We live in a culture saturated by technology. The information, promotions, opportunities and noise it creates seem to fill in the cracks of our already-busy lives so that every waking moment is occupied. In the midst of the hubbub, teachable moments for developing character are often lost. But parents who are intentional about finding those moments can succeed at raising kids with moral fiber — and at creating small pockets of sanity in a tech-overloaded world.
You may remember what life was like without digital cameras, iPods, tiny cell phones, video game consoles, high definition TVs and laptops, but your kids don't. So it's easy for them to adopt the mentality that they need the newest techno devices on the market. That's expensive. And in the rush to get their hands on the newest and best items, giving is often the last thing on kids' minds — unless you help them to remember.
It's important to start early — as soon as kids have an allowance or other income — and set standards that emphasize the importance of generosity. For example, one family required their young teens to save double the amount needed for any major purchase. The extra money was to go into savings, but families interested in raising generous kids could just as easily split it between savings and giving.
Another approach is the envelope system recommended by Christian financial counselors.1, 2 The idea here is to reserve a certain percentage of earnings for giving and to limit the percentage that can be spent on stuff.
Either of these strategies slows down the accumulation of new gadgets. At the same time, setting aside cash specifically for giving helps kids to prioritize generosity. After the money is saved, make sure to give youngsters some ownership in deciding where it goes. Encourage them to give to your church, but allow them some freedom to meet other needs they feel strongly about. They might support a child through a sponsorship organization or anonymously buy school supplies for a classmate who can't afford them. When giving is personal, it's easier for children to see that they're making a difference. In turn, they're more likely to make generosity a way of life.
A 2006 Yahoo online poll reported that the average U.S. family owns 12 tech devices, including three TVs, two computers, and seven other gadgets such as MP3 players, video game consoles and mobile phones. Poll respondents said their overlapping use of all these devices adds up to about 43 hours during each 24-hour day.3 Sound like your house?
Unless we make a deliberate effort to unplug, we can literally be entertained all day long. That doesn't leave much room for important spiritual pursuits like praying (1 Thes. 5:17), meditating on God's Word (Josh. 1:8, Ps. 1:2) and examining ourselves (Lam. 3:40, 1 Cor. 11:28 and 2 Cor. 13:5). It's not that technology is bad, but its constant presence can distract us from important exercises that make our spirits strong.
Whatever our normal tech-drenched state is, let's call its opposite contentment. It's the ability to be still (Ps. 37:7, Ps. 46:10, Zech. 2:13) — to be alone with our thoughts and be at peace (Prov. 14:30; Is. 26:3, Jn. 14:27, 2 Tim. 1:7). Getting there in today's culture takes some work, but it's possible. We can start with the biblical discipline of fasting — but instead of fasting from food, we can fast from technology. Pick a week and turn off the TV. Stay off the Internet for a day. Once in a while, leave the radio off when you get in the car. Create some space in your life — and your kids' lives — that's free from electronic input.
Another practical option is to teach kids to be comfortable with silence and solitude. In later years, these can become rich spiritual disciplines, but with little ones the goal is to help them get comfortable with noiseless time in their lives. Start by declaring a tech-free hour each afternoon or evening. Books are definitely allowed in this quiet zone, as are walks outside and time spent on hobbies. A gadget-free hour probably isn't practical every day, but honoring this quiet time often can create in kids a lasting appreciation for a bit of peace and quiet.
It's funny: Our techno-gadgetry allows us to stay in contact with so many different friends that we're often guilty of ignoring the people in the room with us in favor of those we're talking to online or on the cell phone. Furthermore, we sometimes interact long-distance in ways that we wouldn't up close, and intimacy is lost. It takes some intentionality to ensure that real, high-touch bonds get maintained in an age of cyber-communication.
Priority number one is to create time for your family to focus on each other, without the distractions of technology. That might mean no text messaging at the dinner table. (Even better: no electronics at the dinner table.) Take time to look each other in the eye and catch up on everyone's day.
Second, talk with your teens about how they communicate with their online friends. Are they being honest, or are they trying to look like someone they're not? Treating others with honor means shooting straight about your identity.
Finally, kindness toward others also means not taking advantage of them just because you have the tech-skills to do so. Anastasia Goodstein, author of the book Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens Are Really Doing Online, says that the Internet has made it possible for anyone to become a bully. And many are doing so: One third of kids say they've been victims of online bullying; 16 percent say they've done some bullying of their own.4 Clearly that's not kindness, but since it's becoming common practice, you may need to give your teen some encouragement to be uncommon.
It goes without saying that children are most likely to pick-up on these character-building practices if they see you doing them yourself. Make yours a home where character is the core and technology is an accessory — not vice-versa.
When I was in high school, Madonna sang about living in a material world. Today the lyrics would go something like this: "We are living in a digital world, and I am a digital mom."
In our family — with kids ages 12, 14 and 17 — IM (instant messaging), MySpace and Google are common terms. We have Game Boys, iPods, Xboxes and cell phones (with built-in cameras, of course).
Let's face it, wishing for Little-House-on-the-Prairie days won't change the fact we've been chosen by God to parent during this time in history — even if bonnets seem more family-friendly than Bluetooth earpieces. Yet we can guide our children through the minefields of today's technology — and grow closer for our efforts.
Sometimes it's hard to fully understand the threats that lie beyond the click of a mouse. According to the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography, the largest group of viewers of Internet porn is children between ages 12 and 17. And while the thought of our children viewing those images is scary, another danger is online predators. Nearly 80 percent of teens say they aren't careful enough when giving out information about themselves online.
The first thing parents must do is educate their kids about the potential dangers of technology. Kids need to understand people can pretend to be friendly in order to satisfy selfish and dangerous urges. Parents should tune in to warning signs, such as children spending large amounts of time online, turning off the computer quickly when an adult enters the room or receiving mysterious phone calls or gifts.
Children should also be taught to tell if they have a bad experience. This means immediately going to a parent or other responsible person for help and sharing about the encounter.
Parents can also help children be proactive about the entertainment they choose, starting by helping kids search for fun and appropriate Web sites and bookmarking them. Resources such as the Christian Game Developer's Foundation help families choose video games that have no violent or sexual content. As my own family has learned, even though the package may claim an E (for everyone) rating, these games are not always wise choices.
"Limit media in bedrooms or availability to media in back rooms. This was one of our biggest mistakes," says Eva Marie Everson, author of Sex, Lies and the Media, a book she wrote with her daughter Jessica. "Jessica was a good kid. We trusted her. Too much, at times. Her curiosity led her to watch, hear and read things via media we would have never approved of."
For a while, Everson felt she lost her daughter to her destructive habits. Now Jessica is the first to urge parents to stay on top of trends and know what kids are listening to, watching and interacting with.
Everson has learned to be more vigilant with the technology in her home, and she encourages other parents to do the same. "Let your children know you have filters in place on the computer but that you will still monitor where they have been," she says.
Parents also need to discuss with their kids the moral issues surrounding unwise media choices.
"My wife and I have a motto," says Eric Wilson, a father of two from Tennessee. "We're not trying to protect our kids so much as we're trying to prepare them. The dangers of technology are all rooted in the sin nature. While we try to warn them against opening unknown files and e-mails, we're more concerned with helping them identify the core issues involved, such as greed, lust, pride."
Technology doesn't have to be a frightful menace for today's parents; it can be an important ally. Parents brave enough to enter their child's digital world can discover priceless opportunities.
"Since my daughters are on MySpace a lot, I decided to sign up," Wilson says. "Now I know what they're interested in, and what they're hearing and seeing. I also like to send them messages and leave comments on their pages. They do the same back to me. It's one more way to let them know I love them and want to be a part of their lives."
MySpace, however, can expose your children to questionable content and online predators, so carefully consider the benefits and dangers of this site before allowing them to use it.
Instant messaging is another way to connect with your kids. Michele Huey of Pennsylvania is an IM buddy to her son, a junior in college.
"When my son started college," Huey says, "he downloaded AOL's Instant Messenger on my computer. He's the only buddy I have, but we connect nearly every day. We've had some heart-to-heart conversations . . . and it has brought us closer."
Of course, virtual connections are no substitute for real-life encounters. Part of a parent's job is to make sure kids don't disengage from the real world. According to Daniel Goleman, author of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, children's social intelligence is hindered when their world is filtered through technology.
"To be sure, from the iPod wearer's perspective, he is relating to someone — the singer, the band or the orchestra plugged into his ears," Goleman writes. "His heart beats as one with theirs. But these virtual others have nothing whatever to do with the people who are just a foot or two away — to whose existence the rapt listener has become largely indifferent. To the extent that technology absorbs people in a virtual reality, it deadens them to those who are actually nearby."
While technology is part of our lives, parents need to make sure their children have real relationships with real people. This includes unplugging from the digital world for a while, getting back to family dinners, inviting friends over and setting aside time for family fun and one-on-one conversations. Teach kids that in this digital world there are also flesh-and-blood people who love them — people living beyond the glow of a plasma screen.
Emily awoke at 2 in the morning after hearing a noise downstairs. Nervously pulling back the blanket, she slipped quietly out of her room toward the mysterious sound. Anxiety turned into anger as she approached the faint but distinct music of her sons' favorite video game — the same game they had been ordered to stop playing hours earlier in order to go to bed.
At that moment Emily couldn't decide whether to scream or cry — whether she was losing her mind or coming to her senses. Emily unplugged the video-game system, gathered up cords and devices, walked onto her second-story deck and pitched hundreds of dollars worth of equipment over the railing. With a great sense of relief, she listened for the sweet sound of crashing electronics below. "There!" she assured herself. "That should take care of the problem."
Emily's reaction may seem extreme, but those who live with a child addicted to video games understand. Years later, Emily said her decision to jettison video games from her home had lasting significance — protecting her sons from an addiction that is stealing countless children away from real life.
A growing number of parents are concerned about the obsession their kids have with video games. Like many parents, we resisted buying video games for our children for some time. But when a friend offered us their old system, we hesitantly accepted — determined to limit the time our kids played so that it remained a small part of a balanced lifestyle.
Before long, however, we noticed our once-active sons being enticed from normal, healthy childhood activities into a digital universe. Board games remained on the shelf. Outdoor activities waned. Even relationships with friends and family changed, dominated by game chatter or conflicts over why they couldn't play "just one more level."
The battle to limit their game time seemed pointless. Before throwing in the towel, however, we decided to check out what research said about video games. Though the American Medical Association doesn't classify it as a formal disorder, more than 20 percent of kids in the United States are considered addicted to computer and video games, which produce physiological reactions in the brain similar to those associated with substance abuse.
Research shows that the chemicals triggered by about 30 minutes of play rival an amphetamine high. Eventually, a process called "habituation" takes over — rewiring the brain and creating a physiological dependence similar to cocaine addiction. In fact, the first detox center for video-game addicts opened in the Netherlands recently.
While most conscientious parents screen games to protect their children from violent and sexual themes, few understand the dynamics causing their sons and daughters to become hooked on "the digital drug." They may have a bad feeling about the influence of video games but can't imagine kids living without it in a culture where every child plays. What's a parent to do?
To start, educate yourself and your children on the research regarding video-game addiction. Then work to avoid these common mistakes:
Mistake No. 1: Starting young. The earlier a child begins playing electronic games, the sooner he or she is exposed to the patterns that lead to addiction. Children who become accustomed to junk food lose their appetite for healthy eating. Similarly, kids also acquire a "taste" for certain kinds of recreation. Those who develop patterns of natural play rather than virtual play are more likely to become well-rounded, happy adolescents. Those who are introduced to the dopamine-inducing high of prolonged video-game play often become bored with any other recreation.
Mistake No. 2: Creating easy access. Four out of five children over 8 years old own a video-game system. The risk of video-game addiction increases dramatically when your child owns a system, because then it is much harder to control the amount of time spent playing. As with any other behavioral addiction, easy access to the object of obsession makes it difficult to avoid pitfalls.
Mistake No. 3: Using video games as a reward. While the benefit of motivating kids to complete school assignments and other tasks may seem like a positive aspect to video-game obsession, the long-term consequences far outweigh any short-term gain. Using video games to motivate kids reinforces the notion that working, reading and learning are necessary evils rather than rewards in themselves. Other motivational rewards — such as an ice-cream date with Dad or an outing with Mom — are more effective and avoid feeding video-game obsession.
Mistake No. 4: Allowing "just one more level." When asked to shut off the video-game system, most children rarely obey without first trying to prolong their play. Invariably they respond with a plea for just one more level or more time to defeat the current villain. As a result, many parents end up allowing their child to spend much more time playing video games than they intended.
As one recovering video-game addict said, "If you say you intend to restrict the amount of time a child spends, you better ask yourself whether you can really do it. Kids are very good at pushing for more time."
Mistake No. 5: Ignoring your gut. Many parents have a bad feeling about the amount of time their child spends playing and talking about video games. They have a nagging sense that allowing so much video-game time may have long-term consequences. But they second-guess the feeling, writing it off as old-fashioned or too strict. Besides, they would rather avoid the inevitable conflict that comes from restricting or removing the game system.
You know your child better than anyone else; trust your gut and intervene to help your child live a fulfilling life.
It's like when the CD made the cassette tape obsolete — only it might be an even bigger overthrow.
The rise of the digital music format, with single-song tracks that can be uploaded, downloaded, e-mailed, burned and shuffled from player to player is turning the music industry upside down. Compact disc sales experienced a 10 percent drop in 2006.1 Seventy percent of legal music downloads2 and almost a quarter of all music3 sold in the US are now purchased through the iTunes Web site.
If you've even been near a music-loving teenager lately, it won't surprise you to hear that Apple has the undisputed corner on the market for digital media players as well, with the iPod accounting for a whopping 51 percent of devices shipped in 2006 — compared to SanDisk, whose players came in second with just 10 percent of the market.4
A new development in the industry is the sale of tunes without protective code (called DRM) imbedded. In the past, iTunes' DRM has prevented its songs from being played on any non-Apple player, but now that Web site and others are beginning to sell DRM-free files. Competitors hope that the tactic will give them a market foothold.5
One of the ongoing controversies created by the advent of digital media is the question of how users get their music and video files. From the beginning, illegal file acquisition through peer-to-peer (or p2p) file-sharing services has been an enormous headache for the music industry. Obviously, they would prefer that consumers pay for their music.
The good news is that the development of easy-to-use legal download services has increased legal downloading. Estimates for 2007 show the number of legal downloaders surpassing the number of illegal downloaders for the first time.6
On the down side, it seems that those who download media illegally do so in high volumes. Five billion songs were illegally downloaded in 2006, as opposed to 5 million legal ones.7 Popular sites for illegal downloading are LimeWire.com, Kazaa.com and BitTorrent.com. All of those force users to sign an agreement not to violate copyright laws — which some users then ignore once they're logged in.
Parents of young downloaders would do well to talk with their children and teens about the ethics involved in acquiring media files. In addition, illegal downloaders now have more to worry about than a guilty conscience. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is cracking down on illegal file sharing. The RIAA has filed more than 26,000 lawsuits since 2003.8 While most are settled out of court for sums between $3,000 and $5,000,9 the first defendant to actually go to trial lost — badly — and was required to fork over $222,000. That was the penalty assessed on just 24 of the 1,702 songs the 30-year-old woman had illegally offered to share on Kazaa.com.10
The RIAA isn't just focusing on adults. The organization has also sued illegal file-sharers as young as 12 years old.11
When I was a kid and game time used to get a little rough, Mom would calm my rampaging siblings and me with, "It's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt!" Her forewarned damages usually fell somewhere between injured feelings and a poked-out eye. Today's online digital game play is a far cry from yesteryear's games of living room Nerf football. But Mom's warning still applies.
The Internet fare that entertains modern gamers usually falls into one of two categories — role-playing adventures called "massively multiplayer online games" (MMOG) or virtual social interaction sites where players can get together and, well, interact.
World of Warcraft (WoW), for instance, is a popular MMOG that dresses up gamers in the digital guise of everything from trolls and ogres to elves and dwarves — all clad in fashionably cut armor and bearing the latest in magical weaponry. In the expansive world of WoW, adults and teens join with a group of online compatriots, called a "guild," and set off to battle their way through a never-ending series of heroic quests that reward them with improved weapons, increased social status and power of epic proportions.
The social interactive site Second Life, on the other hand, isn't really a game at all. In this virtual land, players create an electronic alter ego (called an "avatar") and step into an ever-evolving, rule-free, 3-D world — The Seattle Times called it "MySpace meets The Matrix." There kids can chat with new acquaintances, watch virtual concerts, go to dance clubs, you name it. With a little practice and a bit of skill, avatars can create just about anything, from houses to clothes to pet butterflies. And then they enjoy these creations themselves or sell them to people who would rather boogie than build. It's a place where participants can do whatever they set their imagination to, even creating alternate lives that include full-time careers and marriage.
If this is all new to you, it may sound quite incredible. But let's face facts: None of this is really new. Online games may be a modern twist, but the urge to escape from our day-to-day grind has probably been around since God told Adam to go work for a living. King Solomon put it like this: "All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest" (Ecclesiastes 2:23).
Now, Solomon goes on to say that we're not going to find real enjoyment apart from God, but that's never stopped us from trying to distract ourselves with an impressive collection of amusements. Online games, however, have their own special appeal.
Video games can give players some of the things that are difficult or sometimes impossible to obtain in real life. You can be a pro athlete or an action hero. You can save the planet from holes in the ozone or wipe out an invading force of zombies. And games offer worry-free gratification. No need to sweat the bills, deadlines or stresses of the real world.
Picking up a controller or sliding behind that keyboard can also offer an anonymous, new beginning for guys and gals who are tired of being pigeonholed. Suddenly being able to shape a kingdom can be a startling breakthrough for an average kid who feels he has little impact on his world. And even though gamers are commonly thought of as loners hiding away in darkened rooms, today's Internet games actually link players to communities of like-minded people from all across the globe. It's so appealing that you sometimes don't want to leave. And that's where things start getting slippery.
Some gamers become so absorbed in their fantasy that the demands of their actual lives no longer compete with the allure of their virtual ones. Real-world relationships suffer, sleep becomes optional, and plans for routing that cave full of spider demons start to take precedence over homework assignments. Of course, friends and family start complaining that the game is getting in the way of life. But the gamer sees the problem differently: Life is getting in the way of the game.
And worse, this brave new world that offers such unlimited delights can also deliver some dark and seamy experiences. If players dig deep enough and bypass warnings in a game such as Second Life, they can open the door to every X-rated virtual activity you don't want to imagine.
What are we to do then — condemn all online games? Not necessarily. But it's important that gamers realize that online entertainment such as WoW and Second Life are much more than just fun and games. Along with the promise of a compelling, immersive experience, these fantasy games have the real potential to be emotionally, psychologically and even spiritually unhealthy.
And if it appears someone is crossing that border, then it's important that his or her loved ones take helpful steps. A knock-down, drag-out fight usually isn't the answer. But keeping the computer in a common area of the house and limiting time involved in a game can be a big plus. If a son or daughter has a problem, wise parents will work to understand what makes the game so important for him or her. Then they can help their child channel that need for meaning and adventure into activities that can make a difference in the real world.
We need to be careful how we live — "not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity" (Ephesians 5:15-16). After all, we want to make sure no one gets an eye poked out — metaphorically or otherwise.