Keep Your Kids from Becoming Screen-Obsessed Gollums
This article is adapted from David Murrow’s new book, “Drowning in Screen Time – a Lifeline for Adults, Parents, Teachers and Ministers Who Want to Reclaim Real Life.
The more children turn to screens to be soothed, entertained, or distracted, the more he falls under their power.
In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo the hobbit possesses a magic ring that makes him invisible. But that invisibility comes at a price. Each time Frodo slips the ring onto his finger, he is transported into a shadowy nether world where he becomes visible to Sauron, the ring’s wicked creator. The pitiful creature Gollum, one of the ring’s previous custodians, wore it often and was completely controlled and corrupted by Sauron’s dark powers.
Screens can make your child’s crying, nagging, and boredom disappear instantly. Give her a phone or tablet and she becomes invisible, which can be handy when you’re traveling, shopping, or just need a few minutes to get things done.
But that invisibility comes at a price. The more your child turns to screens to be soothed, entertained, or distracted, the more she falls under their power. She is transported into an artificial nether world, removed from the challenges of real life. At the same time, she becomes visible to advertisers who want her money, extremists who want her mind, and predators who want her body.
Children are particularly vulnerable to the influence of screens. Their brains are still forming. They’re developing habits that will follow them the rest of their lives. A child who never learns to regulate his emotions without the help of a screen will have a hard time doing so in adulthood. Many parents have watched in horror as their once healthy, happy kids become screen-obsessed Gollums—harsh, angry, moody, and obsessed with their precioussss screens. And many parents feel powerless against the sewer pipe of unhealthy content the screen world gushes toward their children.
Some parents are giving preschoolers their own tablets as entertainment devices. This is an extraordinarily bad idea. “But it’s not connected to the internet, and we’ve got the parental controls locked down,” you say. Fine. But what about the precedent you’re setting? Your child has her own device she can control and access at age three. What do you plan to tell her when she’s eight and wants her own mobile phone? Not to mention the fact that she’s training her brain to seek screen novelty any time she’s bored.
Screen Time displaces Family Time
The golden ring of screen time can also be used to create the illusion of family harmony. Give everyone their own screen—and instantly the house is calm. In sixty seconds, you’ve pacified bickering siblings and tranquilized hormonal teens.
But this artificial peace comes at a price. As each family member retreats to a corner to stream TV, play video games, or scroll social media, they become strangers. MIT professor Sherry Turkle calls this “being alone together”—families that are physically present but who pay little attention to one another.
A healthy family dynamic emerges through hundreds of mini interactions between parents, children, and siblings over the years: a smile, a hand on a shoulder, a Dad joke (groan), an argument, correction, forgiveness, and being noticed. Screen time is preempting many of these constructive daily encounters. What remains of our interactions is mostly negative or corrective: Have you done your homework? Why is your room such a pigsty? Have you washed your soccer uniform? When are you going to fill out your college application? Kids begin to perceive their parents as joyless nags who exist only to correct their missteps or keep them on schedule.
Some parents go too far the other direction, using screens to avoid upsetting conversations about homework, chores, and the like. The home descends into chaos as issues are never addressed. On top of this, kids learn that conflict avoidance via screen is easier than negotiating the give-and-take of real-life relationships.
Here’s best piece of advice I can give parents:
Here’s why it’s important to start early: once your kids start putting the golden ring of screen time on their fingers, it’s very hard to get it off. Many parents who have tried to limit their children’s screen time after the fact tell stories of kids melting down, flying into rages, or even running away from home. It’s much easier to enforce limits from the time they’re young. I offer a sample screen use plan at my website: www.DavidMurrow.com/screens/tools.
Parents sometimes stray from the plan in a moment of weakness. Kids play one parent against the other. Hold firm to the plan and you’ll greatly lessen the odds your children will become captive to their screens.
Now, there’s one more piece of advice I’d give – and it’s an important one: Parents must get their own screen use under control first. If you spend an inordinate amount of your free time absorbed in your TV, computer, video game, or smart device, your kids will grow up to do the same.
Why do parents check out? They’re tired. Stressed. Lonely. They just want to unwind for five minutes and enjoy that shot of dopamine after a hard day at work. “Just five minutes” can easily turn into an hour or more.
Many kids are deeply hurt by the lack of attention they receive from their screen-besotted parents. This was my error. When my kids were young, I sat in the living room, absorbed in my screen, barely looking up. If I could turn back time, I’d close my laptop and give my kids a hearty grin every time I saw their precious little faces.
With our noses buried in our screens, we pay less attention to the world around us.
We must set the example:
Resist the urge to check or use your devices in the presence of a family member. Instead, train yourself to put the device down, look them in the eye, and smile
If you need to take a call or answer an email, apologize and leave the room. When you return, give family members your full attention
Implement a “no screens at the dinner table” policy that applies to parents too
Eat dinner at a table so you can look each other in the eye
Turn the TV completely off at mealtime, even if it’s in the other room. Don’t just mute the sound
After dinner, turn the TV on only if you’re planning to watch something together. Turn it off when you’re done
Resist the urge to pull out your phone and photograph everything. Teach your kids to live in the moment.
A single, 30-minute sermon can’t compete with the 60+ hours we spend glued to our screens each week.
Your screens are discipling you – far more effectively than your church is. Whereas the average churchgoer might watch a single, 30-minute sermon every seven days, the typical social media user spends more than 1,000 minutes on social platforms each week.
Your spiritual life is being displaced by your screen life, and you probably don’t even realize it. Every day, hundreds of former believers join the ranks of the religious “nones” because of something they saw on their screens. The gospel isn’t outdated, it’s being overwhelmed.
If we are going to be salt and light to a dying world, we must be fully present in that world. It’s time to fix our eyes not on Fox News or Facebook, but on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.