We keep having the same conversation while we are adventuring around the country. It’s about technology and our kids.

My sons both have (extremely old) iPads, and we use them almost every day. Lots of our homeschool methods are found there — they have apps to help improve their handwriting, apps to teach geography, apps to give them math practice and apps to get library books. And, of course, they have apps to master NBA slam dunks and to outfit their avatars in diamond armor.

We keep asking ourselves — when it comes to screens and games and apps, and how much is too much for our kids?

We’ve noticed that when we take a long break from the internet and the tablets, a miracle happens. Our kids get along better, play more creatively, are more respectful toward their parents, and seem happier. And then, when we are in civilization again and we allow them screen time every day — an hour of Minecraft, maybe — they almost immediately start acting like drug addicts. They think about their games all the time. They whine for them, manipulate us to try to get them. They fight with each other about who got more time. They explode at us when they’re told no.

Yesterday while we were driving, and my kids were fuming in the backseat iPadless, my husband was clicking around on his iPhone. He started reading an article aloud to me while I was driving, which felt like a description of this phenomenon.

“Screen time overloads the sensory system, fractures attention, and depletes mental reserves. Experts say that what’s often behind explosive and aggressive behavior is poor focus. When attention suffers, so does the ability to process one’s internal and external environment, so little demands become big ones. By depleting mental energy with high visual and cognitive input, screen time contributes to low reserves. One way to temporarily ‘boost’ depleted reserves is to become angry, so meltdowns actually become a coping mechanism.”

We read that once and thought of our kids.

We read it a second time and thought of ourselves.

Of course the developing brain is so much more fragile to the toxicity of technology than the mature brain is. But certainly we have not, with our middle-aged minds, escaped those perils altogether. We, too, have our meltdowns.

I got to wondering how much of the phenomenon we are experiencing in American politics, and in the American church, has to do with grown ups and their “screen time.” With adult Christians walking around with constantly overloaded senses, chronically fractured attention, and continuously depleted mental reserves. I wonder what it’s done to our ability to create and experience the “beloved community” when we get so mad so easily — and whether that rage has more to do with our own need to feel something (anything!) and less to do with the inexcusable behavior of others. Anger feels good because it’s a way to feel some energy for once. It feels like life.

Parents of young kids are spending a lot of energy and time figuring out the puzzle of raising kids in this technologically-oriented world. Perhaps the church could do well to consider the same — to begin to develop a set of spiritual disciplines that help us navigate a world that has so masterfully sucked us in and sucked us dry. That so manipulates us into feeling connected while we remain so alone. That so blithely divides us, and turns “the other” into a caricature instead of an imprint of God.

Your turn: Are you feeling this too? Have you found ways to stay dialed in to the world and also combat the perils of being always plugged-in? Are there spiritual disciplines that we can lean into together? Does your church deal with this in helpful ways? Have you read anything that’s shaped your thinking or behavior?

Kate Kooyman

Kate is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who serves in the Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Justice in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

4 Comments

  • Thank you for this. It gives me pause to consider.

    Have a blessed New Year.

  • Travis says:

    Kate, as always I so appreciate your perspective and incisive commentary. One spiritual practice that has been formative for me and Mariah (and that we are presently attempting to make more intentional) is Sabbath. But not Sabbath is simply a 24-hour break from the frantic, distracted, harried, techno-addicted lives so that we can go right back to them for 6 more days of crazy. I’m talking about Sabbath as a way of life, rooted in a 24-hour departure from all of that as a practice of reorientation that we bring with us back into the week. One way Mariah and I have started to try and do this is, on our Sabbath, to put our phones on airplane mode and stick them in a drawer in our kitchen, then to cover up all of the clocks in our house (we only have two, on the microwave and the stove), creating a truly “timeless” experience. We also put our phones in the same drawer each evening after I get home from work so we can be more present to each other, ourselves, the space, the advent of evening, etc. We’re still experimenting, but it’s been powerful so far.
    Travis

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Ja, so right. For me, no screen and no phone in my bedroom.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    Hi Kate,

    One of the ways I try to avoid letting the digital world “suck me dry” and turn me into a cynic about others is to use it instead of just letting it use me. In order to attempt to accomplish this, I take advantage of digital ubiquity to read and try to understand people that I don’t necessarily agree with – that’s a gift of the digital world, if we’re willing to accept it. It’s probably not a secret that you and I don’t see a number of things the same way. But by reading what you write here and other places, I can better come to understand and appreciate you, even if our differences in perspective persist. So, I’m here today to say that I love you as a sister in Christ, and the digital world helps me do that better. Grace and peace to you.

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