Computer tablets, gaming systems, smartphones, and handheld devices—digital technologies are proliferating faster than you can say, “There’s an app for that.” And, like a nuclear reaction that can power whole cities—and level them—they have vast powers for good and ill.
They can keep us in touch with loved ones far away—and isolate us from those in our own homes.
They can save us time in paying bills and reading the news—and consume it in answering e-mails and posting status updates.
They can help us study and share the gospel—and cause us to idle away our time and drive away the Spirit.
They can mobilize us to serve others—and keep us self-absorbed, focused on an unending stream of meaningless minutiae.
They can educate, energize, elevate, and inspire us—and they can distract, enervate, addict, and destroy us.
Around the Church, members are using digital technologies in innovative ways. They show Mormon Message videos in family home evening, reach out to ward members via social networks and text messaging, and work on family history via the Internet.
So how can we harness technology’s awesome potential while protecting ourselves and our loved ones from its potentially devastating ill effects? Here are some key concepts and strategies.
We don’t allow teenagers to drive a car until they are old enough to be able to follow the rules designed to keep them safe on the road. But even a young child can, with a few small clicks, unintentionally steer a computer or a smartphone app from the newest Mormon Message to an image created by man’s darkest imaginings. An essential part of safety is making sure children have access to digital devices only when they are old enough to use them responsibly. Additionally, several technological tools can help us keep ourselves and our families safe:
Internet content filters. These are as important to your family’s spiritual well-being as a child lock on a cupboard full of toxic cleaning supplies is to a toddler’s physical safety. Content filters come in three basic types:
Filtering software—Download it from the Internet or buy it in a store and install it.
Hardware filters—Your cable modem or DSL router may have built-in software that can filter Internet content.
Internet proxy filters—Check to see if your Internet provider offers a filtering service.
Caution: be aware that antivirus and anti-spyware software does not filter content.
Safe-mode add-ons. Available for computers, tablets, and smartphones, add-on applications allow you to select safe content for your child, review how much time he or she spends on different activities, and restrict him or her from viewing objectionable content such as pornography. To find a safe-mode add-on, do a web search of “kids safe mode.” You can also set Google, YouTube, Yahoo!, and other search platforms to filter inappropriate content.
One study estimates that among children between eight and eighteen in the U.S., the average amount of time spent each week using entertainment media is about 53 hours.1 Another study suggests that nearly one in ten young people who play video games show classic symptoms of addiction.2
One reason it’s so easy to overuse digital activities, says Ken Knapton, an Internet safety expert, is that they lack the kind of natural boundaries that help us moderate other activities. A child stops playing softball when his or her arm gets tired or when it gets too dark to see the ball. It’s much easier to ignore the subtle cues that tell us when it’s time to stop watching funny animal videos, looking at friends’ Facebook photos, or beating the next game level.
It takes careful monitoring to make sure we’re not allowing our technology use to numb our minds and consume much of the precious time God has given us. An important element of parenting in the digital age is helping children establish firm limits for digital use. Children also need guidance in learning to wisely balance digital activities with reading, outdoor activities, physical exercise, creative play, service, work, and time with family.
No piece of software or hardware is fail-safe. Individuals and families need rules that will help keep them safe and balanced.
Recently the Ensign posted a question on its Facebook page:
“How do you live a well-balanced life, using digital technology without letting it take over?”
Within hours, dozens of people had shared their struggles and solutions. Each family has to decide what works best for them, but here are ways some of the respondents keep digital media in balance:
Regularly teach children how to use digital devices wisely. For example, teach them what is appropriate to post on social networking sites and how to handle cyberbullying or inappropriate texting.
Let children know that iPod players, cell phones, and other devices are subject to unannounced parental spot-checks. If you have older children who use social networking sites, become a “friend.”
Keep the computer in a public area of the home.
If you decide your child is old enough for a cell phone, don’t enable the Internet on it. You might consider a cell phone that can block all incoming and outgoing numbers except those selected by the parent, making the phone for emergency use only.
Set up a family recharging station where children plug in cell phones each night at bedtime.
Establish acceptable times and firm time limits for technology use. (See “Unplugged” on page 10 of this month’s Friend to see how some families do this.)
Set a regular time each day or week when the family “unplugs” from digital devices. Some families also establish technology-free zones in certain areas of the home.
Block peer-to-peer or “sharing” applications, many of which encourage stealing and open a portal to unfilterable content.
When children tell you they have encountered inappropriate content online or on a cell phone, keep your focus on how to prevent future problems. The child may already feel worried and ashamed, and your calm approach will help him or her feel confident enough to approach you in the future.
By far the most important and effective type of filter is inside the mind and heart of the user. These five filter questions can be a good first step to staying in tune and in balance:
Am I using this technology to learn or to teach?
Am I using it to build faith and testimony in myself and others?
Am I using it to entertain in uplifting ways?
Am I giving enough undistracted in-person time to family and friends?
Am I devoting enough time to work, school, Church callings, and physical exercise?
With these guidelines firmly in place and with the Holy Ghost as our guide, we can use digital media to exponentially expand our search for things that are “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy” (Articles of Faith 1:13).