Navigating the Digital World as a Parent

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Column by Andre McCarville

“I’m pretty sure my kid is doing ok. They don’t seem to get into trouble. They just kind of sit up in their room all the time looking at YouTube or whatever. There’s no harm in that, is there?”

Too often we don’t know what our kids are doing online. There is so much to deal with, we don’t even know where to begin. Monitoring all of their social media sites, looking up all the video games they play, and checking their phones for dangerous conversations, it all seems like too much. Too often, we don’t know what our kids are doing, and often have a “not my kid” mentality, where we assume that our kid would never do anything they shouldn’t.

The fact is this, our kids are growing up in a world that is vastly different than that of many of their parents. For many of us, there was no internet nor cell phones when we were kids. Maybe you played the Atari when you were little, or had a more advanced Super Nintendo. You might have had a cordless phone, or had a phone with a really long cord that you could pull from the kitchen into another room for a little bit of privacy. Being on the phone for long periods of time wasn’t uncommon, and my one friend’s father used to call her “Phone Head” (not particularly creative, but it got the point) because she was on so often. More often than not though, you probably played outside still, and communicated with your friends face to face.

Now it seems like a lot of our kids don’t go outside to play. They play in their rooms on a Switch, X-Box, or Playstation, or on their laptop or phone. We often don’t even know what it is that they are doing. We may be worried if what they are doing is healthy. Children nowadays have various ways of communicating with each other, and in a sense this can be a very good thing. They could call to talk to each other, or Facetime, or Google Duo, or Zoom, or send a text message, Snap, or Discord. Then there’s social media like Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, Facebook…wait, do kids still use Facebook?

To be sure, some of it is healthy and some of it is not. There is a lot of good that can be found online, and a lot of evil. Either way, if your child isn’t getting enough exercise, nor enough face-to-face personal encounters, there is cause for concern. And this of course doesn’t take into account the high likelihood of encountering pornography online, whether intentionally or not, as well as the possibility of child predators.

With all this being said, we have to look at what we truly desire for our children. Many of us just want our children to be “happy”, but oftentimes we confuse giving in to fleeting pleasures with finding happiness. We should want more for our children than just a lifelong chase after pleasure. There are things that bring so much more fulfillment than short-lived feel-good experiences. There are things like strong relationships, meaningful work, and important causes worth fighting for that give our lives meaning. More than anything, our goal as Catholic parents is to help our children become holy. We want them to find real fulfillment, and to spend eternity with the One who can completely fulfill. While true happiness, or joy, we should say, comes with holiness, sometimes instant gratification has to take a back seat to find it. So how do we help our children navigate the possibilities of the internet and of life itself toward a future of fulfillment?

One place to start is to learn what is out there. You don’t have to get on every site to understand them. There are great sites like Protect Young Eyes (protectyoungeyes.com) and the more secular Cyberwise (www.Cyberwise.org). These sites exist to help parents navigate the internet with their children, offering reviews, suggestions, and even videos to watch with your children about the opportunities and the dangers that exist, as well as recommendations to keep your children safe online.

What about the movies, and shows they’re watching? What about the video games they’re playing? So often, we don’t know anything about what our kids want to watch or play, and with the significant amount of questionable content coming out, we really want to be informed. So when our children ask us about seeing a movie, the Catholic News Service had a great movie review site (www.catholicnews.com/movie-reviews). While Catholic News Service is coming to an end, it will be picked up by OSV News in 2023. It remains to be seen if it will have a movie review site. There are also movie reviews to be found at CatholicReview.org, although it isn’t as comprehensive. So what about all the other movies, television shows and video games? For that we can turn then to sites like Common Sense Media (www.commonsensemedia.org) that have movie, television and video game reviews. The website is very secular, but also pretty thorough. Sometimes even more helpful than the official review from the website are the parent and child reviews that are included.

As far as pornography is concerned, we must get it out of our homes. Secular websites like Fight the New Drug (www.fightthenewdrug.org) have noticed the prevalence of pornography addiction, and the issues that accompany it in ruining relationships and even controlling our lives. Beyond this, pornography takes a living human person made in the image and likeness of God, who deserves to be loved and respected, and reduces them to nothing more than an object to be used for personal gratification. As Christopher West once said, “The problem isn’t that it shows too much of the body. It is that it shows too little of the person.” In the pornography industry there can also be coercion even to the point of human trafficking, to which none of us should want to be a part. We need to turn from this completely and help our children to avoid it as well. How can a parent help their children to do this?

At a bare minimum, it is a good idea to work with a site like Clean Browsing DNS (www.CleanBrowsing.org). CleanBrowsing.org offers a free service as well as a more comprehensive paid service to filter unwanted content on your family’s devices. To go even further though, you may want to consider purchasing a Gryphon router (www.gryphonconnect.com) for your home to filter all of the devices, as well as to help limit screen time. The Gryphon Router has a one-time purchase fee, but thereafter will filter continuously. You will also have an option to purchase their additional filters for mobile use. Bark Home (www.bark.us/learn/bark-home) is another device that can filter as well as control screen time, and is much less expensive, although it may or may not slow down your internet speeds. If you would like to be able to monitor your children’s social media and text use for dangerous or inappropriate content without going through all of their messages, Bark Premium (www.bark.us) may be helpful for you. Finally, Covenant Eyes (www.CovenantEyes.com) has specific resources relating to pornography for parents, families, individuals and parishes as well as offering a paid filtering service for pornography.

Other informative resources include watching the movie Childhood 2.0 online (www.childhood2movie.com) which can be helpful, if not somewhat alarmist. Be warned though, this is not a movie to watch with your children. Another resource, which I cannot unreservedly recommend due to its secular morality and worldview, is the book Raising Humans in a Digital World by Diana Graber. That caveat aside, it does offer a number of helpful tips about navigating the cyber world and using it in a positive manner. It is important for our children to be able to use the internet positively.

There is so much to be learned about our faith online. There are even opportunities that we couldn’t have dreamed of 50 years ago, but we want our children to be able to do it responsibly and with self-control. Speaking of responsibility and self-control, if we really want our children to use their electronic devices in appropriate ways, we have to model the behavior we want to see in our children. Children aren’t the only ones who are addicted to their devices and are being exposed to negative things online. We have to come face to face with our own internet and phone use. If we go to our child’s basketball game and they score a point, but then they look up and see us looking down at our phones, it will be disheartening to them, to say the least. If when they come home from school we spend most of the night online or texting our own friends, it sets an example for them. And if our toddlers are complaining for our attention, but we are continuously pushing them away because of something we feel we have to do on our phones, it will send the message that the phone is more important than they are. Babies have a biological need to see their parents’ eyes looking into their own. We must do better for the sake of our children, both for the example we set for them as well as the love that they are able to feel from us.

What are some practical steps we can take? First of all, no technological aid to monitor our children can ever be a good replacement for parenting. We need to know what our children are interested in, be aware of what they are doing, talk to them about the positives and negatives, and spend time with them. We need to put down our own devices at all mealtimes. None of us should be on them then, no matter how important. When your child wants to talk with you about something, you should put your device away – even if someone calls – to give your child your full attention. We shouldn’t use every free moment we have to look down at our phones or get on another screen. Family time should be prioritized over screen time (and over most other activities as well) to send the message to our kids, and perhaps to our spouses: you matter to me. We need to pray as a family to teach that what is most important in life is the encounter with the Risen Lord, and coming closer to Him throughout our lives.

Always remember, it will be the relationship we have with our children that will have the most impact on conveying our concern about their use of electronics. If we want our children to use their devices in beneficial and appropriate ways, they must know first that we love them unreservedly, we desire their greatest good, and that they can see in us the right ways they should use it.

Resources to Learn about Internet Safety and/or Pornography:
Childhood 2.0 (secular) www.childhood2movie.com
Covenant Eyes (has religious components) www.covenanteyes.com/e-books/ Cyberwise (secular) www.Cyberwise.org
Fight the New Drug (secular) www.fightthenewdrug.org
Protect Young Eyes (has religious components) protectyoungeyes.com
Raising Humans in a Digital World (secular book) www.cyberwise.org/book

Resources to filter content in your home or on devices:
Bark Home Filter www.bark.us/learn/bark-home
Bark Premium Social Media Monitor www.bark.us
Clean Browsing DNS www.CleanBrowsing.org
Covenant Eyes www.CovenantEyes.com
Gryphon Router www.gryphonconnect.com

Movie, TV, and Video Game Reviews:
Catholic News Service www.catholicnews.com/movie-reviews
Catholic Review CatholicReview.org
Common Sense Media www.CommonSenseMedia.org

Andre McCarville is the Director of the diocesan offices of Family Life and Mission.