Mary Zwicker:

The family, the basis upon which society is built, is faced with challenges and threats like never before, as an over-reliance on technology can leave families estranged while at the same time exposing its members to harms such as pornography, even at a young age.

The Institute for Family Studies, an organization that is dedicated to strengthening marriage and families, has warned about the dangers that technology poses to families, specifically to children. 

Matt Feeney, author of Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age, wrote an article for IFS, “The Resistance: Only Parents Can Challenge the Digital Empire,” in which he stated, “Most of our social interactions are now mediated and enabled by computer software.” Those interactions include family. Feeney added, “When it comes to our mental health over those years, we don’t seem to be doing so hot, especially young people, those who are still young enough to be considered children but old enough to own smartphones and have accounts on social media.”

Foremost among such reasons for worry is, perhaps, the fact that studies have shown that children, on average, are first exposed to pornography at the age of 11 or 12, an age that will only continue to get younger and younger as more and more children are given access to technology at ever earlier ages.

“The evidence shows that technological devices with screens are a major gateway to pornography, homosexual and transgender ideology, sexting, and being preyed upon sexually,” Pete Baklinski, a father of eight and director of communications at Campaign Life Coalition, told The Interim. “Children, because they are children, do not have the moral or spiritual toolbox to deal with these threats. So, many of them fall into the traps set for them online.”

Baklinski said that technology poses a real risk to families because it threatens to replace the role of parents in their child’s formation. “The main danger of certain technologies, especially those that are created to provide information, education, and entertainment through screens, is that they could supplant the parents in their primary and exclusive role of forming their children, especially in matters of faith, morals, and values.” He added that it is all too easy for technology to “take on the role of the parents, forming the children according to the values of the world where Satan is prince.” 

Baklinski also said that the overuse of technology can lead to families becoming estranged from one another. “Technological devices with screens used in the home can withdraw the presence of family members from the home, even though their bodies are still physically present,” he said. “Each is plugged into his or her own device, ignoring other family members in the same room or even at the same table.”

Online dangers

The Institute of Family Studies (IFS) also warned about the risks of sexual exhortation that stem from technology use in children. 

“Today, children are rarely abducted by strangers in public places,” the Institute said in an article, “Protecting Children from Sextortion,” stating that child sex abusers now have “new highly effective tools” at their disposal for finding victims. “Technology allows the abuser to gain virtual access to a child and obtain sexually explicit images that are then distributed online in a matter of seconds, a crime called sextortion, which the FBI says is on the rise,” author Sarah Harding explained. “In one study of 2,731 minors between the ages of 12 and 15, 15.6 per cent of girls and 9.3 per cent of boys reported that they had been sexually solicited online, and 8.2 per cent of girls and 7.4 per cent of boys reported they had sexualized interactions with adults online.”

The ubiquity of technology increases the amount of time teens and kids spend on screen. The  Pew Research Center found in a recent survey that 95 per cent of children between the ages of 13 and 17 have access to a smartphone. A 2019 study by Common Sense Media found that children 8-12 years old spend an average of four hours and 44 minutes in front a screen daily and the average teenager spends seven hours and 22 minutes daily.

Thomas D. Lehrman and Brad Wilcox wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “In the real world, a teenager can’t go on a school field trip or join the volleyball team without a parent’s permission,” yet, “the virtual world is a different story.” They write, “Platforms like TikTok, Instagram and YouTube offer teens a steady scroll of sexual images and videos—not to mention a proliferating range of antisocial identities—without parents’ knowledge, consent, or protection.”

However, children’s physical safety is not the only thing at risk from technology, with studies showing that there is a correlation between social media use and teen depression. Various articles by the Institute for Family Studies demonstrated that increased immersion in technology puts children at an increased risk of such mental health issues. Drawing from the “largest study on social media use to date,” the Institute reported that teens with the lowest level of life satisfaction also spent the most time on social media, stating that girls between 11 and 13 years of age, and boys the ages of 14-15 were “especially vulnerable” in this regard. “The ‘culture of performativity’ inherent to social media appears to exacerbate the normal insecurities of youth, undermining an already fragile sense of self,” wrote Wilcox and Jenet Jacob Erickson in the Deseret News.

This phenomenon has also been found to be most prominent in teenage girls, who from a young age learn to compare themselves to those they view on social media, teaching them to hate themselves.

“We should acknowledge that social media must have something to do with why so many teen girls are miserable,” Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood wrote in an article for IFS. “The growth of social media and other technologies in the 2010s radically changed teens’ lives: They started spending a lot more time online and less time in-person with friends and less time sleeping.” 

Twenge noted how this phenomenon was especially helped by the growing popularity and addictiveness of social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok, leaving girls “fighting for likes and followers.” Girls are also likely to be exploited through social media. “Girls who post videos on TikTok soon discover that their online popularity is linked to their sexuality.”

And yet, despite such threats to their innocence, safety, and mental health, parents still allow their children to be engulfed in an entirely digital world. 

“We live in a technological age, in which the imperatives of Silicon Valley are given precedence over everything, including the well-being of children,” IFS executive director Michael Toscano says. “So instead of sending our kids a life raft, we are packing their bags for the Metaverse, where their minds will be beyond reach.”

What is the solution?

In order to combat the dangers that technology can pose to children, experts recommend that parents install some kind of monitor on their child’s device, in order that they can know what their child is looking at. 

“We must take practical measures to educate our children and implement technological tools designed to protect them,” Harding wrote. “If children are educated about methods that online predators use to target their victims, they will be more likely to recognize and report impending danger.”

Experts remind parents that “technology providers such as Apple and Microsoft have built tools that allow parents to monitor and set boundaries on their children’s electronic time and activity on gaming systems, tablets, phones, and laptops,” and that “home wifi routers, such as Gryphon, provide the ability to filter and monitor activity, store browsing history, and block inappropriate content on home electronics.” And “other service providers, such as Bark, can also monitor text messages, apps, and email.”  

Baklinski also gave advice to parents on this topic, advising that parents “exert their God-given control and authority over every influence of their children in their home, especially technological influences.” He explains: “Parents need to step in here and be the parent in their child’s life. This means that the parent must be in absolute control over what technology their child is using, knowing what threats the technology poses to the child, and what solutions are being used to keep the child safe.”

Baklinski advised several ways in which parents can re-establish this control, the first being that parents do not give children their own personal technology at all. 

“On a practical level, I believe children should not be given personal devices that connect them to the world outside the home,” he said. “They are too easily a gateway to hell, leading the child into all kinds of sin and darkness.” 

Baklinski said that if children are going to use technology, then it ought to be in a common setting where there can be no secrets. He explained, “In my family, we have one mobile phone that is used by the entire family” and his children are only allowed to use it in the presence of parents. Furthermore, their children are not allowed to have their own social media accounts, opting instead for “one account whereby we stay in touch with our friends and relations as a family unit. Everyone sees everyone else’s messages.” The Baklinskis also keep their home computer in a “highly visible place” for “accountability.” “Children are not allowed to use devices alone that connect to the internet.” 

Baklinski explained that establishing such boundaries is done out of love for their children, so that they will be able to use it responsibly when they are older. He recommended that parents ensure that their families are a place of love and refuge, where children will not feel the need to seek relationships on the internet. “When children experience in the home and family what is real, wholesome, and life-giving, they will not be as attracted to the counterfeit,” he explained, saying that he and his wife, Erin, have found that this has been the best way to protect their own family from the dangers of technology. “Erin and I believe that the best way to protect (our) children from online dangers is to create a positive culture in the home of life, love, joy, beauty, and peace where our children are affirmed in their masculinity or femininity, where each is cherished and loved, and where each rests secure in the love of Mom and Dad and the love of God,” he said. 

Baklinski advised that parents create a beautiful culture in their home, in order to “fill the void” that technology so often tries to fill. “Parents need to fill their children’s souls with good things, with life-giving things,” he said. “They need to create a positive culture of life, beauty, and joy in the family. There are so many ways to do this, from reading the most well-loved stories throughout the centuries out loud or listening to them on audiobooks to having game nights, teaching your children to sing, cooking together, praying together, and watching, from time to time, highly selective content online.”