Thirty years ago the media populating my childhood consisted of books, magazines, radio, and TV (cable, if you were lucky – three local channels if you weren’t). Movies were watched in theaters, unless you had HBO. We didn’t. My mom dubbed it “Hell’s Box Office”, and that was pretty much the end of any dream of watching movies at home. I was forbidden to watch the movie Grease, but snuck over to my neighbor’s house to learn every scandalous song and commit to memory every picture on the album jacket.
In the thirty years since my childhood the media scene has changed so dramatically that knowing how to navigate it for my own kids feels absolutely overwhelming. Electronic media pervade our lives. No longer is “screen time” confined to the TV in the living room. Screens are virtually everywhere we go – in restaurants, waiting rooms, in cars, and for many of us, in almost every room in the home. They are even in our pockets.
The average amount of time American children spend in front of a screen of some kind is conservatively pegged at 4 hours 41 minutes per day. That’s 33 hours a week – almost the equivalent of a full time job. Increased screen time has been linked to obesity, violence, over-consumption fueled by advertising, and learning disabilities. The secular community sees and decries these negative effects. But how should the Christian parent respond? Should we aim to beat the average, high-fiving ourselves for limiting screen time to four hours a day? Should we ban screens from our homes? I want to suggest three reasons that Christian parents should soberly consider the role of media in the lives of their families: because of message, conversation, and time.
1: because of message
As our dictionary definition points out, all media seeks to communicate a message. Every song, every TV show, every movie, every YouTube video, every app has something to say: buy this, wear this, eat this, value this, mock this, speak in this manner. Not all media messages are harmful, but many conflict with the greater message we are trying to communicate as Christian parents. Children have limited ability to recognize and interpret media messages. They require parental involvement to screen, filter, and interpret the messages they take in.
Most parents know to dodge obviously bad media messages such as violence or sexual content. Watch out for subtle messages like imitative behavior: children are often socialized by the way characters speak and act on TV or in movies. Even if a movie or show has been rated as age-appropriate, ask yourself if its characters speak and act in ways you want your children to speak and act.
Most of us would never allow our children to talk to a stranger. We would certainly not invite a stranger into our homes and allow him to teach our children his worldview. But unmonitored screen time can do just that. Limit, supervise, and share screen time to ensure that your worldview remains intact in the hearts of your children. Educate your children about media messages. Teach them to look for the message being communicated and to assess the value of it.
2: because of conversation
Two of the most frequently-asked questions I get from other parents are “How do you talk to your children about sex?” and “How do you talk to your children about your faith?” Young parents can get pretty panicked anticipating some of life’s bigger discussions. I tell them that our conversations about sex and faith were just several of hundreds of conversations we had about every topic imaginable. We worked to create a climate of conversation in our home so that any topic was safe to discuss, so that the big conversations happened in the course of the small ones.
Think almost five hours of screen time a day is a staggering number? Here’s another one: the average time per week parents spend in meaningful conversation with their children is 38.5 minutes. Screen time sabotages a climate of conversation in the home: it steals eye contact and mental focus from people and places it on screens instead. When screens hover around the dinner table, or dominate car trips, or fill up any potential moment of boredom they rob our families of the sacred spaces where good conversations develop. We trade face time for screen time.
Deuteronomy 6:7 commands parents to “teach [the commands of the Lord] diligently to your children, [talking] of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” A climate of conversation is clearly implied here. In a world where media walk with us through every step of the day, parents must discipline themselves and their children to value face time over screen time.
3: because of time
Ephesians 5:15-16 says this: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” Advances in modern medicine appear to be helping us make the best use of time: between 1909 and 2009 life expectancy in the United States rose from 51 years to 78 years. That’s an impressive gain of 27 years. John Calvin wrote the Institutes of the Christian Religion at age 26 and was dead by age 55. Jonathan Edwards pastored his first church at 17 and was dead by age 54. Charles Spurgeon became a pastor at age 19 and was dead by age 57. Think what these men might have accomplished had they been given 27 more years of life.
Now think about this: if a child who begins watching 4½ hours of screen time a day at age 4 maintains that amount of screen time to the age of 78, guess how much time he will have spent consuming screen media in his lifetime? That’s right – twenty-seven years. And what are the odds he'll be penning theology in five volumes at age 26?
In Psalm 90, Moses asked that God would teach him to number rightly his days, that he might gain a heart of wisdom. I’m guessing Moses would not have been a big fan of screen time. Number your days and the days of your children rightly. Give your children the gift of years. Give them the gift of face time over screen time. Give them the gift of an uncluttered mind, of a heart of wisdom open to receive the most vital message of all: the gospel of Christ, given through the gracious media of the Word and the Spirit.