How Digital Technology Relates to Spiritual Parenting

We recorded a podcast episode to help parents navigate digital technology use in the home and bring a deeper sense of connection. Listen on Apple or Spotify, and check out the transcript below.

Hi, welcome! My name is Jon Ogden, and I create and design curriculum.

I’m Michelle Larson, a marriage and family therapy associate.

I’m Amanda Suarez, a school psychologist. I work with students kindergarten through high school.

Jon: And we co-founded Uplift Kids together. Today we’re talking about digital technology. It’s this week’s featured lesson and the subtitle is being fully in your life. We’re going to start by pointing to one of the resources in our suggested resources section. It’s from the London school of economics and it summarizes a range of peer reviewed research.

After looking at many different studies, they found that because there are so many different things to do on a screen. The quantity of time doesn’t matter, quite as much as the context, the content and whether it helps or hinders connection. In other words, they don’t come to the simple conclusion that screen time is good or bad. But they say, well, it depends on the context the kid is using the device in and the content they’re engaging with. And whether or not it’s deepening relationships or distracting from relationships.

So, given that, Amanda, how have you seen digital technology play out in schools?

I think when it comes to exploring how kids are using digital technology, we have to start with ourselves. We have to look at our own habits and notice our own impulses and recognize that for children it’s way more difficult to regulate, to be aware, and to be mindful about how they’re using technology.

I remember one particular meeting and the topic of conversation was about the way this student was obsessively engaging with a certain video game and how it was impeding their social interaction and their ability to talk about any other topic.

And throughout the conversation, the parent was continually on their device.

Interesting. What are the most common problems that students face as it relates to digital technology?

With the students that I work with, there’s two main things that we talk about when we’re working together.

For older kids, it’s a lot about interrupted sleep and sleep hygiene. A lot of kids come to school and say, I got three hours of sleep last night. Or I woke up in the middle of the night and got on my phone or played video games. My parents don’t know. So there is a lot of talk about. How are you feeling?

How is it to be learning when you know your body’s not fully awake, your mind isn’t rested? And just the importance of sleep hygiene. For older kids, that’s a big topic of conversation. For the younger kids, we talk a lot about when technology is interrupting, socializing, and interacting.

With other kids in other ways. Sometimes kids are gathering and playing a video game together and they’re talking and they’re interacting and they’re working together. But other times, kids can be more isolated and they’re not having opportunities to just interact, play, engage, practice social skills because of intense technology use.

That sleep component seems so huge. The emerging data does seem to correlate the invention of the iPhone and teens getting less sleep. Sleep impacts so many other aspects of life that it seems like a really critical component of mindfully using digital technology, and it fits in with our lesson on sleep, which we’re gonna be covering in the coming weeks.

Michelle, how has this emerged for you in the therapy setting?

I work with all ages, so kids up to parents, and technology isn’t going anywhere.

This is about making choices about how we use the technology and in the lesson we really emphasize making those choices together as a family. Amanda’s given some great information about the ways that it’s affecting kids. So let’s just take sleep alone. Armed with that information or just aware of that information, where do we charge our devices? Where do we use devices? Do we want to have devices in our rooms at night? And making those choices together really, like for teenagers, developmentally, they need to feel like they have a choice.

Another thing that I’ve seen show up with clients is how they navigate sexually explicit material and technology.

Kids will come across it and and the two biggest things are creating an environment where there’s honest and open communication. So those are the two biggest things. It’s like I’d much rather know about it than not know about it.

Yeah, that’s good.

In the lesson we have questions for kids to ask themselves when they want to use technology. They can ask:

  • Is this the best thing for my body and mind right now?
  • Am I using this device to avoid something?
  • Am I trying to escape from something I should feel. With this, bring me closer to friends and family.
  • Am I using this device to create something new or am I just consuming?
  • And is this what I actually want? These questions are also important for parents to ask.

Amanda, you brought up how parents might be using their phones, even in meetings about a child’s misbehavior. So I’m curious about other ways that parents might be able to look at their own habits.

I think a great possible introduction for parents to even recognize what their habits are, is try asking your kids. We’re constantly in the role of initiating conversations with our kids about their technology use. But it’s an interesting exercise to ask your child to reflect back to you.

How often am I on my device? How do you feel about the amount of time I’m on my device? Or what do you think about our interaction when I’m on my phone? And you might be surprised at what your child shares with you and it sets up a conversation.

It creates conditions where you’re both reflecting on behavior. The entire family’s reflecting on what’s the quality of relationships and interaction and environment we want in the home.

Yeah, it relates to another article that we site. Which says that researchers found that the more parents reported phone related interruptions in the home. The more they reported their children displayed negative behaviors like sulking and temper tantrums. It says that studies suggest parents who are engrossed in their phones tend to respond more harshly to their kids’ misbehavior.

I will also just add to that, that when, a parent is engaged in technology use while interacting with a child that you’re not fully able to attune to the child to what they’re experiencing, to what they’re communicating. That’s part of why it leads to more difficult behaviors in kids because a parent isn’t fully connected to their child and isn’t fully tuning into what they might need in the moment.

This is, this is emerging, like we’re learning how to do this. Recently, even for myself, I noticed that during the work week, I noticed I was on Instagram, like more than usual.

And it wasn’t till halfway through the week that I realized there was a project I was really avoiding. And I was unconsciously reaching more for my phone. It was like once I realized what that connection, then I was able to be more empowered in my choices. Another example is some work that I’ve done in the past actually required that I answer the phone pretty immediately, that I’d be available .

And I could just start to see the way that my kids would respond when I was engaged in a conversation with them, and I’d get a phone call. And I’d leave the room like, oh, I gotta get this. I’m gonna leave the room. So I changed the way I did that. I made sure when I’m around my kids, my phone was on silent and I could check it, but I made a choice about when to leave the room and it didn’t feel like it was interrupting my time with them.

So really being aware of our own behavior and making adjustments sets the tone for the family.

Yeah, I love what you said, Michelle, about how we’re all figuring this out. You know, we have to be gentle with ourselves because we’re the first generation that’s having to think about Instagram and TikTok and iPhones. And it’s tricky, you know, we don’t have a playbook and so we have to be gentle even as we’re deliberately improving.

So to wrap up. How has it played out in your own homes? Any advice or thoughts you might be able to give?

In my home. It’s been a very bumpy process. We’ve implemented and lost many rules and ideas and guidelines along the way. So I think I if there were one main idea that I think is important, it’s just that we’re engaging in a conversation. That it’s ongoing effort, even when we don’t get it right, that we’re in conversation about our devices, how we use it, where we use it, when we use it.

One thing we have chosen in our family is to not have kids have smartphones until they’re a little bit older in middle school. And we’ve found that to be beneficial for our kids and our situation. What another another sort of guiding rule that we’ve had is to not use technology late at night before bedtime.

This has been very imperfectly implemented. But we found it’s helpful to have at least the ideal to power off devices when the body’s getting ready to sleep and to just to have a few moments of connection before it’s bedtime. Although my son and I actually do Uplift right before bedtime.

So we are doing, we do have our smartphone out for that. But that is again, like when we’re doing the Uplift devotionals it’s connection and it’s conversation. It’s sweet moments of being together on, on our device with purpose and with attention. So I consider it time well spent even on a device.

The other day, my 16 year old, she commented on how she felt everyone else had cell phones or had a smartphone before they did.

But she was commenting on how she’s actually um, she’s glad that they didn’t have it earlier. So again yeah, that’s a really important decision to make as a family. But once they have that, it’s really helping the kids learn how to make empowered choices on their own.

Yeah, everything we’re talking about here, it feels like it’s so closely related to connection in the home. Which is the heart of spiritual parenting.

A rule of thumb that I’m thinking about is. Does this device help us grow closer together. Or is it getting in the way?

You know, at Uplift, we use technology and we believe that technology can be a helpful way to experience connection. And we also recognize that at times it can just be a distraction.

And so one thing I’m taking away from this conversation is this question.

Is this device helping us connect? Or is it getting in the way? I think that’s all the time we have for today. Thanks so much for listening.