By Rob Schouten
Minister of the Canadian Reformed Church at Aldergrove, British Columbia email@example.com
Andy Crouch, “The Tech-Wise Family. Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place” (Baker Books, 2017).
This book of 220 small-sized pages is about the proper place of screen technology in family life. The author sees technology as a wonderful gift of God which has opened up amazing new possibilities for human life. At the same time, he is very concerned about the way in which our computers, televisions, phones, and other devices tend to overwhelm and degrade our lives. In this book, Andy Crouch shares with us the radical choices and commitments which he believes are necessary to keep technology in is proper place as a useful aid for human flourishing.
In the introduction, he gets our attention by stating, “You don’t have to become Amish, but you probably have to become closer to Amish than you think” (p. 29). To be a thriving family, he says, you will have to make intentional and principled choices which most of your neighbours are not making and which even people in your church are not making. You’ll simply have to dare to be different.
He puts the whole book on a good foundation by spending the first chapter discussing not technology but family. To understand the place of technology in a family, we need first to understand what a family is for. The answer he gives is that family is for the forming of persons into people of wisdom and courage. While this is hardly a comprehensive answer, it is well-stated and forms a good basis for the rest of the book. Toward the end of the chapter, he states: “We are going to have to commit to make every major decision, and many small decisions, on the basis of these questions: Will this help me become less foolish and more wise? Will this help me to become less fearful and more courageous?” (p. 68). According to Crouch, technology, with all its gifts, “poses one of the greatest threats ever conceived by human society to the formation of wise, courageous persons that real family and real community are all about” (p. 62).
Chapter two shows how care in “shaping space” in our homes can serve to nurture a family culture that is less technology-driven. If we push technology and cheap thrills to the edges of our homes and bring to the centre the things which nurture community and creativity, we will have a powerful counter-measure to the pull of technology. The reader’s mind is filled with enticing visions of children so engrossed in crafts, books, games, and playing musical instruments that they simply forget all about the enticements of the screen culture. The idea is to fill the centre of our homes with things that reward skill and active engagement.
Sabbath rest can also serve to ensure that technology remains our helpful servant instead of our domineering master. If Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, and all the rest of our digital world follow us into our rest day, Sunday soon becomes just another day. In chapter three, the author makes a strong case for voluntary abstention from technology for the biggest portion of our day of rest. Instead of letting screen time dominate our Sundays, we should make time for reading, family walks, games, and having guests in our home. He also encourages a daily rest from technology for at least an hour; he suggests that the dinner hour is the ideal time to turn off our devices and put them away for a while.
In the next chapter, we are encouraged to make sure that our devices go to bed before we do; along the same lines, our devices should have a different bedroom than their owners. Families should find a central place in the home into which all devices are deposited before bedtime – which may mean buying an old-fashioned alarm clock to help you get up on time. As for when we wake up in the morning, the author exhorts readers to do something useful before checking their phones (p. 120). Wouldn’t we all be doing better if we took time for our morning prayers and breakfast before we reconnect with the digital world?
Chapter five makes the recommendation that children should have little to no exposure to screen time before they reach double digits. Children, we are reminded, are wired to explore the world through their senses; they thrive when they play in “tactile, creative, self-initiated, and self-sustaining ways” (p. 132). Technology actually makes things too easy for children. It asks too little of them and makes the world too simple (p. 129). Chapter six makes the case that while technology can provide a short-term solution for boredom, on the long-term it exacerbates the problem because it dulls people to the wonder of the natural world and diminishes their creative energy. Instead of using our devices in a passive way – just to fill the time or to keep children occupied – we should resolve that the screen stay off and blank unless we are using it together and for a specific, creative purpose.
As everyone knows, technology frequently undermines meaningful conversation. In chapter 7, Crouch refers to research which indicates that most conversations take about seven minutes to really get going (p. 157). Up until the seven-minute mark, the talk is usually routine and mundane. Somewhere around the seven-minute mark, someone will take the conversation to a new level. Where can we find seven or more minutes of time to talk? Why, in our cars, of course, as we drive from place to place with family and friends! Many parents can testify that the one-on-one time in the car has yielded memorable conversations. For these reasons, Crouch suggests that we see our cars as screen-free zones.
Chapter eight tackles the difficult problem of Internet pornography. It’s sobering to learn that at least thirty percent of all Internet traffic is porn and that sixty-two percent of all teens have received a nude image on their phone. Reality is that we live in a porn-saturated culture and it’s having a devastating effect on faith, relationships, and family. Crouch talks about the sheer folly of giving young people devices with completely unregulated access to the Internet (p. 175). He says this is asking for trouble because teens are simply not able to handle the pipeline of porn that comes with 24/7 access to the Internet. Needed are filters and unrestricted parental overview (including knowledge of all passwords) of the Internet activity of young people. At the same time, he writes: “All addictions feed on and are strengthened by emptiness. The best defense against porn is a full life” (p. 172).
Chapter nine promotes family worship and particularly singing in our Christian homes. Rather than letting recorded and amplified music take over our lives and worship, families should learn to sing together (p. 183). Singing allows us to powerfully express our faith in an amazing union of mind, body, and spirit and it has the effect of deepening our faith and our godliness. Finally, in chapter ten, Crouch emphasizes the value of being personally present at key moments in the lives of people we love and cherish. In our mediated world, it’s a big deal to just show up (p. 199)!
The book contains many fascinating statistics, graphics, and charts created by the Barna group through a special research project done in partnership with Crouch. These are seamlessly integrated into the book and serve to strengthen its impact. Another factor that increases the appeal of the book is the “Reality Check” which concludes each chapter; these contain personal comments by Crouch in which he shows how his principles play out in his own household.
Crouch is an astute student of our culture. His writing is lucid and his arguments persuasive. Readers can feel the challenge posed to them by the author, but he writes like a friend who has come alongside of us to help us figure out how to deal with the rapid advance and intrusion of technology in to our homes. This book is highly recommended for individuals and families who desire to bring their use of technology more fully under the Lordship of Christ.