Screens, Safety, and Being a Parent in a Media-Saturated Age

Sometimes I long for the days when our homes had not only one TV, but a big, bulky, and, let’s face it, immovable one.

You know what I mean. I’m talking about those CRT (cathode ray tube, for those interested) TVs that were basically large pieces of furniture.

Why do I occasionally long for such times? Or perhaps the time when we didn’t have streaming services and could mindfully curate our kids’ DVD collection?

I’ll answer with a number: 8.

That is, in our home there are 3 smartphones, three laptops, one smart TV, and a Nintendo Switch Lite. Eight screens being used by five people. Eight devices on our WiFi network. Eight windows into the surrounding world that give us unfettered access to news, opinions, hours of TV shows and movies, games, and, if we’re not careful, quite profoundly inappropriate content including but not limited to pornography.

I bring this up because when I was a kid my mother had a much easier job of monitoring my media consumption. Indeed, I remember begging to stay up until after one more commercial break. Those were the days of scheduled rather than streaming TV shows. Looking back on the concern people had about the violence on an 80s show like The A-Team, the word quaint comes to mind.

As a parent, it’s a complicated venture, trying to discipline, guide, and monitor your kids’ screen time. Everything you can try has its drawbacks and limitations, whether it’s the Circle, Canopy, Covenant Eyes, or old fashioned “parental” commands. Unless you simply choose to unplug altogether, which is an increasingly unrealistic option in our hyper-connected, online world.

For our part, we’ve cancelled Netflix until later in the summer. We’ve cancelled our subscription to Disney+, so it won’t renew next month. Helpful as that is, it doesn’t solve all the issues we have as parents. There’s still the mindless rabbit hole of YouTube for our kids to fall into. Don’t get me started on our boys’ favourite YouTubers.

The truth is, no software or app, no matter how efficient and effective it is, can be the silver bullet to protecting your kids when they’re online. Pornogaphy is an obvious culprit, but the fact is there are other kinds of objectionable content. This even includes children’s content, which is now often being used to push and even indoctrinate kids into ideas contrary to a biblical worldview. These days this usually involves issues of sexuality and gender identity. It means that we have an episode of Blues Clues featuring an animated Drag Queen singing a song about a Pride Parade. This means that as a parent I no longer have the luxury of assuming, for example, that all of the children’s programs and movies on Disney+ are good for my kids. But does this mean I shouldn’t subscribe to Disney+ at all?

Perhaps we need another way of thinking about it. See, as a parent, even if I choose not to subscribe to Disney+ or other streaming services, I still can’t guarantee my kids’ safety. I can no more protect them from bad ideas and false narratives than I can from all physical dangers or illnesses. As much as I might like to do so. Unless I’m going to do everything in my power to keep my kids in some kind of cultural and social bubble, they are inevitably going to be exposed to stuff that can hurt and confuse and lead them astray.

So maybe my job isn’t to keep my kids safe from everything objectionable but to teach them to be wise, to be good, to be discerning, and to teach them to think biblically. Because eventually I want them to be wise enough to make sound decisions on their own. Yes, I can teach my kids why (and not just that) pornography is evil, but since I can’t prevent them from ever being exposed to it or tempted by it, I want to position them as much as I can to make smart, life-giving choices. Yes, I can do my best to pass on my biblical worldview, and live out my faith as genuinely as I can, but they’ll still have classmates, friends, neighbours, and eventually co-workers who have a very different understanding of the world. And so they need to learn how to adjudicate between competing narratives.

Trying to keep our kids 100% safe from all the erroneous, misleading, and, ultimately, unbiblical opinions, narratives, and worldviews out there is a fool’s errand. Maybe it always has been. Only now thanks to the internet our increasingly secular and even pagan culture is simply that much more accessible and that much more challenging for parents to manage. For my part, I confess that I have not done (and probably won’t be able to do) this perfectly. I know well the frustrations of all the parents out there when it comes to dealing with kids and screen time.

Since this is the case, it seems to me that even if we take certain protective measures to keep our kids away from specific kinds of media content, we still have the responsibility of teaching them how to navigate with biblical wisdom whatever it is they do encounter on their screens. And whether the screen in question is a tube-style TV permanently planted on a living room floor or a smartphone we take with us wherever we go, maybe this should have been our approach all along. Perhaps the point was never to keep our kids safe, but to prepare them for a world often inimical to the Christian faith by teaching them to be biblically wise curators of the media content that comes their way.

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