4 Questions about Parenting and Screen Time
This article is part of the Questions and Answers series.
Q: How should I decide what content my child watches?
A: When our firstborn was old enough to sit through a movie, we excitedly talked about all of our favorite childhood movies we couldn’t wait to experience with her. I vividly remember sitting and watching one of our all-time favorites with her and being shocked how many times words and phrases were used that I prayed she didn’t catch. This “classic” was littered with inappropriate language and glorified unkindness even between friends. From that moment on, we knew we’d be fighting an uphill battle.
As Paul and Timothy were finishing up their letter to the Philippians, they encouraged the church:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.—Philippians 4:8
The first volume in the new Big Theology for Little Hearts series, a board-book series for toddlers that presents broad theological principles in simple, easy-to-understand terms, introduces who God is and how to follow him.
The heartfelt desire of believing parents everywhere is to raise up children who will one day take up the torch of Christianity and walk faithfully before the watching world. As such, we are responsible for ensuring that the content they consume is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. Whether it’s the language being used on the surface level or the underlying message being communicated, as Christians we must be aware that our little ones are absorbing it all. While the world cannot be expected to bend to the standards of the Bible, we are certainly capable of being picky with the content we allow them to be exposed to.
As you go about deciding the best content for your family, don’t shy away from holding it up to the light of Scripture. Is this movie pure, or does it promote promiscuity? Is justice being exemplified, or is sin being swept under the rug? Are the lessons being taught ones that I hope my child would learn?
Lastly, screen time, and particularly media consumption, offer a tremendous opportunity for helping to shape the way content is received and processed. For example, our daughter Lucy (4) has begun picking up on and asking questions about the sinful attitudes and actions of others. Recently, while engaging with a princess plot, she noticed the antagonist was being mean to the main character. The “bad” character was being unkind. This led to a good conversation about how being unkind can often hurt others and is ultimately sinful. Watching shows or movies together offers a great opportunity to help our young ones to identify and process through godliness and wickedness. Call sin what it is, and praise godliness in others when you see it.
Q: How much screen time is too much?
A: The straightforward answer is that there is no definitive amount of time. There are psychological studies to consider, your child’s unique reaction to screen time, the demands of your particular family, and a million other factors that would prevent me from giving you a black and white number of how much is too much. Some days mom is sick, and a little extra screen time makes the day more manageable.
Occasionally, you fly across the country and the only way to keep your toddler in his seat is to watch movies on repeat. And some years, the world faces a global pandemic that requires children all across the country to spend hours and hours of their days in front of a screen just to finish their school year.
While the list of ever-changing variables could go on and on, the one thing that is constant is God’s word. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:
All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything.”—1 Corinthians 6:12
As we consider where the line of “too much” lies for our own family, we must align our decision making with the truths of Scripture. We can ask questions like:
- Am I allowing my family to be dominated by screen time?
- Am I giving my child a screen so that I can escape responsibility?
- How is my child personally responding to the amount of time they spend in front of a screen?
- Am I modeling how to use, but not abuse, screen time, or am I demonstrating what it looks like to be dominated by a screen?
Q: What role can screen time play in my child’s growth?
A: It often feels like the conversation of screen time is heavily tipped towards how distracting, evil, and unhealthy it can be. It may be encouraging to remember some of the good that can come from screen time and some ways that we can use it as a tool in our children's lives. First Corinthians 10:31 instructs us, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” How can we use screen time for the glory of God?
As we’ve seen most dramatically over the past months, screen time has allowed our country to maintain some semblance of normalcy in the midst of chaos. Screen time has allowed children to continue their education when schools needed to be shut down, employees to maintain their jobs when they couldn’t go to their offices, and relationships preserved when social distancing kept us apart. Even beyond a global pandemic, there are countless ways that screen time can benefit our young children’s education. From animal documentaries to YouTube explanations of math problems that are beyond mom and dad’s scope, technology is truly a gift to our children’s education when used with proper moderation.
There is the potential for negative content in screen time to drag our children down, but there are also many ways we can filter the content our children consume to educate them and grow their worldview. We can teach them about the myriads of cultures and peoples God has created, learn about the lives of faithful men and women, see the major events of history, and explore the world God created. Just as a screen can devastate a child, it can also help to build them up.
Q: How can I begin managing my child's screen time more effectively?
A: Technology, and screens in particular, has a wicked way of swiftly transitioning from a helpful tool to a demanding addiction. An email comes through—look at me! A text is received—look at me! Someone tags you in a post—look at me! A 15-second window of time is present—look at me! Rather than being the key to efficient and effective living, screens can become the very thing holding us back in many significant aspects of life.
How can we use screen time for the glory of God?
As parents, we have been entrusted with the privilege of providing the greatest degree of influence on our children, for better or for worse. Like many things in the Christian life, when you’re pointing one finger at your child, three more are facing back at you. Before you ask the question of how you can manage your child's screen time, you must first ask yourself what kind of example you are setting for them.
If your children see you constantly scrolling through a phone or tuning out the world to watch your favorite shows, they are learning what you deem as appropriate screen time behavior. We simply cannot expect them to avoid being addicted to screens if we are setting an example of addiction ourselves. In a world of constant chiming notifications and the deep psychological factors behind social media, it can sometimes seem impossible to separate ourselves from our screens, especially on the most grueling days when a tiny escape from reality feels like all we need. But if we intend to teach our children how to appropriately enjoy, but not abuse, time in front of a screen, we must check our own hearts and habits first.
Devon Provencher is the author of God, Jesus, and The Gospel.
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