomenologist Dietrich Hildebrand refers to the clarity it can give us as a horizon that keeps everything else in perspective. By taking time out to withdraw, even into periods of silence, we can recharge ourselves for life on and off screens.

Toni Hassan is an award-winning journalist and author of Families in the Digital Age: Every Parent’s Guide (Hybrid Publishers / New Holland). She is an adjunct scholar with The Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Charles Sturt University. Toni will be speaking at an author event in conversation with Geraldine Doogue at Gleebook in Glebe, Sydney, Friday September 27, 6pm for 6.30pm.

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Consider whether you need to make changes to your internet life – and pray about how to make them

 

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