PLUGGED IN PARENTS

“Pay careful attention, then, to how you live—not as unwise people but as wise—making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So don’t be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” Ephesians 5:15-17
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? Make coffee? Get the milk out of the box? Hop in the shower? Hit the snooze button?

Those are all good answers. But for teens, the first thing that 72% say they often or sometimes do is to check for messages or notifications on their smartphones. Technology and social media is everywhere. It’s omnipresent. It’s the first thing many teens (and, in all likelihood a similarly large percentage of adults) check when they get up in the morning.

The average person in the United States of America spends approximately 5-6 hours per day on their cell phone. With school being out and our world facing unprecedented times during this pandemic, I can only imagine the hours on a phone for teens and many adults has skyrocketed. 

We as parents have a responsibility to train our children how to properly use social media as well as shield them from unwholesome conversations, habits, and more.

Whether it’s smartphones or satellite channels, social media or Fortnite, hidden apps or sexting, the number of challenges that technology creates seems to be multiplying faster than we can keep up.

As Christian parents, how are we to respond to the pace of technological change? How do we help guide our children’s choices and habits in this realm, both practically and from a spiritual point of view?

Between North and South Korea there is a space of land called the Demilitarized Zone. It’s a place where two warring powers agree not to go, leaving it as a “safe space” of sorts between them. Now, you might be asking, what on earth does this have to do with technology and the entertainment media that flows through it? Great question! I’m glad you asked.

As Christians, I think it’s easy for us to drift passively, almost unconsciously, into something I want to call Demilitarized Zone thinking when it comes to the bombardment of media and technology we face today. We know the big things that we want to help our kids avoid: pornography, graphically violent and sexual entertainment, etc. We recognize that these things are at war with the convictions we hold as Christ followers. But when it comes to lots of the other “little” things, well, we can almost unconsciously tend to treat them as if they’re neutral, when in fact they might very well be communicating—albeit more subtly—messages and world views that are very much at odds with our Christian faith.

The Apostle Paul repeatedly challenges the mentality of Demilitarized Zone thinking.

“Pay careful attention, then, to how you live—not as unwise people but as wise—making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So don’t be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” Ephesians 5:15-17

Paul understands that the culture we live in influences how we live. So he tells us to “pay attention,” a phrase that the King James Version translates, “walk circumspectly.” In other words, don’t just mindlessly absorb and consume what you’re walking through. Instead, look up, look around, and be aware of the influences that seek to shape our hearts and minds in ways that are at odds with a biblical faith and worldview.

And this is not a casual suggestion from Paul, either, who goes on to say “the days are evil.” If we’re not paying attention and seeking to “understand what the Lord’s will is,” he tells us, we risk being sucked into the gravitational pull of a worldly way of life that’s opposed to the Gospel. He reiterates the same idea in Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.” The contrast here is clear: being shaped by the world or being transformed by truth as we walk with God.

It’s critical, obviously, to understand what’s happening in the world of technology and media influence if we hope to limit and counterbalance potentially harmful influences in those arenas.

Still, we must begin with a spiritual foundation. Helping our children use technology (and the media that streams through it) wisely involves more than screen-time limits or filtering programs that limit our exposure (as important as those concrete tools might be). It also involves helping them to grow in spiritual discernment, discipline and character, so that they will increasingly be able to practice Paul’s counsel in Philippians 4:8: “Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things” (CSB).

Several decades ago, back when there were only three television networks to choose from, an ominously voiced PSA regularly aired just before the late night news and stated, “It’s 10 o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” The implication was that if you didn’t, well, you’d better find them … because they might be somewhere you don’t want them to be.

For the average parent, however, that late night exhortation was nearly moot. They knew where their kids were. These days, though, Junior doesn’t have to be out wandering through darkened streets in sketchy neighborhoods to stumble into trouble. He can find it on his smartphone or iPad … while tucked “safely” away in bed. He (or she) can be pummeled by video game violence in the family room, awoken by midnight texts, accosted by social media trolls and influenced by the flood of non-Christian world views in streaming movies and TV shows.

The book of Ephesians tells us of spiritual tools that God designed to help strengthen us in our spiritual struggle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness” (Ephesians 6:12, CSB). God equated those tools with armor and weapons that can help us stay upright and protected. And even in this high-tech world, that armor of God is a boon. But, are there any tools we can access for the technical world our kids are a part of to help protect them there, too? Well, yes. Yes there are. Let’s talk about a few.

Internet Filters
The internet is a marvelous invention. It can teach you about art and history, tell you stories of discovery and accomplishment, and whisk you away to gaze at the great wonders of the world. But, let’s face it: The internet can also be a cesspool of pornography and bullying, seduction and abuse. It all depends on how you use it. And unfortunately, curious youngsters don’t always swim through the World Wide Web’s waves with enough care for the sharks in those waters. That’s where an internet filter can become a flotation device, er, shark cage, um, hermetically sealed iron diving suit that young Junior might need.

What Is an Internet Filter?
An internet filter is an intricately woven software tool designed to, uh, filter the incoming flow of online information and visuals—keeping out the bad and letting in the good. It’s built to keep Junior from stumbling into porn pages, violent videos, social media outrages, gambling sites and the like. It should also throw its protective covering over all the internet devices you use—from home computers, to phones and tablets, to game consoles and smart TVs. And in the best cases, a well-designed filter can offer services and features that help parents and their kids in other areas, too.

Now, don’t get me wrong, you’re not likely to find the perfect filtering tool for every safety need you can imagine (unless you’re good friends with an android-building genius from MIT who can partner your child with an ever-vigilant robotic best friend). But you can find some good ones that cover most of your cyber wish-list. So what features and functions should you be looking for?

Internet Filter Features
Web Content Filtering. First and foremost, a filtering program needs to balance holding off objectionable stuff while welcoming in the sources of wonderment, entertainment and education that you approve of. If the software also gives you a sizable amount of control determining what those good and bad things are, that’s always a plus. In fact, a combination of URL filtering (which identifies objectionable domain names), Keyword filtering (which pinpoints certain words and phrases) and Dynamic Content filtering (which quickly examines a site’s content before displaying it) is a strong choice.
Screen Time Monitoring and Control. It’s always helpful to know how long the kids are glued to a device’s screen and what sites they’ve been frequenting, and many filtering programs offer this feature. There’s an old Russian proverb (popularized, ironically, by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s) that wisely instructs, “Trust but verify.” And that certainly works for good parenting, too. You can trust the software and you can trust Junior, but keeping tabs on both will serve you well. Another benefit with this sort of monitoring and control is the ability to limit the amount of time that devices can be used and determine when everything should be set to go dark. It’s way too easy for the night hours to slip away when you’re surfing the internet or checking your social media page of choice. And a late-night text can spoil a good rest. So turn it off.
Remote Control. A number of filtering programs let Mom or Dad control the kids’ phones through a remote connection with their own phone. That way you can forcibly shut things down on a moment’s notice if necessary. That control can also let you adjust the filtering setup and get reports and feedback from your child’s device without having to actually snatch the screen out of Junior’s hand.
Foreign Language Filtering. Oh those tricky teens. Ever heard of bypassing internet filters with use of a little Español or a bit of parlez-vous francais? It happens. But if your software recognizes foreign languages, that sneaky underground tunnel to objectionable content will stay closed.
App Blocking and Activity Reports. Being able to block the kids’ app use during school or when it’s time to hit the sack is always a great tool. And these tools will also give Mom a report of what apps are being installed and which social media apps stand out as Junior’s favorites.
Location Tracking. Some filters also allow parents to track their phone- or tablet-carrying youngster’s real-time location. That can be a plus for finding a lost device too. And some software allows you to set up a given “allowed” perimeter of movement. So if Junior is supposed to be at school and he decides to ride with pals to the burger joint, Dad’s phone will be notified.
Chat Monitoring.This feature will monitor all chat and instant messages sent and received, and filter and block inappropriate content in chat messages. And it can block chatroom chatter altogether if you wish. Some programs in this category can also tell Junior’s phone to snap screenshots when a website is visited, when a program is opened or a file is printed. Ooh, that’s a smart feature.
And of course, it’s always best if you can find software that is easy to use, that downloads automatic updates, and that doesn’t slow your devices down when the program is in use. Yes, I know I said that you won’t find a perfect filtering program … but you can reach for as much as possible.
Here’s a list of some well-known secular and Christian internet filter sites that you can check out, each of which includes different blends of the features listed above. And while we often want to know which one is considered “the best,” answering that question really requires an understanding of which of these features is most important for your family—so you’re still going to have to do a bit of “compare and contrast” homework with these programs to identify which one is really the best for you and your family. 
  • Norton Online Family: This parental-control filter shows sites your kids visit, provides app supervision and blocks inappropriate sites.
  • Net Nanny: This parental-control filter blocks unwanted apps, filters content and allows parents to monitor children’s web usage. 
  • FamiSafe: This parental control app for kids’ smartphones (iOS and Android) enables parents to track children’s location, as well as blocking in appropriate content and setting screen-time limits. 
  • Qustodio: This cross-platform (Windows, iOS, Android, Nook, Kindle) program provides content filtering, app blocking and an online activity log. 
  • Covenant Eyes: This accountability and filtering software sends a report of your internet activity to an individual you select. It’s especially targeted at helping users to “live porn free.” 

As you commit to becoming a Plugged In Parent, I want you to be aware of the apps many teens are using today:

YouTube
A Google-owned video-sharing website with a corresponding app for smartphones 
Pros: YouTube can be an amazing platform for kids to learn and get creative. There are myriad videos dedicated to helping children understand complex issues in school as well as exploring their own creative interests. Many of these videos are clean, wholesome and engaging for kids of all ages. And if you want to set some boundaries for your children, YouTube also allows parents to place a few restrictions on what their kids watch. In addition, YouTube has created a place for children to admire those who are just like them, instead of only idolizing celebrities.
Cons: While kids might follow people that are “just like them,” that doesn’t mean they share the same worldview or beliefs as your family. YouTube is also filled with inappropriate content ranging from vulgar language and violence to drug use and sexually charged activity. It is one of the most free-range sites in that your children can watch pretty much anything they want, if left unsupervised. And though YouTube technically has content standards regarding explicit imagery, it doesn’t take long on the site to realize that those standards aren’t applied consistently. (Especially when it comes to racy, money-making videos by popular musicians.) And the comments section on YouTube can be just as sticky, as users are able to leave hurtful, hateful posts.

Trend: YouTube isn’t just a place where kids passively consume information, at least, not anymore. Young users are now creating YouTube Channels where they’re able to post videos that interest them, in the hopes of gaining an audience. If parents want to disable the comments section on their child’s channel, they can learn to do so here.

Instagram
A Facebook-owned video and photo sharing app.
Pros: Users can privately message friends as well as edit, post and share videos and photos on their personal feed. They also have access to Instagram Stories, where they can post pictures and videos for 24 hours. Users can customize their privacy settings and control who sees their content. Users can utilize hashtags (to personalize) and geotags (to show location) when posting content.
Cons: Just as privately messaging friends can be good, it can also be harmful. Friends of users are able to screenshot their content (without notification) and share it privately with others, even if the other users are not friends of your child. Additionally, users can utilize the search engine and see a variety of clips, videos and photos from other accounts, some of which contain vulgar language, inappropriate material and pornographic images.
Trend: A trend that many professionals and adults are seeing with Instagram is an increase in depression and anxiety. Instagram allows users to post their “best life,” and oftentimes the “best” version is an unrealistic picture that distorts reality. Additionally, FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is another contributor to increased anxiety levels among teens.

Snapchat
A privately owned, multi-media messaging app
Pros: Snapchat has a variety of filters that allows users to get creative with their pictures. Because there’s no “Like” button, as with Instagram, teens often feel less pressure to portray a perfect or perfectly filtered life on Snapchat.
Cons: Teens are able to post Stories (videos and photos) that last only 24 hours. This can eliminate accountability, allowing teens to post whatever they choose for a short window of time. Unless, of course, a fellow follower chooses to save an image to his or her personal device before it disappears. Similarly, teens are also able to send direct message words and images which last anywhere from one to 10 seconds, depending on a user’s settings, and then they disappear—a feature that’s garnered plenty of publicity for tempting teens to post stuff that they might not have otherwise. Perhaps the most disturbing content on Snapchat is the ability to “Discover” any content you want, from pornographic images and videos to vulgar language and violence.

Trend: A snap streak is when users send messages back and forth with a friend for consecutive days.

TiKTok (formerly known as Musical.ly)
A social media platform where users can discover, create and share short videos.
Pros: Users are able to post 15-second recorded videos of themselves (often singing or dancing). Many kids use this app as a way to post goofy videos of songs they enjoy and share them with friends. Although the app is set to public by default, there are privacy settings that parents can put into place.
Cons: On iTunes, this app is marketed for ages 12 and up. In reality, this is an app that can be accessed by children of all ages as it’s fairly simple to create an account. Users are able to post any sort of 15-second video they want—thus many videos might include borderline pornographic images as well as pics of young girls and boys dancing suggestively and dressing provocatively. Users are also able to post private contact information (and provocative messages/images) in their profile. In addition, an account is public by default, and parents should be aware that other users can see videos whether they have an account or not.

Trend: This app has been identified a hotspot for predators because anyone can direct message your child, asking for inappropriate content and sending inappropriate content as well.

LiveMe (formerly known as Live.ly)
A live-streaming video app attached to TiKTok, where users can broadcast what they’re doing at any moment.  
Pros: None.
Cons: This app is suggested for users 17 and up. In short, it is not meant for children. As with TiKTok, users are able to view inappropriate content which can contain graphic nudity, vulgar language and other inappropriate content. Perhaps the most dangerous feature, however, is that a location is attached to the broadcast. In addition, users are unable to control who views their broadcasts and, their information can be easily shared with strangers.

WhatsApp
A Facebook-owned, cross-platform messaging and voice service.
Pros: Users can text, send audio and video messages, as well as making calls forfree and with no ads. Teens can only send and receive messages from those on their contact list. It’s a great tool when communicating with people overseas or for those without substantial data plans. All messages are completely encrypted, and users can block those with whom they don’t want to communicate. WhatsApp also has “Stories” (just like Instagram and Snapchat) and the ability to share pictures and videos.

Cons: Users can send audio messages, texts, images and videos to anyone in their user list. This means that it can provide easy access to sexting (sending sexually explicit messages and/or images) and sharing inappropriate content, as there is no limit placed on mature, adult content. WhatsApp can also (like many other apps) be a place where children are inadvertently preyed upon. It’s important for parents to have teens turn off their “location” feature, which enables a photo can give away a child’s exact location.

We’ve all been there, sitting at a restaurant, watching groups of people at a table, all focused on their smartphones instead of on one another. Or maybe we gaze over to see the driver beside us texting and accelerating at the same time, wondering if she’s aware that she’s just about to run into the car in front of her. It’s easy to be critical in these moments. But if I’m honest, the thought process that runs parallel with these observations is the nagging realization that I am often guilty of being distracted by technology as well.

Laptops, tablets, smartphones and other forms of technology are wonderful tools we can use to connect with others, become more informed, save time and entertain ourselves. However, when used as replacements for engaging with people face to face, or when they become impediments to our physical, social and emotional health, those tools become tyrants. They may contribute to a lot of wasted time and, in the case of our children, interfere with normal emotional and relational development.

Therefore, some thoughtful consideration is needed regarding how our children may use technology to their advantage and avoid the negative aspects of spending too much time tethered to devices. Specifically, paying attention to the relative safety, age appropriateness and potential health risks of interaction with technology can help parents set some healthy limits for its use.

Paying attention? When do I have time to pay attention? you ask. I have emails to return, blogs to read, articles to download, accounts to manage and credit scores to check. There was a data breach at Target, and I bought some socks there last week, so I have to check my credit card balance. But all of that has to be done before I finish my Words With Friends game because I’m just points away from breaking my brother’s record. You get the picture. Setting healthy limits starts with us, because our children learn from observing us and are ever ready to pounce at the slightest hint of hypocrisy.

So what limits need to be set? Well, it might be helpful to remember the acronym TO BE SAFE.

Time
The best place to start is to set limits on the amount of time children spend with technology, and your kids will be most likely to stick to the limits you set if you stick to them too. Adults can just as easily find themselves sucked into the online world when the five minutes that was planned for checking emails after work turn into several hours of messages back and forth between friends. Experts who study the effects of technology on children, youth and young adults generally recommend no more than two hours of non-academic screen time per day. This is tricky because kids can waste all kinds of time online when they are supposedly doing homework. This means you need to:

Observe
You can’t expect to know how your children are using their “techno time” unless you are observing how and when they’re engaged. While there are many ways to monitor usage, the most effective way tends to be via programs that encourage parents to talk with their kids about safety concerns, be open about the fact that they’ll be monitoring usage and plan times to check in with one another about how things are going. Based on what you observe, you might want to establish some:

Boundaries
Children need and want good boundaries in their lives in order to thrive and grow.

I know, they protest at just about every attempt you make to set a limit. That’s normal. It’s your child’s way of testing you to see just how much you care and what you’re willing to do to protect her. So chat with your child about your concerns and tie some reasonable limits to those concerns. Put some boundaries around:
  • where devices may be used.
  • when devices should be on and off.
  • which social media platforms and web environments may be used.

For example, to prevent family members sneaking off to be alone with their computers and smartphones, make it a family rule to locate all computers in a common area in your home such as a family room. Or, to prevent hearing that familiar buzz or distinctive “ping” that signals text messages coming from your son’s bedroom all night long, designate a certain time for phones to be turned off and put all of them in a central location, away from all bedrooms. And while you are enforcing those boundaries, pay close attention to your kids’ reactions to screen time. In other words, notice their:

Emotions
After your children disengage from technology as the day wears on, do you notice that certain emotions such as anger and sadness seem to linger? If so, tell them what you’ve noticed and ask them if they can explain why there seems to be a connection between technology use and their changing emotions.

It is not unusual for boys to be more aggressive after playing games online and engaging in social media, while girls will often show more signs of depression, anxiety and dissatisfaction with their lives. If these changes in emotion when they’re plugged in compared to when they’re not begin to look like a pattern, you’ll need to limit the time on technology and encourage more direct involvement with family and friends, as well as healthy physical exercise.

Rigorous activities provide a good outlet for intense emotions and encourage good self-care along with:

Sleep
If you haven’t heard, we have a generation of sleep-deprived youth, primarily because of how hard it is for them to walk away from technology. There is a new phenomenon known as “fear of missing out” or FOMO, which basically refers to anxiety about not being in the social media or other online “loop” while one is sleeping.

Add to that the fact that the lights and colors on screens interfere with normal sleep patterns, and the youth of today have a difficult time getting to sleep and staying asleep. This wouldn’t be so bad if it just meant that we noticed a lot of yawning in our kids. But sleep deprivation, especially over time, can contribute to serious health problems and in extreme cases, psychotic episodes.

Sleep is essential to optimum physical, social and emotional health. So, hold firm to limits on screen time, encourage your children to turn off the screens at least two hours before bedtime and help them get into sleep routines that encourage at least 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Of course all of these suggestions make sense only when considered in the context of a child’s:

Age. In general, the younger a child is, the more limits you need to be put on technology use and the hope is that as the child gets older, he or she will begin to internalize those limits and learn self-discipline. If so, growing kids should be rewarded with:

Freedoms Earned for respecting the boundaries around technology you’ve put into place to protect your kids and encourage their healthy development. When you reward a son or daughter for being disciplined consumers of technology, this motivates their siblings and friends to comply so they can have some of the same freedoms extended to them.

You can expect some pushback from your children when you attempt to set limits on technology and establish healthy self-care practices for your family. But don’t let that discourage you. You’ll be contributing to their overall health and teaching them some good boundaries they can pass on to their kids someday.

I love you like crazy,

Pastor Justin Mitchell

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