October 2, 2023

Tish Harrison Warren (Priest, Anglican Church; Author, Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep (2021) (Christianity Today’s 2022 Book of the Year)) has published three New York Times op-eds on the role of technology in our lives:

  1. How do we help kids navigate a technological world?
  2. How do we discern what technology to adopt?
  3. How does technology change our understanding of what it is to be human?

1. Managing Screen Time Is a Family Matter:

[W]hen I get together with friends who are also parents, the conversation eventually turns to a repeated theme: how to handle screens and technology use with our kids. It feels like every parent I know is wrestling with this. I am, too.

In 2018, Krista Boan and Tracy Foster co-founded Screen Sanity, a nonprofit to help parents, grandparents and other caregivers navigate these concerns. Screen Sanity offers tips, tools and trainings to “help families raise happy, healthy kids in an increasingly digital world.” I wanted to speak with Boan about the practical things caregivers need to keep in mind as we think through technology use in our homes. This interview has been edited and condensed. …

Tish Harrison Warren: My growing concern is that even the best types of screen use displace the actual material world around us. Minutes or hours on screens are minutes or hours kids (and adults) are not talking to people around them, going on walks, learning an instrument, staring into space or interacting with the material world.

Krista Boan: I’ve heard Jonathan Haidt call screens “experience blockers” — putting a screen in your kid’s hand prohibits them from experiencing the world, whether it’s relationships or enjoying creation or whatever. Every time we choose convenience, there’s a cost. Every time you push your toddler through Target and they start having a tantrum, it’s so tempting to want to hand them a screen. And for sure, there are times that you’ve got to just get through Target. That’s the gift of technology. Sometimes you can make that exchange. But every time you do make that exchange, you have to consider that there’s a cost.

By allowing them to go through the experience of having a meltdown and not getting what they want, you are actually building a muscle of delayed gratification, of having these coping mechanisms that, long term, are the things that you want them to have as teenagers, when they experience something that’s hard or disappointing or embarrassing or they don’t get what they want. We want them to have those skills as little ones to be able to draw from so that they can know that they don’t have to react quickly to something that’s painful.

Another example for parents of little ones is children’s boredom. It can be excruciating to deal with as a parent. And it is so tempting to just pacify them. Boredom is the doorway to deep creativity. If they can get through the conflict they’re experiencing internally, they will go into deep play. Deep play helps us keep calm and be recentered. …

One reason we let our children go to screens is parental exhaustion. I see this with my kids. I get tired and give them screens so I can have a break.

Give yourself grace. Today’s parents are exhausted from trying to juggle so many things, and sometimes a little screen time can be a lifesaver. This isn’t about perfect parenting — it’s about finding ways to use screens to support the things that matter most to you. So try to release the pressure to find a magical number of screen time minutes and instead start to think of childhood as an opportunity to grow the muscles and habits they will need to have healthy tech use for the rest of their lives. When your kids’ screen time feels out of sync, don’t feel like you need to throw all of your screens in a lake. Give yourself as many do-overs as you need. Ultimately, little steps in the right direction really add up. Even small steps are big steps when it comes to digital health.

2. We Should Be More ‘Amish’ About Technology:

The first time I truly admitted that something was awry with my use of social media was the day of my daughter’s first-grade Christmas performance in 2019. She’d been anticipating the show for weeks, practicing her song again and again. I’d rearranged my work schedule to be there and was running a little late but could make it in time if I hurried. As I was getting ready to leave, a Twitter conversation was on my mind — a mind that was locked into Twitter often enough that it thought in 280-character bites, composed unbidden tweets constantly and always felt a little twitchy and restless.

So before I started the car I hurriedly pulled Twitter up on my phone, checked my mentions and replied. No big deal. I did this all the time. Yet those few minutes ended up making me a few minutes later than I would have been. I entered the auditorium at my daughter’s school moments after her class finished their song. I’d missed it. When my daughter realized I hadn’t seen her sing, her face fell. She didn’t cry or blame me, but she was clearly — and justly — disappointed. I was, too.

There are only so many kids’ Christmas performances we get in this life, when their little voices are full of innocence and joy, when their tiny fingers wave at you from the stage, when they still desperately want you there. I recall nothing about that conversation on Twitter — not the topic, not the responses, not the tone. But I will never forget that crestfallen look on my daughter’s face.

Over a year later, I still hadn’t quit Twitter, but it had stopped seeming harmless and fun and began to feel like something darker. I told myself I had to stay on social media for my writing career, that I had a civic duty to be in the so-called digital town square, that I could elevate the discourse by trying to always be kind and respectful online and that that was important work. What I wasn’t facing was how much of a habit, even an addiction, online social interaction had become for me. I was either scrolling or tweeting multiple times a day, even when I didn’t want to be, and gave up sleep for it. It was — and still is — embarrassing to admit. I clearly couldn’t avoid social media by willpower alone, so in 2021, friends encouraged me to take more extreme steps. …

American society could learn from Anabaptist groups, including the Amish, Mennonites and others. Many of these groups do not, despite popular belief, refuse to use technology. But they are far more discerning than the rest of us about how a given technology will help or hurt their communities. If a technology may distance people from one another, weaken a sense of in-person community, generate conflict or harm vulnerable people, they avoid it. These groups remind us that there are higher goods that can be harmed by technology and that these must be defended, even at a cost.

In a fascinating piece on being part of the Bruderhof community, a Christian movement in the Anabaptist tradition, John Rhodes wrote about some guidelines his community uses when it comes to adopting technology. …

I will probably never join the Bruderhof community, but I think their way of approaching technology with skepticism and caution, seeking the good of the whole community and the flourishing of human beings, is something we can all learn from. Rhodes encourages mainstream Americans not to be afraid to walk away from new technology. “To be tech-savvy is not a virtue,” he writes. “‘Blessed are the early adopters’ is not a wise rule for living. If a form of technology is proving to be deleterious to relationships with others, we must have the fortitude to drop it.” I wish I’d found the fortitude years earlier.

3. Nurturing Our Relationships in a Digital World:

There are … fundamental philosophical questions that new technology raises that often go unaddressed: How does technology change our understanding of what it is to be human? What assumptions does digital technology carry about what makes a good life? Our answers to these deeper questions silently guide the choices and habits we embrace in our daily lives.

My friend Andy Crouch has thought deeply about these and other questions raised by our increasingly technological world. He is the partner for theology and culture at Praxis, a Manhattan-based organization that helps start and grow nonprofits and for-profit businesses that are committed to social change and repair. He is the author of five books, including “Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling” and “The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place.” I spoke with him about his most recent book, “The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World,” which was published last year. This interview has been edited and condensed. …

Tish Harrison Warren: Digital technology is everywhere now. I recently wrote about a kind of technological fatalism that sets in. Is there a way to fight to preserve our humanity amid technological changes?

Andy Crouch: I do not believe we have to wind back the clock to a time when we didn’t have these capabilities. Because I think we can redirect and redesign them in ways that actually are good for heart, soul, mind and strength complexes designed for love. In the book, I talk about this as pursuing the way of instruments rather than the way of devices. Because instruments — scientific instruments, medical instruments, maybe most beautifully musical instruments — can be very high tech, in that they have a lot of complexity. They draw on science and industry and so forth. But instruments, by definition, are used by human beings in ways that require quite a lot of skill and engagement and human presence. So the first thing is to get back on the track that we were on for millenniums as human beings, which is the development of tools, tools being things that we employ to extend our capabilities in the world but without disengaging us and without this dream of magic or effortless power.

The beautiful thing in some ways about the smartphone, for example, is that my robotic vacuum will never do anything but vacuum instead of me. But my smartphone can be an instrument in that I can decide every time I pick it up whether I’m going to use it in a way that actually develops my heart, soul, mind and strength that is subordinate to and for the purposes of love.

If I pick up my smartphone and I develop a relationship with people I’ll never meet — influencers and celebrities — by watching videos, that diminishes me. But if I pick up my smartphone and I call my daughter or FaceTime her, that activates love and relationship. Basically, it’s using the thing to more deeply engage with the world rather than to retreat from my investment in the world.

And don’t give up on neuroplasticity. We have been rewired to be dependent on these things, but we can rewire again if we choose to put some limits on how we use them. And when you go through any big rewiring, whether it’s learning to play an instrument or detoxing from a dependence, you go through this stage of dysregulation and difficulty where it’s really hard because your brain has become accustomed to operating in a certain way. But on the other side of that is a much better way. It’s so worth it.

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Other New York Times op-eds by Tish Harrison Warren:


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