THE TECH-WISE FAMILY: EVERYDAY STEPS FOR PUTTING TECHNOLOGY IN ITS PROPER PLACE|
BAKER BOOKS, 2017
Has your family tried the Dolmio Pepper Hacker? With a twist of the pepper mill, your home TVs, wi-fi and mobile devices shut down and family members engage with each other instead of their devices. Yes, it’s too good to be true, but the YouTube video creators behind the Pepper Hacker seek to address a common concern: How might families live with digital technologies?
In his new book, The Tech-wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place, Andy Crouch offers answers and guidelines in an accessible, engaging format. He begins with the argument that kids and parents need help in living (and competing) with technology to make homes places where “the very best of life happens.” Families, he says, should aim for developing wisdom and courage in all family members so they can flourish in all areas of life.
Crouch builds his argument in the vein of Albert Borgmann’s 1984 book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry, focusing on disciplines that shape habits and practices. He advocates 10 tech-wise commitments, the first three of which are building character in the family, making choices about the environment of the home and making choices about time together and apart. Crouch devotes the first half of the book to developing these crucial foundational commitments. He then describes four commitments, or practices, that support the first three commitments – for example, “We wake up before our devices do and they ‘go to bed’ before we do” and “Car time is conversation time.” The remaining practices aim toward worship of God and care for each other. In this section Crouch deals particularly with the temptations of pornography and the importance of accountability.
A chapter is devoted to each of the commitments, with Crouch developing his argument more specifically with each commitment. He includes infographics based on surveys from Barna Research regarding technology and family life, such as “Who has a Phone: preteens? Teens? Parents?” (In case you’re wondering, 88 percent of teens have phones.) Crouch makes loose connections to the survey data, and, in just a few places, references it specifically in his text.
PROPOSING RADICAL CHANGE
The data provide a backdrop to the radical changes Crouch advocates for families. Except for the last, each commitment chapter ends with a Crouch Family Reality Check, a transparent look at how well the author’s own family lives out the particular commitment. This section offers a sigh of relief to readers who wonder how they might ever enact such radical changes in their families. Crouch’s vulnerability about life in his family and his struggles with technology illustrate a journey and serve as encouragement to begin the journey, with recognition that setbacks will occur.
Crouch highlights several characteristics of technology in his argument: It makes tasks easier, even doing tasks for humans (often hiding the work behind the task); is present everywhere; evidences human creativity that reflects the image of God; distracts humans; allows humans to “create and care for the world in marvelous ways.” Although he notes and builds upon these characteristics, he gives technology a neutral place: “The problem isn’t with our devices themselves – it’s with the way we use them.” While it is true that we have choices about how we use technology, Crouch fails to highlight how some technologies inherently shape behaviors by their function and were designed to do so. For example, software (e.g. gaming, shopping and social media) is often designed for addiction, to keep users glued to the screen. Crouch blames boredom as a reason for moving to the screen and does not take into account the addictive intent of the technologies.
While most of Crouch’s arguments for his commitments and their implications are cohesive, his “no screens until double digits” contrasts with his advocacy of one hour of unplugged per day. For children younger than 10, Crouch emphasizes embodied experiences without screens, whether at school or home. He does not, however, give further guidance on screen time for children as they age beyond double digits except for turning off digital technologies “one hour a day, one day a week, one week a year.” One hour per day without screens for 10- to 18-year-olds leaves 16 to 23 hours with screens! Crouch might have been addressing adult practices more in this enactment of the biblical command to rest, but clarification is needed to highlight the need for older children’s and adolescents’ need for physical engagement with their world and for limits on digital technologies. In addition, returning to no screens for elementary-school-age children, Crouch’s characterizations of these children’s interactions with computers at school does not reflect the rich learning opportunities available: video chatting with pen pals in another country, tracking the migration of Monarch butterflies by adding to the international collected data set, interacting with an animation of a volcano or earthquake in order to better understand such events. Much can be learned from embodied, physical interaction with one’s world, and, yes, screen time should be limited. Eliminating screen time, however, is an extreme response that limits interactions with the world and only serves to simplify parental decision-making.
Crouch’s emphasis on a biblical picture of life – loving (worshiping) God, loving (caring for) your neighbor and family as yourself, to promote the flourishing all creation – offers a strong foundation for living with technologies, digital or not. Responses to technology belong within a full-life framework and not in their own separate zone. Crouch’s wrestling with the practices and habits that build toward such a life gives his readers fodder for their own wrestling with how to thrive with digital technologies as families and as individuals.
Marj Terpstra teaches education at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is researching digital technology in Christian schools.