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.” [1]

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 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’m repeatedly asking myself, can I master technology, rather than allow it to master me? It’s not unlike the dauntless population of 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 life I actually want to grow there?

1. Avoid using technology in place of conversation or community. greets me by name, offering personalized recommendations:  books I might enjoy, 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 how often do I, too, presume relationship because of the facts I know about a person—say, from what I’ve read on Insta?

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 take measures to pull the plug if online sermons or articles replace the community, accountability, and corporate worship of church; or if face-to-face time is exchanged for texting.

Create guidelines for your family prohibiting media (tablets, handheld video games, phones, headphones) at the table, in the car or carpool, in the checkout line, or in the middle of a conversation. The principle repeated in my house: When real people are around, we give them priority over virtual people. 

It’s a great opportunity to convey the crucial nature of loving people in face-to-face relationships—giving face time (lowercase!) 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, 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.

If so much of communication is non-verbal, what are we missing from words-only interactions? Consider a more personal form of contact whenever you and the other party have the time: phone rather than text, video-call rather than phone, real-life presence rather than video. 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 family media fast.

“Unplugged Sundays” or other family times (perhaps a day during family vacation?)—like intermittent fasting— have a refreshing way of “resetting” us and leading us away from technology addiction.

As my husband once challenged me: “Do we really need to be that accessible?”

Many 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’ streaming and gaming choices, 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 gaming.

My kids love gaming, and my husband finds it an interactive way for he and the kids to have 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. Consistently, studies conclude that children spending more than two hours a day on screens are 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, an emotional pacifier, or my new teacher? 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.”

  • After schoolwork and chores are complete, each child sets a timer for 20-30 minutes of his or her choice of game. (Bonus: the timer is the one who commands, “Time’s up!”) We reward 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 check the thorough, family-friendly reviews for movies, games, and apps at PluggedIn or Common Sense Media.
  • 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’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 God’s still, small 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 old-school 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.

Notes: [1] Tran, Mark. “Girl starved to death while parents raised virtual child in online game.” The Guardian. March 5, 2010.

Copyright © 2011 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.