“Mommy, can I have an Instagram account?” my daughter asked from the back seat of the van. We were on our way home from a retreat I’d led for a church in South Carolina. I’d decided to bring the family with me—the retreat was in Myrtle Beach; enough said—and they’d had a great time. The kids met all kinds of new friends and made plans to keep in touch. Apparently Instagram was the preferred method.
Unfortunately, my daughter is 11, and the Instagram terms of service specify a minimum age of 13.
What’s a rule-following mother to do? I don’t want to give her the impression that it’s OK to bend the rules, even in a trivial matter. And maybe this matter isn’t so trivial. Does an 11 year old need an Instagram account yet? I’d love to nurture these fledgling friendships, but can’t I keep her young and social-media sheltered for just a little while longer? Whom is she likely to encounter on these sites? Friends, of course, just like I happily do. But what about people who might do her harm?
I am confronted with these questions even as I work on my next book, Spirituality in the Smartphone Age, which is an attempt to examine this digital culture we all swim in. As I write, I’m trying to discern some spiritually faithful patterns and practices for engaging with technology. How much is too much? What does it mean to be “authentic” online? How can we be mindful of personal boundaries? What does meaningful community look like?
One of the challenges in writing the book is defining what I mean by spirituality, as opposed to the psychology or sociology of digital culture. Other authors have explored quite thoroughly the ways the Internet has changed the way we work, play, and relate with one another. What I’m after is something simultaneously deeper and broader: a holistic approach that integrates body, mind, spirit, and community.
But the other challenge in writing the book is that I’m so very confused and ambivalent myself about our technological age and how it is changing us.
I am a deep user and fond appreciator of new technology in general (I love my laptop and iPhone) and social media in particular, from Facebook and Twitter to Goodreads and Pinterest. As for our children, we don’t typically “do screens” during the week, but on the weekends, it’s not unusual to see the kids playing a game, reading a Kindle book, or listening to music on an iPad. (They also ride bikes, build with Legos, do household chores, and sit around.)
I love the animated chatter from my kids as they work together to build a whole world together in Minecraft. (I’m not as fond of the howls of protest when the baby brother sets fire to a newly completed mansion.) Recently when my daughter was home sick and had “nothing to read,” I was able to download a book for her in an instant.
I could list many more benefits of technology, but I’m assuming that most people reading a website about family practices understand the way these gadgets and gizmos enrich our lives.
But then there’s the other side, which I imagine parents will be equally familiar with. The glazed-over look my six-year-old gets when he’s played video games for too long. The needling requests for screen time, even on school days, when we’ve made it clear that iPads are (generally) for weekends. The careful litigations of my children, trying to argue for acceptable activities:
Well, can’t I just listen to Pandora?
I’m doing a group project. Can I check my Google Docs to see if I’ve gotten the rough draft yet?
The answers to these last two questions seem clearly Yes and Yes. But I know from personal experience how easy it is for a quick check-in to turn into another hour of mindless clicks on YouTube. And how easy it is to start up a video game while sitting and listening to music. These aren’t single-use devices, after all… which is what makes them so useful. But our brains are single-task organs. We are meant to do one thing at a time, and to do it mindfully.
I recently surveyed friends and acquaintances about their attitudes toward social media and the Internet. When asked what they would change about their online habits, more than half of those surveyed reported that they were on these sites more often than they’d like, and found it hard to disengage. And one in three respondents admitted that their Internet use had negatively impacted their attention spans.
As the saying goes, I know just enough about brain development to be dangerous. No, not dangerous—fearful. How are my children’s developing brains affected by all these shiny objects? And if I clamp down on their use, will they lose out on the educational and social benefits, and the ability to learn to self-regulate? What effect will my deep ambivalence and mixed messages have on them? (Yes, please experience, play and explore… No! Too much! Turn it off!)
I have no answers to these questions. I comb through our sacred texts, ruminate on the Christian tradition, and yes, pray for guidance in shepherding my children through what Jon Kabat-Zinn has called the technological “guinea-pig generation.” For now, it is enough to remember the refrain that reverberates through the scripture: Be not afraid. God is with us in the fire and the flood. Maybe I can trust that God is also with me in my ambivalence. And surely God is present in Facebook post, in tweet, and in Instagram too.