The Real World vs. The Digital World
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Screens can give us the false impression that we rule our digital kingdom with the touch of a button. David Murrow warns us that having the tools is not the problem, but drowning in them is.
The Real World vs. The Digital World
Dave: So I’m going to make us do something right now.
Dave: I want to do the screen time check on your phone. I just want to know what your number is compared to my number. Daily average: “What is your daily average?”—just say it!
Ann: I’m so embarrassed! [Laughter]
Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: So we’re talking about screen time today. I just want to know what your number is compared to my number. I’m competitive, so I’m just hoping it’s higher than six hours.
Ann: Well, we’ve been doing radio all week;—
Dave: Okay; sounds like an excuse.
Ann: —so I’ve been on it, because this is where we study on our phone.
Dave: It sounds like you’re making an excuse.
Ann: Four hours.
Dave: Oh, mine’s higher!
Ann: Well, it’s 57 minutes.
Dave: I’m 5 hours and 14 minutes, but I’m down 31 percent from last week.
Okay; so we’re talking about screen time today, because this little device in our hands—whether it is a phone, or an iPad®, or a computer screen—it can dominate our lives. Look at you; you can’t even/can’t even get your eyes off of it.
Ann: I’m on my phone four hours a day?! What am I doing with my life?!
Dave: Well, we’re going to find out; because we’re going to get some help today from David Murrow. He wrote a book about this. He’s/he can help us; right?
David, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
David: Good to be with you again.
Dave: Yes, we’re glad to have you here. You wrote a book called Drowning in Screen Time—which I was going to say, “My wife is drowning,”—but if I’m an hour more a day—was that a day?—
Dave: —5 hours, 14 minutes.
Ann: I am very discouraged. I hope I can get my mind back on what we are doing here because that’s—David, pull yours up; let’s see.
David: I shut mine off before the broadcast. [Laughter]
Dave: Look at that; of course, he did—he wrote a book about this—he knows how bad this is. Hey, by the way, I just noticed my number-one app that I spent the most hours on is my camera.
David: Well, you know, sometimes—
Dave: Now, you’re going to tell me that’s not true.
David: I’m going to let you off the hook a little bit. Sometimes, people use their alarm clocks/their phone as an alarm clock.
Ann: Yes; I do that.
David: I’ll do that. My thing is: “You were on 11 hours a day.” I’ll go, “What?” Well, eight hours a day of that was my clock.
Ann: That is what mine is; there you go.
Dave: Recently, you’ve written more about this screen time thing. In fact, the subtitle—which is really interesting is—A Lifeline for Adults, Parents, Teachers, and Ministers Who Want to Reclaim Their Real Lives.
We’ve already talked this week about sort of the epidemic of screens in our lives and how they can really be detrimental; but how do they keep us away from your title there, real lives? Do they really keep us away from real life?
David: Oh, they absolutely do. One of the parables that I use at the beginning of the book—
Dave: Yes, you have five parables.
David: —it’s based on five parables.
Ann: Yes, I like those.
David: One of the parables is/I call it the parable of the kingdom. David was elevated to the role of king. When he became king, he was/he encountered lots of pressures that he had never known as a shepherd boy; for example, presiding over a kingdom; he could suddenly summon any food that he wanted—well, we can do that with our phones now—[Laughter]—he could banish heretics and turncoats and put rivals to the sword—we can do that on Twitter®.
The whole thing adds up to: you create this digital kingdom over which you reign as lord and master. You decide what ideas will be tolerated, what ideas will be cancelled, who can come in, and who can come out of your royal presence. There are algorithms that function like digital yes-men. They look over your shoulder while you surf the web; and then they provide you with more content that tells you, “Oh, you’re right!” They back up the things that you already believe; or if you are the type who likes to fight online, your social media feed is going to fill up with ideas that you hate so that you can fight with those people.
All of it adds up to this digital kingdom over which we reign as lord and master. I think that is very unhealthy. Then you go into the real world, where nothing/you don’t reign over anything.
Ann: You have control over nothing. [Laughter]
David: Yes, in the digital world, you have complete control over what happens. In the real world, you control almost nothing: there is no on/off button if your car breaks down; there is no way to unfriend toxic coworkers. What it is doing is we are having this generation of young people, who are growing up digital—they are accustomed to having this high level of control in their lives in their digital lives—and they are not adapting well to real life, because it doesn’t yield to their preferences.
David: That’s just the natural result of kids, who have grown up on social media—and have unfriended, unclicked, cancelled things—that’s just been their thing; they are trying to bring that ethos into the real world:—
David: “Ideas that I don’t like should not be there.”
Ann: It is a fantasy world. The fantasy world is much easier/ simpler than the real world, because the real world is difficult.
David: The real world is very difficult, and it always has been; but we’ve never had this sanctuary that we have today.
David: It’s so easy to retreat into video games—nobody really dies—but you get to be this heroic guy. It is a fantasy world, and it accommodates our needs; it slowly molds to our preferences. It really doesn’t let any other content or ideas in. It really becomes castle walls around our minds.
Ann: There are good things.
David: Oh, absolutely.
Ann: Let’s talk about that for just a second; because we don’t want to say [scolding voice], “This is awful; there is nothing good.” What are the good things?
David: Well, just for—I’ll give you an example from my book—I was walking down the street the other day with my wife in Alaska. We walked past this patch of daisies that my daughter had always loved picking as a child. We tapped on our phones, and we could see that she was at the store far away. We got on Face Time®, and we showed her the daisies. We saw her and our grandson; she lives in Australia.
Ann: Oh, goodness!
David: We’re in Alaska; she’s in Australia. Yet, I knew where she was; and I was able to talk to her in real time. You couldn’t even do that until 2011, so it’s really done a good job of allowing us to keep in touch with our far-flung loved ones.
David: And really, during the pandemic, it has been a lifeline. I couldn’t even imagine going through these shutdowns that we did—
David: —without these wonderful tools. The problem isn’t that we have the tools. The problem is when we drown in the tools/when they become our reality.
Dave: Yes; it’s interesting, you say in the book—and you’ve already talked about, David; but you use these three terms of attributes that are god-like or attributes that are divine—and you say digital/the screen sort of gives us/can you talk about those? Those are very interesting to think: “These are only what God can do; and yet, we have some similar powers.”
David: We can be omniscient; we can know anything right now. If you want to know any fact, you can just go to your pocket and find it in about 15 seconds.
We can be omnipresent, which is really good when you work from Alaska. I can beam into a Zoom meeting in South Africa if that’s necessary.
Omniscient, omnipresent—and omnipotent would be the other one—although we haven’t quite reached omnipotence, we certainly have powers; for example, if my daughter in Australia needs money,—
David: —I can just click a couple of buttons. I don’t have to send a ship full of jewels and gold down there. [Laughter] I can just click a couple of buttons on my computer; and within hours, she has the money.
We have these powers and presence that we’ve never had before, and these are wonderful things as long as they don’t displace real life.
Dave: So if I am a guy, who is listening to this—and we talked about it earlier—maybe, I have a problem; and I’m guessing I’m among millions of people who have a problem. What are some steps? I’ve got to get a grip on this. You have written a book to help me. I’m drowning. I didn’t think I was drowning, but I’m drowning in screen time. I make a decision: “You know what? This is something I don’t want to do,”—where do I start?
David: Well, step number one is always confession; the first step in repentance is confession. Go to a trusted confidant. If you are married, go to your wife—certainly, that would be the first one—and ask the question that you mentioned in the previous episode: “Is this a problem for me?”
David: Just be honest and don’t explode when you hear the answer; it’s probably going to be “Yes.” Just confess to someone, and then find the help you need. The same technologies that addict us can also liberate us, especially if you have an addiction to pornography, for example. There are some wonderful tools out there, like Covenant Eyes, that provide mutual accountability.
You know, the early philosophy was filters: “Let’s stop it before it gets to your phone.” Filters don’t work; you can get around them. Covenant Eyes has switched to a new philosophy, which is mutual accountability. My accountability partner gets screen shots/random screen shots of my phone; he sees what I’m seeing. Once you have that accountability relationship in place, your buddy can help you back off from unhealthy screen content.
As far as the number of hours of screen content, you definitely want to be checking your weekly screen time report. There are wonderful tools. There is one called Forest, which I just love. You put it on your phone; and you say, “I don’t want to get on my phone for two hours.” During two hours, trees grow on your phone.
Ann: Really?! I’ve never heard of this.
David: And if you do anything with your phone in the next two hours, the trees—[wilting sound]—they die! [Laughter]
Dave: So you want to keep them growing.
Ann: So it’s an app?
David: It’s an app; yes. One of the nice things, too, is they take some of the money and use it for forestation projects in poor countries;—
Ann: That’s cool.
David: —they actually plant real trees. I love the idea.
There are lots and lots of tools out there that are willing to help you if you have a mild screen addiction. Now, if it is severe, you may need something: in-patient treatment; you may need to go to a tech-free retreat; you may need to do a detox weekend.
Dave: Yes, it’s interesting that we haven’t said a whole lot about the dark side. You mentioned pornography—there are obviously websites and places you can go—and there are tools like Covenant Eyes. I know, years ago, when my boys were in high school, I had Covenant Eyes with them to me. Again, if they went somewhere on their phone, I would get an email. I had it with some guys that held me accountable.
David: Good; good.
Dave: I’ll never forget. One day, one of my sons—I get an email that says he looked at nude photos of some celebrity; right?—I see that, so I call him up—I’m like, “Dude, what is going on?” He had/I don’t think he was lying; he was like, “Dad, that isn’t what happened! I did this thing that wasn’t this, but it’s going to show up like that.” I clicked on what it said he went to. As soon as I did that, I’m like, “Uh-oh; now, mine is going to go to my guy; right?”
Dave: Sure enough! Jon Kitna was my guy; he was the quarterback for the Lions back in the day—
David: Oh, yes; I’ve seen him play.
Dave: —great guy—and we were great friends. He was one of my accountability guys. Sure enough, I got the call from Jon. You can imagine what he thought, “Jon, that wasn’t me; that was my son. He actually didn’t do it.” He goes, “Now, you’re lying?! You’re throwing your son under the bus, because you had a…” It was all totally innocent; it really was—I’m not saying I’ve always been perfect or anybody has—but that accountability software was a lifesaver.
Dave: I mean, it is something that, if you are struggling, you have to get that on there. Do you think it really does work?
David: You know it does. The pornographers are very smart. They use a man’s natural desire to seek out companionship against them; they are using our brains against us. It’s definitely a growing problem. I think accountability is probably the best way to deal with it if you/especially to nip it in the bud with young men.
Ann: I think the thing that’s discouraging as parents is, if you have teenagers, and you feel overwhelmed—
Dave: They may not even be teenagers.
Ann: Yes; but there is this feeling: “My house is out of control; and when I’m talking to my kids about it, they are angry,” especially when [they] are going into video games, even. It’s just really hard to get your kids back. I’ve talked to so many moms, who feel helpless, like: “I don’t know what to do,” and “I don’t know how to get my family back.” How would you encourage them?
David: Well, all the screen time has displaced real life. The best thing to do—well, if they are not willing to talk about it, and they are not willing to see the error of their ways—then you have to displace screen life with real life/real life activities.
This is one of the things Andy Crouch talks about in his book and some of the other things. If they are on the screens all the time, then get them out into soccer, or throw them out of the house—or one of the best things I say is—implement this early if you can: screen-free after dinner. When you come to the table, then you surrender your devices; everything turns off. Everything turns completely off—no TV noise—even mute.
Ann: —so nothing.
David: So there is no screen activity in the house; have those family conversations around the dinner table, as awkward as they may be; but get back into that. Then after dinner, it’s screen free.
No screens in the bedroom is the other thing. Once you let a kid take a screen in the bedroom, you’ve lost a lot of territory—you’re back on your own ten-yard line—to use a football metaphor.
David: You definitely want to get it early and set these boundaries/set these expectations as soon as you can. One of the most difficult situations is where you have a joint custody situation, where one parent is very lenient about screens, and the other is very tough. Boy, that is a really, really difficult one. You’ve got to try to get on the same page as your ex-.
Ann: Then with little kids, I just read a study that said, “Our kids should not have any screen time before the age of two.” It’s just an easy babysitter, you know, with infants, especially if you are on the plane. What do you encourage with that?
David: Yes, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time before 18 months; and then at that point, you could give them a little bit of screen time as long as you are with them.
David: You don’t really want to park them in front of the screens if you can avoid it until about age three. Then, of course, it should be age-appropriate content.
There are two kinds of screen time: there is interactive screen time, and there is passive screen time. One riles the brain up more than the other—that’s the interactive—the passive screen time is just where you are sitting there, watching TV or you are video chatting. You’re not really changing what is on the screen; it does less to stimulate the brain. That’s healthier for kids than interactive screen time, which is handing them a tablet or something like that; because they are changing and manipulating what is going on the screen.
Ann: —even if it is educational?
David: —even if it is educational. Their brain is still operating at a higher level. It’s like the difference between going to an art gallery and making a painting. Passive screen time is like going to an art gallery; you are just simply looking at the lovely paintings. If you are making a painting, your brain works a lot harder.
Ann: So especially before bed, it would probably be hard to wind down.
David: —after interacting—yes, very, very difficult with interactive screen time. The danger there is, if you are handing your kid a tablet to pacify them,—
David: —you are teaching them to go to a screen when their emotions are high; soothe themselves with screens. That is like the exact opposite of what you want to do. When I see kids in the mall—with their parents’ phones, or a tablet or something—it just/it frightens me; because they are teaching them to go to screens instead of regulating the emotions themselves.
Ann: Oh, think about, if you are a withdrawer in a relationship, and conflict arises—and you’ve been trained, as a child, to pacify your emotions by your screen—so then, as an adult, if you are in a difficult conversation/in a fight, you’re automatically going to want to go to your screen to pacify these emotions.
David: Right; you’ll never deal with the underlying issue.
David: Yes. I have heard parents say, “My kids, with the screens, they are like Gollum: ‘My precious.’” [Laughter]
David: I expanded on that analogy in the book. Your screens are like your golden ring of power. If you have a kid, who is crying or whatever, you can give them this ring; and you can make them invisible—
Ann: Oh, goodness!
David: —they disappear, just like Lord of the Rings—but they become visible to advertisers, who want their money; extremists, who want their mind; and predators, who want their body.
Ann: Oh, wow.
David: I think the analogy—it’s a chilling one—so you definitely don’t want to turn your kids into Gollums.
Dave: Yet—you hear that—yet, as a parent with young kids; I know, because we’ve been there—you’re just exhausted. [Laughter] You’re like, “This is so much easier. For the next 30 minutes or an hour, I’m going to hand them a cartoon they can watch.” Yet, it’s not the right call; is it?
David: It can be in limited amounts; it all depends on whether this is your go-to.
Dave: Yes; yes.
David: Of course, there are going to be times—and the nice thing that has come along in our day is streaming media—so the advertisers are cut out of the equation.
David: There is good, quality content for young kids on both secular and Christian channels, if you’re careful. Most of the Christian stuff is great. Even on Netflix®, you can even be very selective about what you show your kids. There are some good—that teach good, wholesome morals and stuff like that—it’s not all a cesspool.
Yes, if you are very careful and discerning about what you show, you can park them on occasion—as long as it’s not your go-to—and give them plenty of other analog toys to play with; throw them out in the yard, and let them play and be kids.
Ann: Yes; I know/I’m thinking of: “What are healthy alternatives?” because our kids are going to kick and scream and be mad if we kind of lay down the law of: “Okay, after dinner, we are done with screens.” That will probably be hard for a little bit, but then they get into a habit.
I think it makes us, as parents, have to really be involved. I’m thinking about/I think, after dinner when our kids were little, was some of our favorite times; especially in the summer, because we would be outside.
Dave: Oh, yes.
Ann: We would be playing, and we would be there too. I’m just thinking of all the Slip ‘N Slides and the hockey games, and we were putting tents up and forts up in the woods. That is good for our brains, for our bodies, for our relationships.
David: What about family reading?
David: I mean, reading together as a family.
Ann: Those were some of my favorite.
David: My kids still talk about that; that was their favorite time.
Ann: Us too!
David: They were still squirrelly; and they squirmed; and they lay backward on the couch, but they were listening. They were absorbing the values we taught them/good values in the books that we read them.
Dave: Now, what age would you advise giving a son or a daughter a phone or a tablet?
David: That’s a hard one; it depends on the individual. I’ve heard none before 13 or 14. There are products—I’m not shilling for anybody—but I know there is a company out there called Gab Wireless that will do a lockdown smartphone—it only texts to the parents—it’s a phone. All the things, where kids can get in trouble, are off the phone. But it looks like an iPhone®; the kids still have the social capital, but they don’t have the possibility of being contacted by a predator.
Ann: That’s a good alternative.
Dave: That’s a good call.
David: There are products out there like that.
Dave: All I know is, as we’ve talked about today, there is good/and there is a lot of really good that comes from screens. It’s amazing technology in our world. Yet, just like anything else, there is the dark side—it isn’t just the porn or the predators—it’s the dark side of pulling families apart.
David: The number of hours, yes; we displace those moments, that are so precious that we can’t get back. It’s easier to look at a phone than it is to put up a tent in the yard, like you were saying; but boy, what are you going to remember?—what are the kids going to remember? They are going to remember that tent, falling down on their heads, and laughing. Those moments are irreplaceable.
As followers of Jesus, we need to focus on those things that are important, and are of eternal value, and not the things that are fleeting and interesting in the moment.
Ann: I’m recalling all the nights that we spent, before our kids went to bed, just lying in their room, reading the Bible, reading books like novels that were so good. They do remember those times of reading and even asking them questions at night before they went to bed. Those days are irreplaceable.
I was thinking, “Man, wouldn’t that be good just to implement that rule of: ‘Hey, at dinnertime and beyond, there is no screen time’?” It really could change our families.
David: I think it gets you to the 50-yard line, really, to continue our football analogy here. [Laughter]
Dave: You keep wanting to go into football.
David: No, it’s really—people say, “What’s one thing I can do?”—I’d say the number-one thing you can do is you collect the screens at dinnertime; no screens in the bedroom, and every screen is shut off. The one exception would be if you wanted to have a family movie night.
David: But then you are doing everything together—you’re make popcorn; you’re watching a fun movie—that’s great; that’s a good use of screen time. But other than that, you really want to avoid that being alone together problem, where everyone is on their individual screen.
I’m telling you—you are going to build more resilient kids the more you put them into the real world—the more they suffer the disappointment of losing their soccer match, or the tent that falls down, or the bee sting they get. I mean, they are perfectly physical safe in the house; but the young people today are so non-resilient, because they have been protected so much inside of our homes by a screen.
Dave: Yes; if you put the screen down, you’re going to create a memory.
Ann: That’s what I’m thinking, Dave. I’m recalling all of our kids said—we’ve asked them, now that they are adults—“What are the best memories that you have growing up?” One of them said—and I’ve shared this before—but he said, “When you guys pray for us every night before we go to bed altogether in the same room, that has stuck with me.” None of them has said, “…the times that we were on our screens together”; no one has said that.
David: “That high score in my video game; that was my best!”—no.
Ann: No, that’s not it; because God made us for relationship.
Bob: I think all of us know that there is a difference between digital life and real life. There is a difference between a digital relationship and a real relationship. There is a difference between a Facebook® friend and a real friend. We want to be in pursuit of what is real. That’s at the heart of what Dave and Ann Wilson have been talking with David Murrow about. David has written a book called Drowning in Screen Time that helps all of us understand how we are being impacted—as parents, as teenagers, singles—all of us are being affected by the omnipresence of a screen in our life.
We are making David’s book available this week to any FamilyLife Today listener who can help advance the ministry of FamilyLife through a donation. When you support this ministry—help us expand the reach of FamilyLife so that more people are being impacted by the kind of practical biblical help and hope they hear on FamilyLife Today, the resources they find on our website, the events that we are able to host—you make all of this possible when you support the ministry of FamilyLife Today. And we’re grateful for your financial support.
In fact, we’d love to express our gratitude today, when you make a donation, by sending you a copy of David Murrow’s book, Drowning in Screen Time. Be sure to ask for it when you donate. You can donate online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to make a donation. Again, David’s book is called Drowning in Screen Time. Request your copy when you donate online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, all of us interact with our screens differently. Tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson are going to talk with David Murrow about the different ways different people respond and the dangers associated with each of those different kinds of responses. I hope you can be back with us for that tomorrow.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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