I’m reading a fantastic new book (the details of which I’ll spare you because Derek has had to hear them all) by two business and tech guys who are at the top of their fields. One of them has a dozen kids, and he wrote a section called “How the Hell Do You Juggle 12 Kids and Work”?

One paragraph resonated with me because it’s something we deal with and struggle with in cycles in our house: Electronics and their role in the kids’ lives, and our lives for that matter.

The author says,

I’m wary of electronics. Electronics today make it easier than ever to create amazing things—or to sit alone watching videos or social feeds while life passes you by. We minimize them with younger kids. We push the older ones to create, not just consume. This is an ever-evolving challenge.

Yes, yes it is. Our kids all use one-to-one electronics at school (Kate has a laptop and the younger ones have iPads). They come home and want to watch videos or Netflix or play games. I want to send them outside for fresh air and exercise, then back in for instrument practice. We come up with rules. I look at Kate and think she hasn’t put her phone down in a month or more. We revise the rules. I realize Jonathan is quoting a saccharine YouTube show I despise (only follow that link for some personal torture) and revise the rules again.

Part of the problem is finding and maintaining a balance where the internet can be a wonderful gift and tool in our lives, like looking up the pronunciation of a word in the middle of a family dinner (where no electronics are allowed ever) without getting immersed in it and becoming that family that’s staring at their phones instead of talking to each other.

But a bigger part of the problem is, I think, the problem of consumption versus creation.

My mom and I were talking about this once regarding the iPad. She uses hers all the time and I was saying that I hardly use mine except for CPH Board business and to find and cook recipes in the kitchen. Sure, I take it with me on business trips and it’s amazingly convenient and small and lovely, but when I get home I’ve never quite gotten as much work done as I can on the laptop.

The reason has to do with creating and consuming. The iPad and the phone are tools of consumption. They’re built to watch, read, observe, maybe hit “like” or make a small comment. They’re not built to write, edit, and create. You can do that stuff on there—I’ve written many a blog post or even a Google Slides draft on the iPad on the plane—but it’s not easy. The tool is meant to consume.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with consuming. Not everyone can be creators; some people have to consume the creations. (Bible study and Sunday school are great examples of consumption.) But if given a choice, I don’t want my kids scrolling through an endless social media feed and knowing the scoop on everyone doing everything, ever. I want my kids making movies and pictures and, in the end, memories.

Version 1

I don’t want my kids thinking everyone else has a great life because their social media says so. Those great lives are curated just like ours. They too have crappy days.

I don’t want my kids using electronics as a crutch when they’re bored in social situations. “If you’re bored, then you’re being boring!” I tell them all the time.

Are you uncomfortable? Get out of your comfort zone.

Are you in a state of discontent? Count your blessings. Get your head out of your device and have a conversation with someone and make their day a little brighter.

Honestly, I can’t think of anything ruder than pulling out your phone at a get-together with friends unless you’re mutually looking something up together. If you’re not a doctor on call, or a pastor on call, or someone else on call, you are not that important and you don’t need to check your email. Or in my kids’ case, texts and notifications, because email what?

Of course this is a huge problem with their friends. I’ve walked into a gathering of five girls who are not giggling and gossiping, but staring at their phones in individual silos. “Why do you even bother to get together?” I ask. “I don’t know,” Kate replies.

Besides social gatherings is the day to day. I don’t want my kids growing up and spending the bulk of the daily grind glued to their devices. There may be nothing better going on in that moment, but that’s because they haven’t invented it yet.

Version 2

Like all our other gifts, this digital stuff is a gift that can go over the top. Food. Alcohol. (Not for the kids. 🙂 ) Fun. Work. All gifts, all susceptible to abuse.

The rules

So we set rules, and they evolve over time, and sometimes we get lax on them. Some are set in stone and with good reason.

One of those “stone” rules is “No screens an hour before bed.” Derek and I follow this one, too. Studies show pretty conclusively that the light from a screen messes up your sleeping brain. I even use an awesome tool called fl.ux that matches the screen brightness to sunrise and sunset, so it goes really orange by 9 p.m. That’s my cue: Get Off.

Sometimes I can’t. I have a deadline, or a late-night Google Hangout or FaceTime. And I never sleep as well those nights, because the last thing I did was stare at a screen.

We put the kids to bed early. Some parents would say ridiculously early, but little kids need 10-11 hours of sleep a night. That too is documented. They go to bed, and are allowed to read for 30 minutes. It’s a win-win: quiet time for them, practice reading, and no screens. Just a chance to settle down and unwind from the pressure of the day.

The kids used to get an hour of screen time on school days, but we recently changed it to 20 minutes and are experimenting with letting them do that first when coming home instead of after their work is done. I’ve noticed some of them (no names to protect the guilty) rushing through homework and practice to get to the goal: Netflix. My sister lets her kids have their screen time first so they can relax after school, so we’re going to try this for awhile too.

And we’re trying to push the creation vs. consumption. Or at least (like with Just Dance on the Wii) action. And, of course, sisterly love and bonding.

Hypocrite?

I’m on my phone a lot. I pull it out constantly. But in my defense, I schedule the entire family on our calendar. My work to-do list is there too. So is my personal task list. And my ESV Bible. Music. Podcasts. Workout app. Weather. Fitbit. Photos. (And I haven’t even gotten to email, Facebook, and Instagram yet!) I try to remember it’s a tool and not a crutch. I don’t always succeed.

As an introvert, I need to be in my head. Like, a lot. Sometimes the easiest way to get there is to say “yes” when the kids want to watch a show. I alternate between justification and self-disgust for doing this.

Goodbye, Facebook?

I fantasize about this. Then I think I’d miss it. We have an up-and-down relationship.

One of my friends quit Facebook last August and she says it changed her life. No more hating people because they post a side of themselves you disagree with, even though you know them in a completely different context. No more scrolling through internet memes. No more politics. No more “If you were really my friend, you would copy and paste this status” (this is a post for another day: Understanding the Facebook Algorithm and how people see and don’t see posts. Hint: it has nothing to do with our level of friendship.).

Some people get off of Facebook for Lent. Not a bad idea. I didn’t do that this year, though.

The real problem with Facebook goes back to creation vs. consumption. It’s a tool of consumption, hands-down. Scroll, scroll, scroll. Read. Like. Comment maybe, but that’s too hard on your phone so just keep scrolling. I can’t remember the last Facebook session I had where I got off and felt edified, enlightened, or educated. The feeling is generally emptiness or disgust or anger, no?

Last night, Derek and I both got sucked into our phones. It’s easy to do at the end of a long, tiring day (which yesterday was). You want to consume because you’re tired of output. Suddenly you look up and you’ve been reading stuff for an hour and have no idea what. I honestly can’t remember a single thing I read on Facebook last night.

Finally, we forced ourselves to get off of Facebook and into real books. Now that, I can remember, because I’m reading the Percy Jackson series with Sophia. And even though it’s “only” a tool of consumption, it’s an honest-to-goodness paperback book. And that requires an imagination.