Q. We have made the conscious decision to limit our family’s exposure to media. Our teens (16, 14, 13) do not have cell phones, their access to a computer in our home is limited to school-related purposes, and our television is locked with parental controls. We watch very little television; instead, our house is generally filled with the sounds of music, talking, and even silence.
This is not to say that our kids don’t have access to media outside our home! They use computers at the library and at school, and they watch TV and movies at their friend’s homes. They are fully engaged with the culture even without having access to it at home. In fact, this is why we have been such sticklers about limiting media—we know that they already get enough of it in the course of an average day.
Still, I’m starting to worry that our very strict media standards may have unintended consequences. Our oldest is only two years from college. When he goes away to school, will he have an adequate understanding of how to use social media or how to be a discerning consumer if we don’t ease up at home and teach him to use these things?
The problem is I don’t want to give up the media-free lifestyle we now enjoy. I know if I get cell phones for my kids, I will be forced to look at the tops of their heads while they are looking down at their devices. But are we making a mistake by sheltering them in this way?
A. Most parents will read your question with envy! In our technology-saturated culture, many parents feel it is difficult—if not impossible—to shelter their children from media in the way that you have done. The latest study from Pew Research found that 78 percent of teens ages 12–17 own cell phones, and 47 percent of those have smartphones. Clearly, the vast majority of moms and dads are not sheltering but facilitating their kids’ ability to use and consume media.
You name a specific concern: If you open the floodgates and allow your kids to have cell phones, will you lose their attention? The short answer is yes—to a degree, at least. But parents who allow their children to have cell phones and smart phones still can—and should!—make rules about how they can be used. Many have policies such as collecting all the phones in the home at a certain time to be turned off and ignored, or limiting their use with parental controls.
Your question, however, raises a larger issue: If you don’t allow a greater degree of media consumption in your home, how can you supervise your children and teach them to use it responsibly when you’re not there (i.e., in college, which in your case is mere months from now)?
I’ll certainly catch some flack for this answer, but my gut feeling is that it’s probably time to ease up on your restrictions so you can infuse your values in your children’s media consumption.
This is a good time to remind yourelf that media and technology are, in and of themselves, morally neutral. They can be used for good, and they can be used for evil. I’ll be the first one to point out that the evil one is a media maven. He manipulates souls with media content that seems attractive but quickly becomes destructive. I’m talking about social media addictions, video game addictions, and pornography addictions—all of which are very real and very dangerous.
But media can also be used for good—and for God. The New Evangelization is, in part, an idea based on the premise that we, as Catholics, must use everything at our disposal to advance the gospel, including media. (If you’re reading this column via a digital version of Catholic Digest, it’s working!) We know there’s a whole lot of bad stuff out there, but there also is great content, and there are wonderful ways to use technology to promote positive relationships.
OK, so where does that leave you? Should you cave and allow your home to be more engaged in media? Should you let your kids get social media accounts like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook? Should you unlock the TV and assume that your kids are well aware of your expectations for media consumption in your home?
Yes, but with a caveat: that the purpose of your new openness to media is so you will personally have the opportunity to navigate the rough waters of media with your children, guiding and directing them as they learn to become independent and responsible consumers and users of media.
At our house, we view media the way we we view the ocean. It’s huge and beautiful and powerful—at once majestic and mighty, intriguing yet imposing. Just as you would not let your child wade into the ocean without proper supervision and training, you must not let your kids wander into the wide world of media without your guidance, instruction, and permission.
At first, you’ll hold their hands, oversee each step, and stand close by to grab them if the current gets too strong. Then, as they demonstrate their skill and judgment, you’ll be free to sit on the shore and read a good book, looking up frequently to monitor their safety. Eventually, they’re going to ask for the car keys so they can go to the beach with their friends, but by then you’ll be able to trust that they are capable of safely navigating the waves on their own.
You’ve done an amazing job up to now of creating a unique and precious environment in your home, marked by a media-free policy that has surely allowed you to build strong and secure bonds with your kids. Do consider that it may now be time to equip them for the media-saturated world in which they must necessarily exist.