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Five Ideas to Keep Technology From Replacing Relationships

How can you master technology rather than letting it master you?
By Janel Breitenstein


March 5, 2010, from Seoul, South Korea: “An internet-obsessed Korean couple allegedly allowed their infant daughter to starve to death while they cared for their virtual child, police said on Friday.”

Say what?

The article further reported that the couple

fed their 3-month-old baby only on visits home between 12-hour sessions at a neighbourhood internet cafe, where they were raising an avatar daughter. … The pair became obsessed with nurturing their virtual daughter, called Anima, but neglected their real daughter. … Eventually, the couple returned home after one 12-hour session in September to find the child dead and called police. The pair were arrested on Friday after an autopsy showed that the baby died from prolonged malnutrition.

This left me, as it likely leaves you, horrified. Repulsed. Frightened.

It’s an extreme example. But there is no doubt that social media and other interactive technologies have revolutionized our manner of relating to one another. In many ways, technology stands in the place small towns and even family once held, and in many cases still do. It’s the place of community. Rather than shooting the breeze with the person who shares our backyard fence or sitting on the front porch after dinner, we can be found updating our status, tweeting a fascinating blog post, or texting a friend.

But Jesus Himself is a great reminder that though words are powerful, as the Word Himself He found it necessary to become flesh and dwell among us (John 1:14). He let humanity touch Him and experience Him (1 John 1:1-2), eat with Him and laugh with Him.

The Book of Hebrews, too, cautions believers against forsaking assembling together (10:25)—and presumably was referencing more than a chat room, Skype, or a conference call. Technology can sometimes impede authentic, person-to-person intimacy. It mistakes isolation for connection.

How, I ask myself, can I master technology, rather than allow it to master me? It’s not unlike the unflagging population of flowering vines cropping up in my garden: How can I keep technology—a good thing—from pushing into the wrong places in the wrong times … and stealing the nutrition of the things I actually want to grow there?

1. Avoid using technology in place of conversation or community. If I go to Amazon.com, it greets me by name and has recommendations for me. It lists books I might enjoy, reminds me of items of interest for my kids. At times Amazon knows more about me than my next-door neighbor. It’s not unheard of, or unwelcome, to have technology fake a little relationship. In fact, I like it. It feels—ironically—personal.

But take it a step further. How often do I, too, presume relationship because of the facts I know about a person—say, from what I’ve read on Facebook? There are certainly times, too, when I’d rather be e-mailing a friend or checking my Facebook news feed than having a conversation with one of my children in the room with me. Yet that doesn’t mean I don’t have an authentic relationship with the friend or the child.

So decide ahead of time: We will reconsider our lives if certain symptoms describe our relationships. For example, you’ll pull the plug if online sermons or articles take the place of community, accountability, and corporate worship of church; or if face-to-face time is exchanged for Facebook or texting.

Create guidelines for your family prohibiting media (ipods, handheld video games, cell phones, headphones) at the table, in the car or carpool, in the checkout line, or in the middle of a conversation. It’s a great opportunity to convey the crucial nature of loving people in face-to-face relationships—to the point of giving that face time priority over a blinking, buzzing, blaring, or ringing electronic device. These occasions are simply fertile soil for everyday relationships that connect us, even in silence. If you’re still considering if and when to make that first cell phone purchase for your child, you might consider whether the phone will truly connect him more to his friends and what nature of connection it will bring, as well as the effect on other face-to-face relationships.

One study has indicated that up to 93 percent of conversation success is determined by nonverbal indicators. So what are we missing from words-only interactions? Consider a more personal form of contact whenever you and the other party have the time. Think microwave dinners versus gourmet meals: convenience doesn’t equal quality.

This is especially true for potentially confrontational situations. Even accomplished writers can be misunderstood through text, which inherently lacks in tone of voice and other communicators. It doesn’t convey the personal compassion of being eye-to-eye or even ear-to-ear on the telephone. Nearly all of us have experienced one of these needless and usually embarrassing misunderstandings. Talking face-to-face communicates respect and value—another reason why Jesus’ incarnation communicated worth to us.

2. Regularly welcome a media fast, like “unplugged Sundays” or other family times (perhaps a day during family vacation). As my husband once challenged me: “Do we really need to be that accessible?”

Many of the reasons we run to answer the phone or continue monitoring our devices may be, admittedly, less than loving. It’s more often out of habit, a fear of “falling behind” with the incessant stream of information, or even boredom with current situations or company. As we gradually let love increase as the rule over our media interaction, this may help us set up appropriate “fences” that prize relationships over convenience.

As I considered media fasts for my family, I found myself asking, Who am I allowing to disciple my heart—and my children’s hearts? I’ve had to reevaluate my kids’ DVD or gaming choices, or the sidebars that bombard them on internet sites. These voices, I realized, were growing in their influence on my family. In my personal choices for myself, too, I had to admit that there were times I was being entertained by what disgusts God.

Consider who—or what—are the primary influences in your kids’ lives. How are your efforts to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4) overpowered by the voices clamoring around yours … or around the Holy Spirit’s? Will our kids hear the Holy Spirit when His gentle whisper hovers around their souls?

3. Set limits on television and computer games. My kids love computer games; I love the educational powerhouse that lies in a CD-ROM. My kids can’t get enough of the Wii, and we find it an interactive way to have a lot of fun together. We also love a good family movie night together, laughing together with the help of a good (okay, cheap) pizza. But just like we curb our kids’ junk food, at our house we curb their media intake as well. One recent British study of 1,000 children found that children who watch TV or play computer games for more than two hours a day were 60 percent more likely to have psychological problems, no matter their activity level. 

But for me, it’s a heart issue. I have to check my motives when my kids are using media, because I’m tempted to abdicate my role as a parent. Is technology my new babysitter or my new teacher, or is it a valuable supplement in this instance? Am I encouraging relationships, creativity, thinking for themselves, living in real life, and serving other people?

So in our house, we’ve set up some limits. To some, these may seem more extreme. But I’m not challenging you to use our guidelines but to prayerfully consider your own. We’ve found that concrete limits make it easier for us to know when to say yes or no, as well as easier for the kids. They help our kids to know what to expect, and eventually set limits of their own. We’re setting up their perception of what’s reasonable, their “norm.”

  • We have three “Wii days” a week after schoolwork is complete: Each child sets a timer for 20 minutes of his or her choice of game. (Bonus: the timer is the one who commands, “Time’s up!”) We reward our children’s acts of service with an extra five or 10 minutes of choice time. Weekend or evening time with a parent is up to the parent.
  • We’ve also decided to go without cable (gasp!) and actually don’t get network television, so our TV is restricted to videos that we’ve purposefully chosen (bonus: commercial-free!). That’s half an hour a day max, or an hour on some occasions. But we still love a movie night once a week!
  • We have four children under six. So we preview PG movies, animated or not, before our kids see them. If we’re not able to preview a movie because of circumstances, we check the thorough, family-friendly reviews at www.pluggedin.com.
  • We talk to our kids about what they see, asking them questions—for many reasons, including the fact that we won’t always be there to discern for them.
  • We limit computer game time, especially when it’s not educational. We try to let our kids know their time allowance before they start, so their expectations aren’t disappointed.
  • We’ve chosen against placing computers or televisions in our bedrooms. 


4. Program times of silence into your day.
My daily marathon takes place in a fast-paced, attention-deprived, multi-tasking world. I find myself wondering: Am I still able to pray, meditate, enjoy solitude, and listen to the Holy Spirit?

I long to create an environment for my children to know their Good Shepherd’s voice—and be able to stop and listen. There’s significant temptation in my home to surround ourselves with noise, entertainment, and bustling activity. But for the sake of their souls, I’ve got to swim against that current, cultivating a family with eyes fixed on Jesus and casting off what hinders us.

5. Be aware of media isolation. You may remember the 1995 flick The Net, where the life of Sandra Bullock’s character revolves around the internet to the point of her own isolation, leading to the eventual endangering of her life. Increasingly, even our social interaction and sexuality stream through cyberspace. It’s quite feasible to become isolated from a great deal of human contact.

And I’m not talking at the hermit level. With the increased productivity of technology, the demands of anyone’s schedule can squeeze out additional time and energy for people. Yet God created His body, the Church: “The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ … But God has so composed the body … that the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Corinthians 12:21,24-25; see also Proverbs 18:1). And the body needs us. Can you imagine a physical body attempting to function without one of its major organs? Isolation punishes more than the isolated.

Romans 12 counsels, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (v. 2, emphasis added). May our families engage with culture and the Word of God, leveraging technology to increasingly, and potently, become a city on a hill.

Copyright © 2011 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.



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