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Technology: Helping or Hurting Our Boys?

  • Gregory L. Jantz and Michael Gurian PhD, Marriage & Family Counselor
  • 2013 8 Oct
Technology: Helping or Hurting Our Boys?

What’s Happening in Your Family?

For better or worse, each of us develops a relationship with technology, and that relationship can be life enhancing and useful. At the same time, a reliance on technology can create issues such as disconnect anxiety; that is, feelings of disorientation and nervousness when we are deprived of Internet or wireless access for a period of time. Because our sons’ culture (and our own) has become so tethered to technology, so dependent upon our link to the Internet, we can feel psychologically adrift when we’re disconnected. Being offline can seem wrong and slightly disturbing. In this and other ways, our sons can get into some dangerous situations through their connections with technology.

This is about helping you gauge what amount and quality of technology use can help you nurture your son’s design so that he thrives. To gain the most from the insights we’ll be sharing, you might want to add a media journal to your ongoing study notes and journal, or you might start a separate media journal for a one- or two-week period. In it, record your son’s media use (of course, this is a great thing to do for your daughters as well): iPod, smartphone, computer, television, game systems, movies, tablet, and any other screen-oriented media. Gauge where your son and family are in comparison to the national statistics.

Startling Statistics

Here are just a few statistics from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation study on media in the lives of eight- to eighteen-year-olds. These are statistics we all need to know and discuss together!

  • Eight- to eighteen-year-olds spend almost eleven hours a day exposed to media: almost four and a half hours of television, two and a half hours of music, one and a half on computers, over an hour on video games, with less than an hour exposed to print or movies.
  • Average media exposure by age: almost eight hours per day for eight- to ten-year-olds; almost twelve hours per day for eleven- to fourteen-year-olds; and around eleven-and-a-half hours per day for fifteen- to eighteen-year-olds.
  • Almost two-thirds of the study participants reported having the television on during meal times, and almost half said the television stayed on most of the time, even if no one was watching.
  • Almost three out of four of these eight- to eighteen-year-olds reported having a television in their bedrooms.
  • Roughly six out of ten said they had no rules when it came to how much time they spent on the computer or playing video games.
  • Most seventh- to twelfth-graders reported their parents had not established any rules regarding cell phone use. Only 27 percent said they had rules about how much they talked on the phone, and only 14 percent said they had any rules about the number of texts.

Why It Seems Everyone Has One

In the Kaiser Family Foundation study, 66 percent of eight- to eighteen-year-olds in 2009 had a cell phone. This was up from 39 percent just five years earlier. What about now? According to the National Consumers League’s 2012 study entitled Parents, Tweeners, and Cell Phones: Attitudes and Experiences, over half (56 percent) of eight- to twelve-year-olds had been given cell phones by their parents, with 60 percent of those phones given during what they term the “sweet spot” for starting cell phone use—ten and eleven years old.

John Breyault, vice president of public policy for the National Consumers League said, “Before the training wheels are coming off their bikes, many children are getting their first cell phones.”

Also, according to the Kaiser study, “The cell phone has rapidly cemented its place as a media delivery platform for young people.” Kids now spend more time using their cell phones to listen to music, play games, or watch television than using their cell phones to talk.

In total, “The amount of time young people spend with media has grown to where it’s even more than a full-time work week,” said Drew Altman, PhD, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation. “When kids are spending this much time doing anything, we need to understand how it’s affecting them—for good and bad.”

What’s normal for our children is to spend hours and hours per day with the television, computer, cell phone, iPod, iPad, notebook, tablet, laptop, and whatever else gets rolled out in the tech world tomorrow.

But is “normal” best for your child?

Effects of Screen Time on the Developing Brain

With the best of intentions, we’ve brought gadgets and gizmos into our homes and lives. We thought we were doing the right thing by allowing our children to become technologically literate, knowing this skill would prove valuable in their futures. But as is often the case, we’re finding too much of a good thing isn’t that good. Kids spend increasing amounts of time in front of a screen, any kind of a screen, from an iPod mini to a fifty-five-inch flat screen, and all this screen time has a powerful effect on their growing brains. Here are some results to consider as you evaluate whether your child is overusing technologies.

  • Tissue development can be retarded in certain parts of the brain, especially among young children whose brains are developing rapidly. The human brain is genetically wired to develop in natural, sensorial, and kinesthetic settings by doing things with one’s senses. A brain that develops in front of a screen for too long can miss out on its natural growth trajectory.
  • The more media and technology a child uses, the greater the chance of a child getting lower grades. The Kaiser study found that just under half (47 percent) of the heaviest media users received fair or poor grades (mostly Cs or lower), compared to about a quarter (23 percent) of light users (who consume less than three hours of media per day).

Teachers anecdotally confirm this. Common Sense Media polled 685 classroom teachers on how children’s use of media and technology—television, video games, texting, social networking, music—affects school achievement and performance. More than 70 percent of teachers reported students’ media use hurts their attention and focus in school. The report stated what is probably obvious to any of us who have seen our son’s homework quality decline: “Many teachers think students spend so much time with media that they neglect their homework and aren’t prepared in class.”

In this report, elementary school teachers saw more video games, television, and computer games as invading student work and performance; middle and high school teachers saw more negative impacts on learning from overuse of texting and social networking. Two-thirds of teachers also said they noticed entertainment media having a “very” or “somewhat” negative impact on early and intense sexualization of students. Other studies have also noted increased aggression among children who see a constant barrage of violent imagery on television, online, and in video games.

But the news is not all bad.

According to the Common Sense Media study, 63 percent of teachers saw media helping students find information quickly and efficiently, and 34 percent of teachers thought students multitask better than they would have without the constant use of multiple technologies (televisions, computers, video games, iPods, MP3 players, and smartphones).

James Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, said, “We know that our children learn from the media they consume. This survey is yet another reminder of how critical it is to consistently guide our kids to make good media choices and balance the amount of time they spend with any media and all of their other activities.”

Technology Use and Families of Faith

What is the ultimate truth we can cull from these statistics and studies? We believe it is this: Technology can do a great deal of good, and overreacting to media use can rupture the parent-child relationship, especially if a boy is deeply invested in media. But technology can also negatively affect our sons, so it must come under our scrutiny in the same way we would monitor other important elements of life that help shape a son’s character and spiritual development. We must ask, “What constitutes overuse of technology in our home, school, and community?”

Every family needs to establish its own standards for media use, and both science and Scripture can help us craft an approach with and for our son that fits his design.

Isaiah and the Possibility of Idolatry

I (Gregg) find the word idol helpful in discerning where to draw boundaries. I ask myself, “Does technology have the capacity to become an idol in competition with God for my son’s heart?” The late Steve Jobs and other technological innovators have, metaphorically, created a high-tech forbidden fruit that tempts us to taste of the tree of knowledge. Technology, with its promise of easy access to power, information, and influence, can easily become a culturally acceptable idol.

Let’s explore Isaiah 44:12–20 for a moment, a passage I believe offers an almost uncanny foreshadowing of the temptation of technology. As you read, notice its devastating indictment of our propensity to create our own gods, and notice how chillingly technology can, if overused, fit the idol worship this passage warns against.

The blacksmith takes a tool
and works with it in the coals;
he shapes an idol with hammers,
he forges it with the might of his arm.
He gets hungry and loses his strength;
he drinks no water and grows faint.
(verse 12)

If a child is not feeding himself as he should, nor receiving the needed refreshment of family and love, but instead is growing overtired and overstimulated by hours in front of screens, he may be forging an idol from technology. As you conduct a study of media use in your home, watch your son and journal or discuss with your spouse how hungry, thirsty, and faint your son is and when. Ask yourself,

  • What is the impact of technology on my son’s sleep patterns? Screen use before bedtime can negatively impact teen sleep. That sleep deprivation can create a “faint,” tired son the next day.
  • Is technology making my son hungry and thirsty? Is screen use affecting mealtime, healthy eating practices? Is my son feeding on technology to the point that he is not getting healthy exercise and not nourishing his brain with more substantive things?

The prophet continues in verse 13,

The carpenter measures with a line
and makes an outline with a marker;
he roughs it out with chisels
and marks it with compasses.
He shapes it in human form,
human form in all its glory,
that it may dwell in a shrine.

With this verse in mind, ask yourself,

  • Is my son using media and technology to replace human interaction? If so, take note of to what extent, when, and with whom.
  • Has my son made media and technology use into his shrine? Is technology the soul of his life?
  • Is it mainly to technology he wants to go when he wants to feel joy, attachment, love, high impact thinking and doing?
  • If so, when did this start, how long ago, and regarding which technologies in particular?
  • What bold step will I now take to redirect my son to family, school, work, and faith?

Verses 14–17 depict the logistics of how the idol is created, discussing how the man cuts a tree down, uses some of the tree for burning fuel, some for a fire over which he cooks bread as well as meat to eat. In verses 16–17, the prophet says, He also warms himself and says,

“Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says,
“Save me! You are my god!”

These verses might prompt the following questions:

  • Is my son bowing down to technology? How many hours per day is he staring into the fire of screens? In other words, are his technologies becoming his ultimate measure of spiritual and personal power?
  • Does my family have rules in place for the use of the technologies in our home? If not, why not?

If your son is at the high end of average technology and screen use (seven-plus hours per day), he is probably bowing his soul to technology. If your house has few consistently enforced rules for technology use, he is likely, at some deep level, not happy. The fires fueling him may not be authentic.

In verses 18–20, Isaiah points out how foolish it is for humans to worship something they made themselves and notes how easily we are misled by our “deluded heart.” What a powerful reminder to study our children’s habits, looking closely at them from a spiritual and developmental point of view, just as you would any other part of life in which you feel committed to nurture the God-given design of your son.

As you draw conclusions about where your son fits among statistics and scriptural wisdom, a revealing question to ask yourself, your family, and even your son, if he’s old enough to answer, is, “Can this boy become the true HERO we want him to be if he continues with his present level of technology use?” If he’s doing quite well at becoming a hero, then his technology is probably not a deep concern. If, however, technology has invaded his sense of honor, enterprise, responsibility, and/ or originality, than he is probably overusing it.

Excerpted from Raising Boys by Design by Gregory L. Jantz, PhD, and Michael Gurian. Copyright (c)2013 by Gregory L. Jantz, PhD, and Michael Gurian. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Publication date: October 8, 2013