The evidence keeps growing that families need help controlling technology in their homes, but this is a subject most megachurch pastors would have trouble addressing with a straight face.
"Talking about this subject in many of our churches would be … controversial for reasons that are rather ironic," said author Andy Crouch, senior communication strategist for the John Templeton Foundation in Philadelphia. "Pastors would be preaching in churches dominated by giant video screens and lots of them now ask their people to tweet sermon feedback right there in the service. The technology is everywhere."
It's hard to talk about controlling today's digital-screens culture without being accused of advocating a semi-Amish retreat. But at some point, he said, parents who care about faith, morality and character will have to develop some strategies. For starters, their children will need to hear, over and over: "Our family is different."
Clergy could help parents face this task. But that would require them to address hot-button issues ranging from online porn to whether parents should give children smartphones. It would also require saying, "Our church is different."
Crouch doesn't have easy answers for any of these questions. His new book, "The Tech-Wise Family," includes "Crouch Family Reality Check" pages detailing the struggles behind the principles he recommends. While his family uses candles at its screens-free dinners, Crouch admits that his home's number of Apple devices is in double digits.
Obviously, it's hard to observe any kind of "digital Sabbath" in which all these screens go dark for an hour, a day or even a week, said Crouch. Nevertheless, trying to control this digital lifestyle is a subject religious leaders should discuss with their flocks.
"If we don't have some rhythm with these things -- in terms of when we use them and when we don't -- then they're using us, instead of us using them," he said. But it's crucial to remember that, "we're not saying all this technology is bad. It's good, when used as part of a Christian family culture. That's what takes planning and commitment."
In his book, and in a telephone interview, Crouch suggested several technology issues that religious leaders could start addressing.
* Parents need to study their homes, room by room, and think about where digital technology is used. It's good, for example, to have one -- repeat, one -- television in a setting where family members and visitors can use it, together. The goal is to avoid having individuals in different rooms, binging on private screens with no sense of accountability. Also, the family's main computer should be in a public place with the screen facing into the room.
* Husbands and wives, he said, should know each other's passwords and help hold each other accountable. Parents should install software security programs on the home Wi-Fi system, a practical issue that could be addressed in church forums, and monitor how children use smartphones and tablets.
* At the very least, parents can strive for family members to eat dinner together, with zero digital devices on the table. It's also important, he said, to establish that "our screens go to sleep before we do" and parents could insist that bedrooms -- including their own -- be as "screen-free as possible." Many teens report that they struggle to sleep, because their social-media programs never leave them alone.
For many, the elephant in the family room is exposure to online pornography, starting with pre-teens. It's all but impossible to eliminate this threat today, stressed Crouch. The key is developing common habits and interests -- singing, reading, cooking, arts and crafts -- that offer alternatives to online addictions.
"This is why the most important things we will do to prevent porn from taking over our own lives and our children's lives have nothing to do with sex," Crouch argues, in his book. "The truth is that if we build our family's technical life around trying to keep porn out, we will fail."
The bottom line: "Many of us are not as captive to round-the-clock, never-ending demands as we believe we are. Instead, we are our own jailers. … The door to a better life is only locked from the inside. We prefer our brightly lit cage of toil and leisure (this cage, after all, comes with unlimited Netflix)."
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