According to a recent Barna study, 78 percent of parents believe they have a more complicated job in raising their kids today than previous generations—primarily because they have the added responsibility of monitoring their children’s technology use. Andy Crouch wrote his recent book The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place to advise parents about technology’s “proper place” in their home. “There is tremendous, desperate demand for help on this front,” says Crouch of contemporary technology and the family. “Everyone feels like there’s a problem.”
Crouch spoke recently with CT about Internet pornography (and why filters aren’t enough), the future of biologically engineered human beings, and why developing character virtues in your kids is more important than monitoring screen minutes.
Why talk about technology in the context of the family?
Whenever you raise a criticism about technology, people will commonly say, “Well, technology can be used for good or for bad.” But I think more interesting questions are, “What is technology good for?” and “What is technology bad for?” Technology is good for lots of things. But what it is not good for—and perhaps what it is actively bad for—is the formation of persons. And where are people formed most intensively? For all of us, that is in the context of family. That’s where the dangers and limitations of technology become most evident. I’m much less concerned about how we use technology when we’re waiting in a line at the airport, even though I don’t deny that there is something formative (and de-formative) about needing my screen to distract me when I feel the least soupçon of boredom. But that is not as critical as [the family context].
In your book, you certainly don’t suggest that people become Amish. In fact, some might even say you’ve been overly optimistic about technology.
My great anxiety about the book was that people were going to get into the book and think, “This is too radical, and my family will never be able to do this.” Truthfully, I did not want this book to become so idealistic, so purist, that it became detached from the reality of my life and my family’s life. We use all of this stuff.
I do think there are genuinely human ways to use technology. But this is only true if they are grounded in the deeper ways of being human that develop wisdom and character. What I do believe will be necessary (and this is an idea I borrow from philosopher Albert Borgmann) is asceticism. Ascetics—for the sake of something deeper or higher—deny themselves certain things they could have, not because they are categorically bad, but because they want a deeper, better life. If we are serious about our formation as persons, we have no choice but to be ascetics.
A lot of parenting books face a common challenge—that is, the author relying on subjective experience to give prescriptive advice. Given this challenge, what are core principles of technology use that will benefit every family?
I was very nervous about writing this book. What do I know about parenting? I’ve parented two human beings with mixed success (laughing). And this is why I start the book with two very general questions we should be asking about all of our choices, not just technology. First: Am I arranging my life in such a way that develops wisdom? In terms of the core spiritual disciplines, I think of solitude, silence, and fasting as well as communion, conversation, and feasting. None of those six things has anything, really, to do with technology, except that technology messes them all up and really interferes with them.
Similarly, I also want to ask: What is going to develop courage in me? In this book, I’m much less interested in telling parents how much time they should allow their children on their devices (although I would always say less is more). Instead I want to ask them—what needs to be put in place in order for you and your children to grow in wisdom and courage?
You’ve noted that we often give devices to our children, not to make their lives easier but rather to make ours easier. What do you want to say about the wisdom and courage parents need to manage technology use?
So much of the anxiety around technology is about the kids. And there are reasons for this anxiety from developmental psychology. But the message of this book is: It’s not about the kids. It’s about us, the parents. We are setting the pace for how our children imagine the role of devices. And unfortunately, we are often using devices to solve the problems that we have with our kids. Think of the problem of getting two siblings to put up with each other in the backseat of the car as you drive to the grocery store. If you hand each of them a glowing rectangle, the problem is solved. Except that the problem is not solved! In fact, by solving the superficial problem, we’re preventing our children from solving deeper human problems.
We all turn to these kinds of shortcuts in parenting. So we need the courage to embrace difficulty in a way that every day we are tempted not to. Also, we have to tell our children that their lives will not be easy and that we aren’t here to make their lives easy. This requires intentionality.
Parents’ predominant concern with respect to technology is their children’s ready access to pornography. And while you support practical ideas like installing good Internet filters and delaying the age at which children have their own personal devices, you say that’s not enough. Tell us why.
Filters aren’t enough because porn is not in one place that you can block out. Pornography isn’t being created by bad, evil people who are trying to mess up our children. It’s being created by the kids. Forty percent of teenagers have sent a nude image to another teenager; 62 percent have received one. You can’t filter that. That doesn’t mean you don’t have filters. If you live in Beijing, for example, you should wear a mask because you can measure the pollution. And we can measure the pollution on the Internet: 35 percent of all traffic is this stuff.
The realistic goal can’t be protecting our children from ever encountering things we don’t want them to encounter. The realistic goal is equipping them to flee temptation and to have an immune system that is healthy enough to reject what inevitably is going to come in. That healthy immune system is built by meaningful connection with other people and rich, real-world experiences of being loved in appropriate ways. The more we are together and not isolated, the less susceptible we are.
As we think about technology, especially its allure of disembodiment, what theological framework comes to bear?
Dissatisfaction with the body has been a perennial human reality. It goes back at least to the Greeks in Western history and crystallizes in the second century in Gnosticism, which is the belief that the entire material world is the creation of an evil demigod. Real salvation is an escape from material reality.
People have realized for a long time that bodies are a real pain: They smell; they get sick; they require all sorts of care; they decompose. And now, for the first time in human history, you can be a successful gnostic through technology.
Why did Christians reject that then? And why do we reject that now? The Christian message is that God took on that very thing that Gnosticism said was dispensable and evil: He took on flesh.
What practices do we need—in our families and local churches—to teach us to prefer our embodied connections and experiences to our digital ones?
Clearly a lot of people are saying that they do prefer the virtual. But what I believe, for sure, is that the satisfactions of all six disciplines (solitude, silence, fasting, communion, conversation, feasting) are deeper and more lasting. Of course in terms of my own experiences with the disciplines—of withdrawal in particular—I don’t enjoy them, and I don’t even necessarily feel closer to God. But after I do those things (a day later, a week later, sometimes a year later), I realize I have capacities I didn’t have before. I’m having conversations with God and with other people that I’ve never had before. And those are deeply satisfying.
I think we have to be patient with this stuff. The whole promise of technology is this: If you want it, you got it. But what if waiting is an essential part of the goodness of the world? The only thing I can say to people is: Taste and see that the Lord is good. I don’t think I can prove to you in the abstract that these embodied things will be better. I can’t even promise that, in the moment, you will feel better. But I do think you will become a different kind of person who has access to more wisdom, more courage, and more joy than you had before.
You admit to being more resistant to technological restraint than your wife, and you even venture to say that this might be more generally true for men and women. How do husbands and wives, fathers and mothers together develop a common vision for their home (and technology in it)?
For reasons that may not be biologically essential but that are culturally deep, I think women are often much more attuned to what makes for relational health. This attunement to other persons is something that women are often strong in and men often have to learn. Again, not for biologically essential reasons, the fact of the matter seems to be that one of the things men delight in doing as fathers is introducing their children to the possibilities of the world. And technology is this amazing playground of possibility. My first introduction to technology was my own father bringing home a telephone-based computer terminal to connect to the mainframe computer at Syracuse University. I was in the fourth grade. Would my mom have thought to bring that thing home? Probably not.
To the extent that women are attuned to the benefits and costs that things are having on relationships—and to the extent that men are attuned to the benefits and costs things are having on their children’s skills and capacities—we will have to depend on each other. We need each other’s help to moderate our immoderate instincts in any given direction.
As technology becomes even easier, even more ubiquitous, will families and local churches have to move toward more and more radical choices?
Yes. Because the next frontier, the next real step-change in human history, is biological. The next “easy everywhere” in the 21st century is about permanently modifying the conditions of human embodiment. And this will lead to the exploitation of vulnerable human beings, especially unborn human beings. It’s already the case that in Denmark, because of state-mandate prenatal testing, effectively all children diagnosed with Down Syndrome are aborted. The Danish papers have run this story positively, as if to say, “We’ve reached a real milestone in Denmark. We’re in a post–Down Syndrome world.” In that kind of environment, the only families that will have children with Down Syndrome will be Christian families.
In the future, Christians are going to be the community that takes the outcasts from the technologically modified race of human beings and cares for them. Most profound will be our willingness to welcome people with a range of abilities, including disabilities.
It’s going to get much more radical than putting away our smartphones.
I’m thinking of a very typical scene at the neighborhood pizzeria, where two parents are engaged in conversation while their young children are muted behind screens. What do you want to say to that family?
I get it! I understand the relief of that moment when the kids are quiet and not requiring your full attention, when they’re giving you room to enjoy one another. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if your kids could learn to occupy themselves without needing a device? That’s possible—if you help them learn. If you always hand them a device, they’ll never learn.
As our own children were growing up, it was so hard at moments because we had chosen to parent them in this technology-limited way. But now we go out to dinner and have the most wonderful conversations with our teenage children, who are totally engaged with us and with each other. It has so proven to be worth it.