Wearing a seatbelt, or practicing defensive driving are well understood and commonly used practices. These rituals or liturgies (bear with me on this) have been something our parents grew up with and have taught us. But our parents did not grow up with the internet (in all its glory and shame). So we have to come up with habits that protect us and help our children mature in a totally changed world. Pastors should help their congregation develop these practices and acquire tools of safety.
A fork can help a child eat her veggies, or poke the cats eyes out. The same applies to any smart device that connects to the internet. But in the case of the web, it might harm a child rather than the cat. It’s also relatively dangerous to get into a car. But we get into a car most every day and drive our kids around in them as if it was no thing. We get into the car because we are familiar with it and have developed practices which provide safety. We should do the same with the internet. As a Priest candidate and a father, and because policy formation on online safety is in my background, I have spent some time thinking about these things. But let me backtrack a little and connect digital life to liturgy, discipleship and spiritual formation, before getting into some practical advice.
In broad Evangelical circles, there is quite a lot of excitement about the rediscovery of virtue ethics. James KA Smith’s has popularized some of these ideas in his book entitled, You are what you love, with the subheading: “The spiritual power of habits.” After he has outlined the importance of the idea that we become what we love through repeating practices (helpful and unhelpful alike) as if they are liturgies, I am told that one of the questions Smith often gets asked is: what now?
Anglicans knowingly (or not) participate in basic assumptions that the practices we engage in shape who we become. The daily offices are daily offices, after all, said often and at the same time, with the same words, again and again. This is how many of us develop the virtue of worship and devotion. It reminds us who we are and who God is. More broadly, we try to do this when we bring up our children, giving them exposure to the gaze of the congregation, so they feel comfortable in front of a crowd. We ask them to dress for the liturgical occasion. We let them light the candles, and they help with setting the table. This is a gradual active initiation of what could later become a vocation call. We continue the training with the transitional diaconate. The Deacon sets the table and occasionally preaches. We ease our Priests into the pulpit. So we are teaching them through exposure and repetition what it’s like to be the one up front.
So how does it apply to the internet? How do we help our children grow up as digital natives? Many Anglican are solid fans of tradition and liturgical church expression. Some even militantly so. But we are not Luddites, that is, most of us have smartphones. We recognize that our congregation lives in the 21st century. So what does that mean for how we bring up our children and other children, to be good digital citizens?
It’s a question we should be asking ourselves as much as on behalf of our children. Do I incessantly check my smartphone for notifications? Do I have FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)?
Neuroscientists and psychologists would tell us that what we do when we repeat behavior, or use specific types of language, is develop muscle memory, or decrease the plasticity of our brain. We get rewarded by hormones that excite us when we receive a notification. Our brains create neural pathways which will allow synapses to fire off faster when doing a thing we have done over and over again. When we stand-up to give a sermon for the hundredth time, not so much adrenaline is released into our blood, because our body knows not to respond in the same way it did the first time we spoke before a crowd. We know these things, but I wonder how many Anglican Pastors are equipped to help their congregation and the children therein to navigate the creation of neural pathways and reward systems which help them become good digital citizens?
There are some phenomenally sad statistics out there about kids’ average age of first accidental contact with adult content online. There are even more deeply alarming statistics about the regular and deliberate use of adult content on smart devices and other tech, by folks whose brain has yet to reach maturity. What is worse is that these are the problems of yore. As wrong and as prevalent as pornography is, there are other dangers. Repetitive behavior or “liturgies of digital practice” are affecting how long we can concentrate, whether we can say no to our devices, and how much time we spend online, rather than being present in the moment.
Some of the best advice I have heard is to remember to treat children as children and teenagers and adults as teens and adults. Like with most things we need to set firm boundaries early on, but after a time, just like with the car keys, we need to let youngsters grow autonomy. We need to be present with them while they are developing their way towards comfort, confidence, and self-control.
The good news is that technology can also be our friend. At home or in our churches one way of helping do this is to set boundaries about when the internet can be accessed and what type of content is available, at what age. Since many in our congregations will have device heavy households the best place to set these boundaries is at the router level. MyTorch has developed just such a router. It’s worth a peek. We need to have conversations and boundaries set before a device is first used by a child. And we need to keep updated about how our children use those devices. Another great resource is Common Sense Media, who rate, educate and advocate for children’s, families and schools. For a helpful look at the diverse complexities that parents should be aware of in teaching their digital children check Common Sense Media’s parent corner. Before virtue ethics was popularised by Jamie Smith, Quentin Schultz wrote (back in 2004) Habits of the High-Tech Heart. It’s outdated, but the same principles he describes apply even more now. Perhaps some of them should be built into your own devotional rules?
The most important thing we need to do as parents and pastors is to communicate with our children and help parents be open and honest with their own.