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Whose Screen Time is the Real Problem?

At our family reunion last week, I overheard one of my sisters saying she gives her kids half-an-hour a day of screen time. My stomach churned, wondering if I’d been too indulgent when I agreed that an hour-a-day on the Wii was the limit for summer. Was I harming our kids? It’s a common topic at the swimming pool and soccer field: How much screen time is good for kids? It’s an important question for parents to ask and answer. But a recent article from The Atlantic exposes an even more urgent, and less asked, question:

Smartphones have by now been implicated in so many crummy outcomes—car fatalities, sleep disturbances, empathy loss, relationship problems, failure to notice a clown on a unicycle—that it almost seems easier to list the things they don’t mess up than the things they do. Our society may be reaching peak criticism of digital devices.

Even so, emerging research suggests that a key problem remains underappreciated. It involves kids’ development, but it’s probably not what you think. More than screen-obsessed young children, we should be concerned about tuned-out parents. …

Yes, parents now have more face time with their children than did almost any parents in history. Despite a dramatic increase in the percentage of women in the workforce, mothers today astoundingly spend more time caring for their children than mothers did in the 1960s. But the engagement between parent and child is increasingly low-quality, even ersatz. Parents are constantly present in their children’s lives physically, but they are less emotionally attuned. …

Yet for all the talk about children’s screen time, surprisingly little attention is paid to screen use by parents themselves, who now suffer from what the technology expert Linda Stone more than 20 years ago called “continuous partial attention.” This condition is harming not just us, as Stone has argued; it is harming our children. The new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system, whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning. We’re in uncharted territory. …

Occasional parental inattention is not catastrophic (and may even build resilience), but chronic distraction is another story. Smartphone use has been associated with a familiar sign of addiction: Distracted adults grow irritable when their phone use is interrupted; they not only miss emotional cues but actually misread them. A tuned-out parent may be quicker to anger than an engaged one, assuming that a child is trying to be manipulative when, in reality, she just wants attention. Short, deliberate separations can of course be harmless, even healthy, for parent and child alike (especially as children get older and require more independence). But that sort of separation is different from the inattention that occurs when a parent is with a child but communicating through his or her non-engagement that the child is less valuable than an email.

Secular psychologists are raising the alarm that parents’ distraction is dangerous to their children. How much more should Christian parents be concerned to audit their own tech habits? It’s not enough to limit your kids’ screen time when you’re distracted by beeps and chimes all day long; to take the kilobyte out of your child’s eye when a terabyte of data is clogging your own. Your children may hear you saying too much time on a phone or iPad or computer isn’t good for them. But what are they learning from what you’re doing?

I’ve noticed my own impulse to look at my phone the moment it beeps, even if I’m in the middle of a conversation with one of our kids. Few things approach such rudeness; such disregard for neighbor. But even worse is to consider what my sinful habits are teaching them. I’m chastened by the command to fathers in Ephesians 6 to “not provoke your children to anger.” Some translations say “do not exasperate.” I know the exasperation I feel when someone cuts me off mid-sentence to engage their virtual world. I hate feeling like their online “friends” are more real, and more interesting, than I am. How much more must children feel that when their parents ignore them for something on a hand-held screen?

How many times are you pulled away from kitchen table conversation or drive time chatter to check Facebook posts, text messages, Instagram hearts, or Twitter updates? How can obey the charge to teach our children the commands of God as we sit in our homes, walk by the way, lie down, and rise, (Deuteronomy 6:7) if we’re never without our phones? We need more than a Coke-branded dog relief collar to help us see what we’re missing, and how we’re affecting our children.

Today, while reading aloud to our two younger sons, I found myself needing to ignore my phone when it chimed multiple times. While waiting at the doctor’s office, I resisted the temptation to look at email to pass the time, choosing instead to read another chapter in the book we had started earlier. Later, when I called them in to show them the Coke video, I noticed how distracting the push notifications were. I wanted to look at the emails, the texts, and more. But I wanted to show them that they are more important than what’s on my phone. The alerts on my phone can wait.

No matter what we tell our children, our smart phone habits are teaching our children about our priorities. Parents, we need to pray and ask God to show us our sin, and show us His grace. Moms and Dads, we need to set the example we want our children to follow. Paul’s words to Timothy applies to us as parents: “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12b). This digital generation needs you to help them steward their screen time and that begins with setting before them an example that shows that you need screen time limits and stewardship as much as they do.


Think you may be on your phone too much? Take this helpful quiz from Tim Challies: Are You Addicted to Your Smart Phone? For an in-depth look at how smartphones are reshaping us, see Tony Reinke’s 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You.

Summer Reading

As school winds down for a longed-for summer break, teachers and librarians everywhere are urging kids to use the less-scheduled days reading books. “Read for fun! Read for retention! Read for prizes!” It seems there’s no shortage of incentives to make the most of free reading time.

As fun and beneficial and wonderful as leisure reading is, it matters what children are reading. A mix of book types: biography, fiction, nature, informative, poetry, and more can make up a healthy well-rounded reading diet. But there is one area that is often overlooked, yet most necessary: books for spiritual formation.

Truth78 is committed to helping parents pursue the God-glorifying vision of leading their children to walk in the truth. As we’ve said, one way parents do this is by carefully prioritizing and maximizing their children’s spiritual instruction. And one of the key ways to do that is to guide children in their book choices.

In addition to teaching your children how to have a regular, daily time reading their Bible, summer is a good time to encourage them to also read devotional books for spiritual growth. Books that work well for family devotions can also be spiritually edifying reading for older children with more time available for reading in the summer. Revisiting a book that you’ve read together, in order to work through it on their own, can be like hearing new stories while visiting with an old friend.

If you’re looking for a gentle way to introduce grade school children to personal devotional reading, consider the Making Him Known series. Each book focuses on what Scripture teaches about one aspect of God’s deeds: God’s Promises, God’s Gospel, God’s Wisdom, etc. Each chapter of each book reveals some aspect of His “glorious deeds, his might, and the wonders that he has done” (Psalm 78:4). Each chapter also includes a section, “Learning to Trust God,” which calls children to respond by setting “their hope in God” (Psalm 78:7) through Christ.

To read more about the Making Him Known series, and to order your copies, visit our online resources page.

Keep Your Children in Worship, for Worship

I remember asking my Dad if I needed to tithe on my small allowance when I was very young. How could a dime make a difference to the work of the church? I wondered. “I think I should wait to start tithing until I have more to give,” I said, as he handed me my dollar. “If I had a hundred dollars and could give ten, it would matter more,” I said. “And it would be a lot easier then, because I’d still have 90 left to spend,” I thought.

“If you don’t learn to do it with a small amount,” he said, “you’ll never do it when you have more. It gets harder, not easier.” I never forgot his wise counsel and have often thanked God for giving me my Dad who taught me the importance of gladly giving back to God. But it’s not just generosity God wants from his people, no matter how young.

He wants their attention. And ultimately, their worship.

It’s easy to look at your squirming, squawking, distracting toddlers and young children and think, surely it will be easier to train them to sit still and listen quietly to the sermon when they’re older. But as with early lessons in giving money back to God, so too, early lessons in giving attention to God have the potential to bear much fruit.

We didn’t start taking our little ones into the service with us until our third child was born. By then, we were attending a mega church where a handful of families who kept their children in the service all clustered together in one area of the auditorium. What started as a practical help to us getting to church on time—thereby avoiding the multi-room, even multi-building drop-off—soon became a matter of conviction. I didn’t realize how formative it could be for young ones to sing along with Mom and Dad, to color quietly while the pastor preached, to ask simple questions on the drive home about what they heard, in an effort to encourage their listening. But I was so glad God changed our minds about taking our kids with us into worship. Just a few other families, amidst hundreds, were enough to help us take courage and break out of the status quo of the “children’s church” model.

It may feel like an overwhelming idea: keeping your children of all ages with you in church. But it is not only possible, it is rich with promise; and likely not as hard a transition as you might fear.

Practice Active Listening

We tend to get good at what we practice. This works to our benefit with piano lessons, but also to our harm with vices. If you hand your child your smart phone or tablet for the short-term gains of keeping her quiet, you will set her on the dangerous path of getting very practiced at tuning out the preaching of God’s Word. You may assume she’ll naturally pay attention when she’s older, but paying attention is something we must work at, no matter our age. We all need help to extend our naturally short attention spans. One of the best ways you can do that is by minimizing, not increasing, distractions.

Sitting quietly and listening in church can be learned by even very young children and it is a worthy goal to level earn how; but not merely for the peace of the people around you in church.

Listen for Salvation

God designed us to believe in Christ by way of our ears. Paul says in Romans 10:14, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” Hearing is essential to salvation. But merely being in the room where the salvation message is preached faithfully is not enough.

The high number of children raised in the church who leave when they become teenagers shows that it is not enough to get your children to church. According to R.C. Sproul, “A recent survey of people who used to be church members revealed that the main reason they stopped going to church is that they found it boring.” What children do while they are in church matters. How many countless people heard Paul preach but to no saving effect? “In one ear and out the other,” so the saying goes. What made the difference? Luke says in Acts 16:14, “One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”

Two things stand out as necessary for saving faith: the work of the Lord to regenerate the sinner’s heart, and the active listening of paying attention. This is not a passive posture, but one that anticipates receiving something from the speaker. Pray for your children and with your children that God will give them the ability to pay attention. We have made it our habit to pray as a family in the car on the way to church. My husband asks the Lord to bless the preaching of God’s Word, and to give us ears to hear it. It is so important your children know that you need help to pay attention, too!

Model Joyful Listening

Once there, model paying attention for joy, for love to God, and for being built up by the Word preached. Listening to the active, living Word that is sharper than any two-edged sword, with the power to raise the dead to life and transform them into the image of Christ should not be drudgery. Do your children know you love God’s Word? That you look forward to hearing it preached? Do they see you listening to it and loving it, being challenged and convicted by it, and ultimately, being changed by it?

No matter what you say about the centrality of the Word preached, it is how you behave in relation to it that will have the greatest impact on your children. Your kids need to see you being joyful, expectant, convicted, engaged, transformed—everything but bored. At its heart, the reason quiet listening matters is not primarily so you won’t disturb the people around you—the quiet part—but so that you will hear words of life—the listening part—and be transformed by the Word of Life.

Plan Ahead

A little planning ahead of time can help orient your children to the service and know what to expect.

Set Expectations. Tell your children that the worship service isn’t a time to eat, or talk, or play, but to listen, learn, and believe. Help your children by providing quiet activities that help them listen and serve those in the pews or chairs around them. Consider getting them a church notebook and pen or pencil for drawing pictures of what they’re hearing, and when they’re able to write, to take notes.

Practice. Take an order of service, program, or liturgy—whatever your church provides for following along—and go through it at home, explaining when to speak, when to sing, when to sit, when to stand, etc. Let them know that you want them to join in the activities. Consider listening to the songs that will be sung and sing them together.

Prepare. Feed your children a hearty breakfast so they won’t be distracted by a growling stomach. Take them to the bathroom before the service starts with the goal of remaining in the service without interruption.

It is worth every effort you make to train your children to join in the singing, listen to the preaching, and participate in the praying of God’s Word. This is the path to everlasting life.

*For further encouragement and practical help, Truth78 has created a reproducible PDF for parents and churches, “8 Tips for Helping Your Child Worship.”