Are fears about kids and screen time overblown?

In the conservative news magazine The Weekly Standard, Laura Vanderkam argues that many parents are too preoccupied with this question. She reads “angsty, virtue-signaling essays” online from parents who believe the best approach is to to keep their children off devices as long as possible.

“The essays follow a basic arc,” Vanderkam writes.

“The writer sees a toddler glued to an iPad, is tormented by this image, and waxes nostalgic about a lost era of childhood, which seems to have occurred on some day in August 1956. He or she declares that the children will henceforth spend all their free time climbing trees.”

We need to relax, she says.

“If you’re the kind of parent who’s concerned about it, you shouldn’t worry. Your kids are going to be fine. Indeed, your kids, by virtue of having conscientious parents whose worries tend more toward iPhone use than to getting evicted, are among the luckiest people on the planet.”

Screen Time Heresy?

Laura Vanderkam describes her view as “screen time heresy.” What we decide about the proper amount of time spent on screens doesn’t really matter. The research isn’t conclusive. The world is complicated. Not all screen time is equal. Not all online activities are the same.

Plus, the concerns betray elitism, since it’s largely educated professionals who fret about screen time. “Children from tougher backgrounds have a tougher time of it,” she says. Better to be indoors playing Fortnite than to have kids wandering around “a dangerous, gang-plagued neighborhood.”

Vanderkam’s “heresy” pushes back on those who warn against excessive use of the smartphone, including Jean Twenge’s recent book, iGen, which launched with a viral article in The Atlantic called “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation.” In Christian circles, Andy Crouch has counseled families to postpone the introduction of screens until children’s ages are in the double digits (and he means television, too!). Tony Reinke has written wisely about the positive and negative effects of smartphones, not just on the lives of kids but on parents. The reason I devoted the first chapter of This Is Our Time to this subject is because we can hardly understand our current moment without considering the phone’s effect on how we live.

Vanderkam doesn’t deny the dangers of giving a phone to children. She acknowledges the world wide web is full of horrible things. She realizes pornography, sexting, and violent and hate-filled communities are destructive. She admits that mental health issues have spread since our phones became our ever-present companions.

But why look only at the dangers? What about the good signs? Juvenile arrests are down, and more people are graduating high school these days.

In the end, Vanderkam’s point is that parents should do what is best for their families. “Just recognize that it’s mostly about preferences rather than right-or-wrong answers,” she writes. Her family has a one-hour-a-day policy on weekdays and looser restrictions on weekends. They’re about to give their 11-year-old an iPhone.

Real Reason We’re Uneasy About Our Phones

I agree with Vanderkam that parents need to figure out what works best for their families. I’ve interviewed friends, and all of them have different practices. The key is intentionality and wisdom, walking into this era with eyes wide open, not drifting into darkness unaware.

Still, I don’t think Vanderkam’s article gets to the root of what causes angst for many parents. The sense of uneasiness we feel is not because we’re convinced that the phone is doing something awful to our children, or that predators are lurking behind every online interaction. It’s the belief that we were made for something more than staring at a screen all day. It’s the fear that these technological gains have come at the cost of our humanity. The fear that, as acquaintances have grown in number, friendships have thinned. That, as communication has gotten easier, true understanding has gotten harder.

Has our ability to be present online everywhere cost us the ability to be fully present in person anywhere? On vacation last month, our 10-year-old daughter counted 19 people sitting on the beach, and noticed that 17 of them were on their phones. Walk into restaurant after restaurant and you see people who have gathered for conversation, all on their devices. It’s no wonder we see apps that limit screen time, or restaurants that ban phones, or parents who decide to take steps to keep the phone from becoming omnipresent.

Inventions, Tradeoffs, and Wisdom

I realize that every generation could make similar arguments about technological advances. The invention of the air conditioner, for example, drove people indoors during the hot, sticky evenings of summer when, beforehand, the heat drove people out on their front porches to drink iced tea with neighbors. (I don’t see anyone pining for the days before air conditioning.)

Then, the television became a mainstay for most American households. Gone were the days when neighbors gathered in the parlor or living room to sing songs and tell stories. We’re entertained by strangers on a screen instead of neighbors down the street.

Every new invention or form of entertainment can lead to a corresponding loss of community in some way. Every generation makes tradeoffs. Every leap in technology has a corresponding downside. Laura Vanderkam is right to warn us against being overanxious and fearful of “the future.”

But I don’t think her article captures the heart of the angst among many parents today. It’s not the worst-case scenario that concerns us, but that we’re missing out on what’s best, the elements of human interaction that make us better and more well-rounded people.

For this reason, Christian parents should think more about these matters, not less. We don’t have to be fearful and anxious. But let’s stop acting like technology is holding us hostage. If we are to introduce technologies into our homes, we should consider ahead of time the tradeoffs and the downsides. We should be willing to back up and make different decisions if we’ve messed up. We should have a plan. Because the real “heresy” today is not taking a loose approach to the phone, but a strict one.