How to Defend Your Family against a Digital Invasion
By Chris Carpenter
CBN.com Program Director
CBN.com - Mark is a hard-working father of three who wants what is best for his children. He and his wife are both Christians, attend church regularly, and praise God that all three of their kids have accepted Christ as their savior. On the surface, it seems like life is great in their corner of the world. However, there is something in Mark’s household that isn’t quite right. He senses that one of his children has an addiction. Not to drugs, alcohol, or pornography, mind you, but to digital technology.
Feeling desperate, he puts his entire family on a technology “fast”. In other words, no television, computers, tablets, video game systems, cell phones, or Wi-Fi connectivity for 30 days. Two of Mark’s three children have no problem with this. Life goes on as usual. But for his teenage son, Matt, life starts to spiral out of control. He begins to steal user names and passwords from several Wi-Fi systems in the neighborhood so he can hide in closets late at night with his friend’s laptop computer just to play video games. For Matt, there is no problem. Mark and his wife are at wit’s end.
Sound familiar? This story is not made up. It is true.
Digital technology is changing our lives in very significant ways. For all the good that digital technology provides in our daily lives it is also having a highly negative impact on families, individuals, and an even deeper effect on our spiritual lives. What is designed to make us more efficient is actually tearing us apart in many cases.
In their latest book, The Digital Invasion: How Technology Is Shaping You and Your Relationships, Drs. Archibald Hart and Sylvia Hart-Frejd offer therapeutic and biblical strategies for handling this cultural phenomenon.
I recently sat down with Dr. Hart-Frejd to discuss how people can become good stewards of their digital lives, how to search for signs of technology addiction, and how to best get control of it in your home.
I have an eight year old son, so I’m living a lot of what you write about in your book Digital Invasion. Media is consumed on every type of screen imaginable in my house. It’s a challenge to manage and govern it. It sometimes feels that as parents we have lost the battle. Why are you so passionate about this digital invasion?
The term “digital invasion” really just captures what happened, that we have just been invaded, every part of our life with digital technology, and we (Dr. Hart-Frejd and co-author) were very interested in the subject matter, but it also is a personal one for me, as I have my own teenage son who is very digitally addicted, especially to video gaming. Part of my passion was to do the research and find some help for myself, for him, and be able to utilize that for families and parents, and counselors, and educators.
What are some signs of technology addiction in your children? What are some things parents can look for?
One of the main things is grades in school. That’s a big one. The grades are going down. Extra-curricular activities, sports, things they used to love to do are now of little interest. My son used to love to play the drums, and then he didn’t want to play the drums anymore. He used to love to play soccer; doesn’t want to play soccer anymore. You should also look for withdrawal, and if you can’t say, here is a way to find out. Take away cell phones for the next three hours. If they’re irritable and anxious, it’s probably time to say we need to really look at this.
Digital technology is rewiring our brains for distraction. All the multitasking that it brings is actually arousal addiction. It’s keeping our brain on electronic cocaine, so to speak. It taps into the same area, abusing the pleasure center of the brain. That overuse of the brain causes it to shut down. Brain scans are showing that those who overuse the Internet and digital gadgets, their brains scan a lot like cocaine addicts. This basically means that there’s 10 to 20% shrinkage of that area of the brain. This area is where you self-regulate, where you develop empathy. So, you can start seeing how this can impact our lives. If we’re not developing the empathy, we’re not developing self-control or self regulation.
For a child or a teen, how does that affect their relationship with parents, siblings, and friends? Does this “digital rewiring” have a direct impact if they like their virtual life better than their real life?
From a counseling perspective, we have to develop healthy attachments. So, part of the ways we develop attachments, healthy attachments, is by a person feeling seen and valued and heard. If a child feels that, “I’m seen. I’m valued by my parents; I’m heard,” then they can develop what we call a “safe attachment.” As an example, I have a friend who teaches tennis lessons, and she said it’s so sad, when Johnny or Susie will make contact with that tennis ball for the very first time, and they’ll look up to the stands to see a mom or a dad smile and have this, “Wow,” nod of approval. But she said many times, they’ll look up and there’s mom or dad on their cell phone, and the child will just hang their head in disappointment. So from an attachment standpoint, we’re more connected than we’ve ever been, hyper connectivity with the texts, but as far as really feeling seen, and valued and heard, that really has to be done with face-to-face affirmation and eye contact. And a lot of that in our relationships now is missing because of digital technology.
As a concerned parent, what’s the best way to get control of digital addiction in your household? Is there any sort of a fool proof strategy to remedy the problem?
It really starts from the age of three and four, a point in which they can understand. It’s really building that trust and really educating them. This is the good about the digital in technology, but there are some really damaging things here. You build that trust through communicating, “I’ve got your best interests in mind. I don’t want to see you waste your potential and your ability to play the piano, or play the drums, or play soccer by just sitting playing games.” It’s all about building that trust. Say things like, “I’m on your side, and I want what’s best for you.” Then, have a contract.
In my book we have a child’s contract. We have a teenage contract. We have a family digital contract, to really come together as a family and say, how are we going to use technology? There are items in it like we’re not going to text when we’re at the dining room table, we’re going to have a no heads down rule, that if someone’s speaking to you, then you look up and have eye contact. This sounds so basic, but this is kind of where we’re at in the culture today.
Does this contract include mom and dad, too?
Thank you for mentioning that. We say the greatest tool a parent has is their influence, and so it really comes from them modeling good digital management, and if anything, my book is really about helping people have a digital wellness plan, for them to be good stewards of technology. A lot of times, the parents are just so caught up in their own digital world. It’s a very unique situation that affects baby to grandma. It affects every single person in the family. Everyone is going to have a relationship with technology.
How can a parent or a grandparent, be a good example to their children in regard to technology? Are there any clear-cut ways to do that?
It’s a tricky place to be as far as that goes, but the best thing that they can do and I can do is to have good digital boundaries and manage it themselves. And I think everyone needs to really pray about being a good steward of their virtual life. We’re emotional beings, spiritual, relational, and now, our virtual life, it’s not going away, and I think we really wanted to get this across in the book that this an added dimension that’s not going away. One quick tip, do not look at your cell phone until after your devotional time each morning. You’ve got to have a place where your e-day starts and your e-day ends, and this is the most dangerous of all addictions, because there is no boundaries. That smart phone’s with us from the minute, many times before we even get out of bed people are already checking their smart phones, and then they get in bed and check their smart phones. Some sleep with it on their stomachs. You need to know when to say when. Setting digital boundaries for yourself will do that.
After people read The Digital Invasion what do you want your readers to get out of that experience? What is your greatest hope for this book?
My greatest hope is that they will really protect their God space. We talk about that in the book, because digital addiction changes you, and what we’re seeing is that people are not able to reflect, they’re not able to meditate. It’s in stillness and in silence that we nourish and cultivate our relationship with God, and the digital world is not very good at cultivating those. Technology is wired for distraction, and our relationship with God has to be very focused. What I’m hoping is that people will really realize they need to take time each day to be still, to put that tech-free zone, or even if it’s an app on the phone, but to have that time that this is just God, God moments. That’s my first prayer and desire, that people will not lose their relationship with God, because that’s the foundation of who we are, and being transformed into the image of Christ, that’s why we’re here, to bring Him glory.
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