There are twin dangers in dealing with contemporary problems. The first is to assume that the world has seen nothing like a given issue and that wise solutions must be manufactured anew, independent of historical sources of wisdom. The second danger is to assume that there is nothing new about a given problem and that the solution is to go on about our normal course of business.
In his 2017 book, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place, Andy Crouch avoids both dangers. He recognizes that current technologies threaten the to exploit human vulnerabilities in new ways, but that wisdom to navigate the threat can be found in historical explanations of human nature and the purpose of the family.
There is an abundance of data that shows that the new attention economy is straining the social-fabric of our world. The prevalence of social media has enabled hyper-individualistic communities to arise that are sometime relatively harmless, but sometimes allow socially caustic influences like racism, sexual revisionism, and collectivism to coalesce in unhelpful ways. Similarly, the constant pull to look away from others and toward our phones is damaging our families and our local communities. The social experiment of putting a supercomputer in our pockets and allowing constant access to limitless entertainment is a little over a decade old, and the early results seem to be far from positive.
Without wading too far into the argument of the potential benefits of technology versus its drawbacks, Andy Crouch proposes that families need to take steps to use technology appropriately. We need not avoid it altogether, but we need to ask the fundamental question, “What is this good for?” Then we need to adapt our usage of technology to get the best out of it.
Crouch’s approach assumes the value of the nuclear family, but also takes into account the broader value of the extended family and community, including the nature of the family as the church. The main purpose of community and family is not merely to continue existence and ensure entertainment, but to form people into responsible humans. He offers ten “Tech-Wise Commitments” to frame a balanced use of technology.
1. “We develop wisdom and courage together as a family.” –– He recognizes the central purpose of families is to form humans.
2. “We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the center of our home with things that reward skill and active engagement.” –– Notably, many homes are oriented around the television or computer, which often encourage passive entertainment. He offers practical suggestions to instill a culture within the home that encourages creativity and activity.
3. “We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devises and worship, feast, play, and rest together.” –– This is the concept of Sabbath woven into the fabric of the family. It recognizes that while often being passive forms of entertainment, electronics are often drains on vital energies. Turning them off helps facilitate true rest and recreation.
4. “We wake up before our devices do, and they ‘go to bed’ before we do.” –– For many, the last and first thing they see each day is the blue light of their phones. There are studies that show teens being deprived of sleep (and brain development time) by the interruptions and temptations of their phones. Crouch recommends charging phones away from the bedside table.
5. “We aim for ‘no screens before double digits’ at school and at home.” –– The Crouch family had no television in the home until their youngest was 10. They worked with their local school system to minimize the dominance of “learning technology” in the curriculum. This comes from the realization that much less learning than often promised usually comes from various techno-centric approaches to instruction.
6. “We use screens for a purpose, and we use them together, rather than using them aimlessly and alone.” –– Again, the purpose of life is to grow toward something. The purpose of the family is to make better people. Therefore, isolation and idle entertainment are barriers to those goals.
7. “Car time is conversation time.” –– As a public-school family, the Crouches use their car time to communicate with their children and each other in a focused environment. This may be less applicable to families that spend more time together.
8. “Spouses have one another’s passwords, and parents have total access to children’s devices.” –– Open access to each other’s browser history is often a means to prevent sliding into unhealthy habits. This approach recognizes the importance of trust and honesty. It also recommends the unique dangers that electronics offer to young people.
9. “We learn to sing together, rather than letting recorded and amplified music take over our lives and worship.” –– There is something quite powerful about unamplified human voices raised in songs of praise. This is something that has been minimized by the presence of easy everywhere music of unlimited quantity and variety.
10. “We show up in person for the big events of life. We learn how to be human by being fully present at our moments of greatest vulnerability. We hope to die in one another’s arms.” –– Technology has an amazing power to build community and minimize the impact of distance. It has tended toward isolation. This is, perhaps, the most important of the ten commitments, because it recognizes the need for real, personal contact that cannot be replaced by digital connections.
One need not agree with everything Crouch proposes to find benefit from this book. Some of his proposals would be much easier to implement in a family that is not already techno-centric (so young parents take heed). However, even beginning to consider the place that technology should have in our families is a step in the right direction.
Even more than his practical suggestions for making a better use of technology, Crouch’s discussion of the purpose of the family is important for our consideration. We would do better to consider the reason why God formed families and what their function is. That would help us to value it, put it in its proper place, and enhance the flourishing of our communities one family at a time.