In 1670, Blaise Pascal published Pensées, in which he alluded to the longing people have to fill the emptiness inside with whatever we can find. He concluded, however, that it is futile when we turn to anything that seeks to replace only what God can offer. In his words, “…none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
We are searching for something that always seems to elude us. And running from things that scare us. And where do many of us turn to search and run? To our phones.
I often do this, and I am guessing you do as well. Just a few nights ago, after a long day of work, I was exhausted and ready for bed. At 10 p.m., I picked up my phone, and before I knew it, an hour had passed and I was still scrolling through my social media feeds.
I am not the only person to do this—far from it. Two billion users log in to YouTube every month and viewers watch over five billion videos every day. A Pew Research Center survey showed that 31 percent of U.S. adults now report that they go online “almost constantly,” up from 21 percent in 2015. The highest age bracket was 18-29-year-olds, with nearly half (49 percent) falling into this category. A recent article in ABC News about teens and screen time stated, “Teens spend an average of seven hours and 22 minutes on their phones a day, and tweens—ages 8 to 12—are not far behind, at four hours and 44 minutes daily.”
As parents and pastors, we can look at these statistics on teens and media with alarm and respond in a knee-jerk reaction by taking away our kids’ phones. Many of us, after all, have likely seen the humorous memes that hit too close to home: “I’m having a bunch of people over later to stare at their phones. You are invited to join us.” Ouch. And judging by my own experience a few nights ago, I can’t claim to be above reproach when it comes to choosing what’s in front of me over the temptation of the Internet.
But before we simply take the phones away from our teens, we would do well to consider a better way to help them navigate their phone usage—both quantitatively and qualitatively. Let me share three steps we can take to encourage teens to make healthy decisions even when we are not around.
First, Educate Them.
The more we can educate and dialogue with our teens on both the negative and the positive impact of screen time, the more we can set them up for success. One study of over 40,000 children and adolescents found that spending more than one hour per day on technology was associated with lower psychological well-being. Individuals exhibited less curiosity, low self-control, a decrease in emotional stability, and an increase in depression and/or anxiety.
Nicholas Carr wrote about this in his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains:
“When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.” Neuroscience is on the side of “less is better” when it comes to screen time.
The more we can remind our teens of the downside of constant screen time, the more open they may be to finding new habits that both cater to their desire to stay connected and also build healthy routines that care for their minds.
Second, Help Them Think Critically.
Many of us have failed to model Jesus as we disciple our teens towards better screen health. When we look at Jesus as laid out to us in scripture, we see a very clear pattern of how he engaged others: He asked questions—a lot of questions. In an effort to help our kids break their poor screen habits, we neglect the first rule of relationships—they are two-way. Discipleship isn’t teaching or preaching. Discipleship is conversation and communication.