Sunday, November 28, 2021

Nine Suggestions for Parents

 Note: With this post, the short series on screens is concluded. I will take a break between now and the end of the year. A new blog series launches in January. Stay tuned.

Screen Time 6

 

          In last week’s post, I went into some detail about the specific damage unsupervised access to screen time does to children. In today’s post, I want to give nine short yet practical ideas for parents in relation to this. I’m going to move hard and fast so keep up.

          First, wisdom says your default screen position should be negative or suspicious. I am not generally a fan of suspicious parenting. In this context, though, with the screen time needle pegged so firmly in the red, I think a child should have to convince you why it is a good idea for them to have screen time. Make them state a case. Be hard to win over here.

          Two, track screen time. With our children we used several different approaches. For a while, we gave the children a number of cards at the beginning of each week. They could play a card and get some screen time. Once those cards were used up for the week that was it. Another time, I set up an actual Excel spreadsheet for each child. They entered the time they spent reading vs. the time they spent on a screen. They could not spend screen time if they had not purchased it with book time. Neither one was fool-proof. There are no fool proof easy plans to do this. It takes parenting. But it needs done, especially when they are young.

          Three, be the boss. In every family, someone is in charge. It does not take long in a grocery store line to spot who it is either. Be the one in charge in your family.

          Fourth, ignore what your children want, or what their friends have, or what their friend’s parents think is normal. Our society today is so messed up it is hard to even begin to describe it. God gave those precious children into your custody for a given period of time. Your task is to provide for them, protect them, and bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. You will answer only to Him for how you did in this task. It does not matter what everybody else thinks.

          Fifth, realize safety can be accomplished without a smart phone. I am weary of the nonsensical argument that children must be given a phone with internet access in order to be safe. For thousands of years, this was not the case. It is not the case now. There are other good choices. For many years, we kept a flip phone we named Three (for the third phone). When a kid went somewhere he or she took Three. It was so not cool. It could text, painfully slow. It had no internet access. It was brilliant. Now, Three has graduated to a camera phone from Gabb. It can make calls and take pictures, but it does not have a modem so no internet access. It can text, but cannot text pictures. It can play music, but the music has to be uploaded physically just like the pictures have to be downloaded physically. It cannot download any apps. And it costs about twenty-five bucks a month.

          Sixth, make your kids read. I could cite a large number of studies here, but I will resist. Yes, I know no one reads anymore. So? Have them read anyway. I know your little Oswald is too active to read. So? I will see you your little Oswald and raise you my son, Jack. Talk about hyper-active. One of the great accomplishments of my life was teaching that boy to like reading. It can be done. I do not have space in this post to describe how to do so. My point here is to encourage it. Reading builds all kinds of life skills, improves brain health, makes him smarter, and protects your child from screen addiction. If your child does not read a double digit number of books every year you are doing it wrong. Yes, I mean every word of that last sentence.

          Seventh, allow your kids to be bored. Your job description does not include finding something for them to occupy themselves with every moment. Additionally, studies have shown that unstructured play time helps children enormously. Let them roam. They will figure it out. If they keep badgering you, give them a job. They will stop badgering you. In fact, you should probably give them a job anyway. <grin>

          Eighth, do not let society, the media, their peers, their educators, or their own wishes choose for them; you choose.

          Ninth, lead by example. Limit your own screen time. Take them to the library and bring home a stack of books for yourself too. Lose your remote control for a month. Be accountable. Be where you are with who you are with. Cultivate an improved attention span. Resist the siren song of dopamine. Show them it can be done right.

          I make zero claims on parental infallibility. I have long resisted writing any series or book on parenting or marriage. I have seen what happens too often to those who do. But what I have written in this short blog series cries out to be done. Our society is crumbling, and a large part of that can be laid at the feet of this. Neither you nor I can change the world, but we can lead ourselves and our families to do right.

          It can be done. And it should.  

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Three Issues With Screen Time for Children

 

Screen Time 5


          The wisest man who ever lived, Solomon, tells us, The rod and reproof give wisdom: But a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame (Proverbs 29.15). Wisdom is how something ought to be done. Children are wisdomless, to coin a word. They are, in Solomon’s parlance, simple. Parents are commissioned by the Lord to teach their children the three great concepts of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. Parents need to do this so that their child will have the right underlying foundation to make proper decisions on their own as they mature. Train up a child in the way he should go (Proverbs 22.6). Until a child matures into an adult, it is the parent’s responsibility to make decisions for the child in order to protect the child from the negative impact of wisdomless decisions.

          There are, sadly, many parents who ignore this biblical responsibility, accidentally or practically. In so doing, they bring destruction upon their children and shame upon themselves. They do this in several ways. First, as we saw above, they leave their child alone too much. Second, they follow the wrong parenting advice, unbiblical advice. Third, they allow the child to marinate in a spiritually unhealthy atmosphere. It is my contention that the parents of this generation all too often combine all of these mistakes into one by allowing children entirely too much screen time. Further, this disastrous parenting philosophy is working its way more and more into the church. Take your child to any independent Baptist youth conference and marvel at how many teenagers have unfiltered internet access on their phones, for example.

          Screens are an attractive resource for parents. They help to keep a child quiet when they are left to themselves. They are educational, and help to prepare the child for a technologically advanced world. Screens are entertaining and fun; children love them. Screens make parenting easier. So we place the screen into their hands, on their desks, and in their lives. Then we go about our business thinking we have fulfilled our parenting responsibilities without ever thinking through how much that decision is going to cost them.

          Well, let me tell you what it will cost them.

          First, it will cost them a growing dopamine addiction. Dopamine is a chemical used throughout our body, but primarily in our brain as a neurotransmitter. I am not a brain scientist (though I did interview one in preparation for this series) but my understanding is that dopamine signals the desirability of something, for lack of a better phrase. It is a physical substance that can be increased or affected by the choices we make and the things we do. It can also be chemically manipulated to make someone feel something very desirable, a high, so to speak.

          This is exactly what cocaine, meth, Ritalin, Adderall, ecstasy, and numerous other drugs do. They do not produce physical addiction like opioids do, necessarily, but they do produce a strong craving or desire to repeat the high.

          Most unfortunately, the same dopamine rush or high that is transmitted through our brains by controlled substances is also transmitted via various screen activities. Gaming produces dopamine. Social media likes produce dopamine. Viewing pornography produces dopamine. In fact, studies have shown that excessive screen use by young people damages their brain in the exact same way that frequent cocaine use does.

In 2012, Dr. Lei of the Chinese Academy of Sciences compared the brains of people diagnosed with Internet Addiction Disorder with those of healthy people. His study, published in the “Public Library of Science” found that IAD subjects had brains that had morphed from normal brains into brains similar to people who had substance abuse issues. In other words, screen addiction looks exactly like drug addiction in the brain. Screens are digital crack. Other studies done in 2013 and 2014 found similar correlations.

In 2012, psychologists Patterson and Hoffman began experimenting at the University of Washington on ways to reduce pain in burn victims without using opioids. They discovered that when patients play video games their pain sensations greatly decreased because so much dopamine was flowing through their brain.

Regarding gaming, Dr. Peter Whybrow, UCLA’s director of the Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behaviour calls computer games electronic cocaine. Commander Dr. Doan, US Navy, says that gaming activates the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. This is the adrenaline rush that comes with gaming. Blood pressure rises, palms get sweaty, pupils constrict. That combination of adrenaline and dopamine is potent and highly addictive.

Gaming companies, of course, are aware of this. They purposely design their games to induce as much of it as possible. In other words, computer and video games are engineered to be addictive. Dr. Doan says, “Gaming companies will hire the best neurobiologists and neuroscientists to hook up electrodes to the test-gamer. If they don’t elicit the blood pressure that they shoot for – typically 180 over 120 or 140 within a few minutes of playing, and if they don’t show sweating and an increase in galvanic skin responses, they go back and tweak the game to get the maximum addicting and arousing response that they’re looking for.”

In my conversation with the brain scientist I mentioned earlier, Dr. Grace Fox, she used this illustration to explain it. Sugar, like controlled substances, also produces a dopamine rush and is addictive. That sugar-induced dopamine rush trains us to go back to the peanut butter cookie when we want to feel that way. Additionally, this is not isolated to just that decision. Dopamine use affects the portion of our brain that helps us to make all decisions, reducing its neutrality, so to speak. The brain is plastic; it is moldable or trainable. The younger you are the more plastic it is. In other words, the younger you train your brain to chase dopamine highs the more deeply that chase is embedded in you for the rest of your life.

Never mind all that, though. Game on.

Second, unmitigated screen time will create in your child an inability to focus, to think, and to reason. In other words, your child will look a lot like those who are diagnosed with ADHD.

The more you stimulate a child to get attention the more you must stimulate that child to get attention. We see this societally in the difference between children’s television programming when I was a child – think Mr. Rogers here – and now – think Sponge Bob Squarepants now. It is undeniably factual that the rates of focus inability began to rise off the charts with the advent of television with all of its rapid screen changes and perspectives. That chart defying rise exponentially increased with the advent of the internet, with all its gaming, streaming, and frantic page scrolling and linking.

Dr. Victoria Dunckley, a child psychiatrist, found pediatric bipolar disorder increased four thousand percent from 1994 to 2003, and that between 1987 and 2007 diagnosis of ADHD increased by eight hundred percent. Her working theory is that when a child interacts with a screen it shifts his nervous system into fight or flight mode. This, in turn, produces biological and hormonal disorganization, which, in its own turn, leads to ADHD, depression, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and anxiety.

Would you care to guess how she treats her patients? With six week tech fasts. Eighty percent of the time the treatment is effective, reducing the symptoms I have just described by half. Yet most child psychiatrists treat such conditions with medication, numbing their patient into functional zombiehood. Further, they do this with very little in the way of long term studies on the result of prescribing young people such drugs.

Earlier in this series I referenced Dr. Nicholas Kardaras. He found that ninety percent  of the children he classifies with attentional, behavioral, emotional, or developmental problems also have a problematic relationship with screens.

In 2010, a study was done at Iowa State University and later published in the journal “Pediatrics.” It assessed 1,323 middle school kids over a thirteen month period. It concluded that viewing television and playing video games is directly associated with increased subsequent attention problems in childhood. That same year, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study showing that children between eight and eighteen spend seven and half hours a day in front of screens and another one and a half hours texting. Surely the past decade has not seen those numbers decline. And then we wonder why we have an ADHD epidemic?

When you condition the mind to become accustomed to high levels of input reality becomes boring. Is that what you are doing to your child?

The third cost of excessive screen time in children is loneliness and depression.

Social media is supposed to be the new form of community. Tech is supposed to increase our ability to communicate. Both community and communicate have the word “commune” as their root. But the simple fact is social media use and texting make kids feel lonelier, not more connected.

Americans send, on average, six billion texts a day. The younger the American the more they text. A 2011 Pew Research Poll found that phone users between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four exchange an average of 109 messages per day. But we are lonelier and more depressed than ever. In 2014, Dr. Twenge of San Diego State University, analyzed data on 7,000,000 people. He concluded we are more likely to be depressed now than in the 1980s. The World Health Organization has predicted that depression will be second only to heart disease as the leading cause of disability globally. Further, it found that suicide rates are up sixty percent over the past fifty years.

What does this have to do with social media and texting? Well, the truth is these things often isolate us rather than connect us. They give the illusion of connection, so to speak. The constant notification pings on my phone promise me people are paying attention to me and care about me. That promise is often a mirage.

In 2015, the Pew Research Center published a study by the American Psychological Association of 400 8th to 11th graders. It found that only thirty-five percent socialize face to face compared to sixty-three percent who socialize mainly through text message, averaging 167 texts per day. In 2014, the University of Innsbruck published a study in the journal “Computers in Human Behavior.” In it, researchers Greitmayer and Sagioglou found that the longer people are on Facebook the more negative their mood is afterward. They related this to what they call social comparison. We compare the negative parts of our life to the mostly positive portrayals we see on social media and get depressed. Well, why do people continue to use social media in such numbers if it makes them feel so badly afterward? The addictive power of dopamine. The same reason you eat another piece of chocolate cake even though you hate how fat you have become.

Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine published a study on hypernetworking – spending three hours or more per school day on social networks. It found that such students had higher rates of depression, more substance abuse, poor sleep, stress, poor academics, and were more suicidal. In relation to specifics, it found hyper-networked students were sixty-nine percent more likely to be sexually active, sixty percent more likely to have four or more partners, eighty-four percent more likely to have used illegal drugs, and ninety-four percent more likely to have been involved in a physical fight.

Dr. Kardaras says, “I’ve done probably about two dozen suicide risk assessments over the last couple of years; invariably, the depressed and suicidal young person is a plugged in social media devotee.”

See? A child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.

How much time do your children spend doing what on a screen?

Monday, November 15, 2021

Four Red Flags about Your Screen Time

 

Screen Time 4 


          In early 19th century England, the invention of the steam engine revolutionized movement. Humans being the inventive creatures they are, it was not long before someone thought of putting one into a carriage so that it could be propelled forward without horses. Usually we relate steam engines to trains, but this technology was also repeatedly tried in passenger cars for decades. The Stanley Steamer, anyone? At any rate, as this new tech made its way into society the powers that be were concerned at what it would do. They lobbied Parliament for regulation successfully, and in 1865 the Locomotive Act was passed. One of a number of similar bills, this one was designed to limit the damage steam propelled moving vehicles could cause to roads, animals, and people. In order to do so, it limited automobiles to a speed of four miles per hour in the country and two miles per hour in town. Further, it required that the cars being driven in town be crewed by three people, a driver, a stoker, and a man walking sixty yards ahead with a red flag to warn others that danger was approaching. Behold, the dubious birth of the phrase “red flag” as an indication of something approaching that is dangerous.

          In last week’s post I indicated a number of ways that in my view are an appropriate use of your screen time. In this post, I do not plan to do the exact opposite for the number of ways you can misuse your screen time is too numerous to list. Instead, I propose to offer you four red flags. If you notice one of these in your life it is a clear sign that your screen time is becoming dangerous.

          The first of these is relatively simple, but hard to admit. If you turn off your screen as soon as someone comes into the room,  and then act like it was not on in the first place you are in trouble. It may or may not be related to what you were just doing on it, but even if the use is relatively innocent it is indicative of the fact you know you should not have been on it. I am not talking about the common courtesy of putting away your electronic device in the presence of others. I am talking about doing that while pretending you had been doing something else all along. The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, Jeremiah said. Are you being deceptive in an effort to cover up how much time you spend on it?

          The second red flag is more subjective but also more troubling. Do you find yourself getting fidgety without your screen? Do your hands keep reaching for it? Does your mouse automatically click over to your web browser? Do you get nervous when you cannot find the remote control?

          It is no secret I read widely. Along with the books I cited earlier in this series, I have also read thousands of pages on the history of television, and the rise of Google and Facebook. You do not have to believe what I am going to say next but I dare you to try to disprove it. Internet browsers are specifically designed to be addictive. Social media is specifically designed to be addictive. Television is specifically designed to be addictive. Video games are specifically designed to be addictive. Your screens come with hooks. The more time and the more length of time you have spent on those screens the more deeply those hooks are embedded in your brain.

          I go on a prayer retreat every year. There are several reasons I do, but one of them is to force myself to reckon with just how much I am attached to checking social media on my laptop, and tapping the apps on my phone. You do not have to go to that extreme, but if you find yourself fidgeting when you cannot use or look at a screen I propose you unplug yourself from it for a while. Institute a phone free Tuesday each week. Make people contact you the old fashioned way, you know, the actual phone. Unplug your television and face it to the wall. Leave your phone behind when you leave the house. Less extreme but still helpful, disable all the notifications on your phone or your laptop. Do not let emails and texts and messages rule your interrupted life. You decide when you are going to look at them. Track the screen time you spend on your apps and take the ones off your phone that you spend the most time on. You do not have to throw your gaming computer into the Mississippi River, but you do need to be in charge of your own life. Use screens, do not be used by them.

          The third red flag is common these days. I often wish I had a literal one to pull out and wave in front of people. When you stay involved with your screen in the presence of your family, your friends, or your church you are in trouble. I am not one of those who divide screen time from other time, labeling one fake and the other real life. I have real relationships online. But the people in front of me are the ones that are important. I never bring my phone to the dinner table when I am eating with others, unless it is to have a clock to watch my time for appointment reasons. I may or may not have my phone in my pocket at church, but if I do I only pull it out to answer a question from a living, breathing human being in front of me. Not only is it rude to others for you to be on your screen in their presence, it is distracting to you. How can you possibly focus on them when your screen is singing its siren song in your head the whole time? Multi-tasking, you say. Asinine ridiculousness, I say, and I have read the studies that show it. Be where you are. Be with who you are with. Deep relationships demand quality time. Give them the quality of your time, not just the amount of it.

          The fourth red flag is the most dangerous of all. You are in trouble with your screen time when you refuse to be accountable for it. For eleven years, Mandy and I shared the same Facebook page. I kind of miss that, though I realize why she got her own and I agree with her about it. There should be no message or text or email you erase. Passwords and passcodes should be known and shared between family members. Browsing history, digital movie rentals and purchases, online shopping orders, all of these and more should be open and available for inspection.

          Many years ago, I instituted a financial policy of openness at our church in Chicago. If you were a tithing member, you were welcome to look at any and all of our financial documents with the exception of personal giving records. If you wanted to look at the check book you could. If you wanted to leaf through the credit card statements or the bank statements, you could. If you wanted to see our property deeds, those were available too. Loan docs? Investment records? We had nothing to hide. Providing for honest things, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men (II Corinthians 8.21). Curiously enough, in all the years that policy was in force no one ever asked. Because they could and they knew it. Churches that are not open with their members about finances are in trouble, and people who are not open with their loved ones about their screen time are in even more trouble.

          The worst lie is the one you tell yourself.

          What lies are you telling yourself about your screen time?

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Seven Good Ways to Use Screen Time

 

Screen Time 3

 

          Screens – whether in a theater, your living room, your desk, your chair, or your hand – are morally neutral. What we do with those screens is not. It is good or evil. In last week’s post we discussed nine scriptural tests to establish whether our screen time is good or bad. Three of those nine tests were positive. In other words, it is certainly possible to use the screens in your life in a good way. Those three positive tests included that screen time can be used to edify, to redeem the time, and for good, with the consensus of my counsellors. That being the case, what are some specific applications of my screen time for good?

          First, you can use screen time to connect with others who are distant. Life is not stuff or accomplishments or bucket lists; life is relationships. What matters in our life is the relationships we have and the condition of those relationships. The most important of our relationships is with God, and it is interesting in this context to see He set up access to Him to be entire, complete, and instantaneous. In other words, we can get in touch with God anytime anywhere. Like all relationships, our relationship with Him waxes and wanes. When it wanes, it is never because He has made a mistake or removed Himself from us. The onus is always on us to restore and rebuild a declining relationship with Him.

          Technology has improved our ability to restore, maintain, and rebuild relationships with others in a similar manner to our relationship with God. We can now practically contact any person at any time in any place. While geography still limits relationships, it does not have to end them for all intents and purposes. I can and do maintain rather close relationships with people thousands of miles away from me by means of screen time. In fact, I have close relationships with people I have never even met in real life. This seems strange to our parents generation, odd to our own, but perfectly normal to our children.

          Additionally, you can connect with people not just geographically removed from you but emotionally removed from you. If you have a sundered relationship with a family member a gentle yet constant interaction via text or video or email can do much to restore that relationship. Jeremiah said, Mine eye affecteth my heart (Lamentations 3.51). Missionaries can emotionally connect with our church via social media. Grandparents can emotionally connect with far-flung grandchildren. Older pastors can build mentoring relationships with younger men in ministry via online communication.

          Is this beneficial? Absolutely. Indeed, I would argue that improving family relationships and building solid friendships is edifying.

          Second, you can use your screen time to encourage and minister. This one is closely connected with the previous one. For example, you can encourage people you do not know or do not know well by passing along some good news. We swim around all day in Bad News Lake. It is the environment in which we live and breathe. Solomon said,  The light of the eyes rejoiceth the heart: And a good report maketh the bones fat. As cold waters to a thirsty soul, So is good news from a far country (Proverbs 15.30, 25.25). What a blessing it is to me to scroll my social media newsfeeds of a Sunday and see pictures of families dressed up for church and reports of salvations and baptisms at various places around the world. How encouraging it is to hear summations of sermons right and left. And that is just one example.

          How often have you read a missionary letter that contained prayer requests? While your response could have been, “Absolutely, I will be honored to pray with you about that” you could not share this thought with that missionary. But if he posts the same request on social media you can share that response. To pray for someone in need, and to communicate that compassionately and sincerely is balm for the soul.

          Third, you can use your screen time to take a stand for truth. Social media is all about putting yourself out there, displaying your world, giving your opinion about everything. While that is often problematic, the truth is the social media space has become the town hall or party line of previous generations. So what do you do when opinions are flying around right and left, and when much of that expressed opinion is biblically ignorant if not ungodly? You can take a stand for truth.

          Controversy for controversy’s sake or attention’s sake is unwise, but to rule out being controversial for that reason is to rule out taking a stand in the modern public square. If you believe the truth but never say it, the truth dies with you. If you say the truth but never where anyone can hear it but those who are already convinced, the truth dies with you. It is foolish to stay quiet online by hiding behind the excuse of wisdom. It is cowardly to discuss every area of truth except the area currently being fiercely debated. I am not saying you have to fight everybody. I am not saying you have to fight all the time. I am not saying you have to be reactionary. I am not saying you have to be harsh. I am saying you ought to take a stand.

          Fourth, you can use screen time to study and teach the truth. Study in our day almost always  involves a screen at some point. I believe based on both experience and research that hearing from a teacher in an in person environment is the best mode of learning. Further, I think books are a better means of in-depth study than video for several important reasons. But having said that, I sure have learned a lot from YouTube, as funny as it sounds. I have taken online classes several places. Additionally, many of the study aids I use the most are actually more searchable and instantaneously available on my screen than they are in my library. I spend probably 50 hours a month listening to my phone as it reads me the Bible or some other book. I do that while I am hiking or eating lunch or driving or otherwise physically but not mentally engaged. I would argue that is time well and profitably spent.

          Not only can you learn effectively with a screen you can also teach effectively. I have three books in print and a fourth being published now. All of those I wrote on screens. I have hundreds of thousands of words available online about various topics on my blog. I make about 1,300 of my sermon outlines available to my Patreon subscribers. I have hundreds of audio sermons available for free on my church website. I send hundreds more at no charge to Brennan’s Pulpit subscribers. I send 15,000 emails out a month with free content. Why? I want to make as much of the truth God has taught me as widely available as possible.

          Then there is this, too. In addition to making truth available on a screen you can explain it. You can answer someone’s objections in a patient, detailed manner. You can interact with them, seeking to bring them to an understanding of and ownership of the truth that long ago laid hold on you.

          Fifth, you can use your screen time to appreciate and display God’s beauty. As I write this, a blue bird is bouncing on a slight pine branch within my field of vision. He has been hopping around all morning, sounding his slightly mad, slightly happy note. Yesterday, while on a prayer walk, I startled several deer. I watched their white tails bounding away into the brush. Late last night, I sat on my deck and gloried. It was a clear, cold night and the stars glittered like a thousand jewels strewn carelessly across an upside down velvet cloth. I find such things marvelous. The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament sheweth his handywork (Psalm 19.1). God’s Word tells me to think on lovely things and praise the Lord as a result (Philippians 4.8). Screens let me share these moments with others, provoking them, in turn, to praise the Lord. Screens can even bring me such moments. Did you know that the whales off the South African coastline catch fish in nets made of bubbles? I learned that on a screen. It is amazing how intricate and creative and beautiful our God is.

          Sixth, you can use your screen time to remember in future days God’s goodness to you now. The psalmist was often deeply discouraged. One of the ways he encouraged himself was to remember previous occasions of God’s goodness and blessing. O my God, my soul is cast down within me: therefore will I remember thee From the land of Jordan, and of the Hermonites, from the hill Mizar (Psalm 42.6). I have a spreadsheet on my computer with a list of rather important answers to prayer on it. I routinely look at my Facebook memories so I can recall past blessings. Yes, I am sentimental, but there is wisdom and profit here.

          Last but not least, you can use your screen time to make a living. I believe that all work (assuming it is not ungodly in some way) is honorable work. I do not believe that my pastoral work is better than your office job. In all labour there is profit (Proverbs 14.23). There is a dignity to work that is ennobling to all men. If that is the case, and it inarguably is, then online work or remote work or work somehow done on a screen is as honorable as work done on a farm. You can sell products online. You can produce content worth paying for. You can be smart enough that someone wants to pay you for your mind, and what that mind does on a screen. Certainly, the way you make a living on a screen should not violate biblical principles such as vanity, modesty, or excess, but let us assume there is nothing unscriptural about the way you make money with a screen. Then go to it. Work hard at it. Do well. Improve and grow and build. Such things are all to the good, beloved.

          I said last a moment ago, but now here at the end I have found I do not really mean it. I highly suspect there are numerous other good things that can and should be done with screen time which I have failed to think of. If one comes to your mind I would be obliged if you would share it with me. If you do I will have learned something profitable. Probably by way of a screen. And it will be good.

          See? <grin>

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Nine Tests for Your Screen Time

 

Screen Time 2

 

          We use screens in a wide variety of ways for a wide variety of purposes. We work on them, using documents and spreadsheets. We write code on them, fixing errors or creating programs and apps. Speaking of apps, we use them to navigate, to listen to books, to study the Bible, to read the news, to listen to podcasts and books, and to watch video. Speaking of video, we stream it by the boatload, amusing ourselves with that which catches our fancy – sports, drama, mystery, comedy, action, horror, and documentaries. We put screens into the hands of our children, placing at their disposal all that YouTube and Disney care to offer them. We browse social media, engaging in conversation and interacting with friends. We shop on our screens, researching products and then purchasing them. We buy lunch on our screens. We plan our vacations on our screens. We study on our screens, educating ourselves and our children. And this paragraph, as wide-ranging as it is, does not begin to plumb the depths of how, when, why, where, and to what extent we spend time on screens. Phones, tablets, televisions, laptops, desktops, all of them beckon to us constantly, singing their siren song.

          It is impossible to answer whether each of these uses, broadly or individually, is good or bad in every context. I am not going to try. What I do want to do in this post is give you the means to answer that question for yourself. To do so, I am going to propose a series of tests. These are questions designed to help you discern good from evil in the details of your everyday life.

          First, does using it in this way violate clear Scripture? There are numerous cases when the wisdom of our particular screen use is not confusing; it is downright sinful. Much of what we watch as we browse, stream, and game online violates plain Bible teaching. For example, consider the words of the psalmist. I will behave myself wisely in a perfect way. O when wilt thou come unto me? I will walk within my house with a perfect heart. I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes: I hate the work of them that turn aside; it shall not cleave to me. A froward heart shall depart from me: I will not know a wicked person. Whoso privily slandereth his neighbour, him will I cut off: Him that hath an high look and a proud heart will not I suffer. Mine eyes shall be upon the faithful of the land, that they may dwell with me: He that walketh in a perfect way, he shall serve me. He that worketh deceit shall not dwell within my house: He that telleth lies shall not tarry in my sight (Psalm 101.2-7). This clearly speaks and directly so to what I watch.

          Second, does using it – my screen – in this way offend my conscience? Granted, this is almost entirely subjective, but I am ok with that. God designed and created the conscience, placing it into every human heart as a somewhat fallible guide as we make life choices. I say fallible because we can bend it, molding it into our own image. The wise man strengthens it with the Word and the Spirit and experience; the foolish man weakens it with neglect, bad company, and shoddy justifications. Having said that, it is still a useful tool in this context. There is something powerfully attractive about having a clean conscience. Paul did. Earnestly beholding the council, said, Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day (Acts 23.1). Will you be able to say the same thing after beholding what you are contemplating beholding on that screen?

          Third, does using it this way cause others to stumble? Let us not therefore judge one another anymore: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way (Romans 14.13). I am aware of the fact that your liberty is not bound by my conscience. But my choices speak. They speak of me, showing what I value or accept. Further, they speak into other’s lives, affirming those same things as valuable or acceptable. It is this latter idea that is in view here. If I am using a screen around others, I must keep in mind where those others are in their emotional, mental, and spiritual maturity. I have spent hundreds of hours studying music. There is a running joke around our house that when Dad is on YouTube you stay away because he is probably watching some unsavory rock video for research purposes. While somewhat humorous, it does show us that there are some things you should not partake of while others are around because it may hurt them in ways it will not hurt you.

          Fourth, does using it in this way develop an unhealthy dependency? This is not strictly a matter of right and wrong. It is a matter of control. Something may not be wrong but still be wrong for me if it dominates me. All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any (I Corinthians 6.12). I doubt there is a passage in the entire Scripture record that pertains more to our screen use than this one. Talk about relevant. Dopamine is a real thing, and while I will speak to it later in this series put simply, our screens have a built-in tendency to addict us. They wrap their electronic tendrils around our heart and our brain, inserting themselves without our notice into our subconscious. Without even being aware of it, we reach for our phone and begin to scroll mindlessly. Why? We have been brought under its power.

          Fifth, does using it this way edify? The root of the word “edify” is edifice or building. If my thoughts, choices, and actions are edifying they will build me and those about me. Something may not be wrong, but right and wrong are not the only questions at play. Will using my screen this way help me? Will it help anybody else? All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not (I Corinthians 10.23).

          Sixth, what is the consensus of my counsellors? It is foolish to make important decisions entirely on your own, eminently foolish. Where no counsel is the people fall: But in the multitude of counsellors there is safety (Proverbs 11.14). There are people who are certified experts in the field of screen usage. Numerous studies have been done and more are being undertaken all the time. Parents and pastors have much to offer here by way of experienced perspective. We are foolish to charge on ahead, assuming that since there is nothing evil about our screen time then it must be all good.

          Seventh, will using it this way weigh me down as I try to run my race? Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12.1). It is not a sin to run a 5K in an overcoat and work boots but doing so will certainly slow you down. God has called you to accomplish something for His glory, to parent some child, to husband some wife, to follow some calling, to accomplish His purpose in your life. Will your use of your screen in this way – whichever one of the million ways you might use it – weigh you down as you seek to accomplish something with your life?

          Eighth, does using it in this way redeem the time or waste it? I am not of the opinion that every waking moment has to be spent in so-called useful occupations. Time resting is often well-spent. Time smelling the roses, actually and metaphorically, is wise. But there is a fine line between enjoying all that God has given us and killing time. And to kill time is, by definition, to murder it. I do not know how long of a ministry God will give me, but I have some important things I think God wants me to write. It would be wise to use the time I have rather than frittering it away on things that will not matter a hill of beans ten years from now. Walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time (Colossians 4.5).

          Ninth, does using it in this way feed my carnality? My flesh is a curiously stubborn thing. No matter how much spiritual Round Up I pour on my pride it still grows back. I am called to be constantly on watch, not just responding to my flesh when it rises up, but actively attacking it. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry (Colossians 3.5). In the words of John Owen, “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.” Something on that screen may be perfectly innocent of sin, but if it feeds my vanity or my covetousness, for example, I ought to excise it with the painstaking care of a surgeon operating on a cancerous tumor.

          “This is just great, Pastor Brennan. Now I can’t use my screens at all today.” I feel your pain. My screen time is on the same chopping block with this blog post as yours is. Rest assured, I am not against all screen use. I will speak more to that next week. But I do think it would behoove us to put more care and thought into whether we allow ourselves and our children a certain screen use or not.

          Screen time is not morally neutral. There are positive and negative consequences.

          Think on that today.  

Monday, October 25, 2021

Screens; Good or Bad?


Screen Time 1


          In 1895, the first commercially successful moving pictures were developed. In 1905, the first commercially successful movie theatre, the Nickelodeon, was built in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1927, the first feature length talkie film, The Jazz Singer, was released. In 1938, the first commercially available television was produced. In 1961, the first entertainment video game, Spacewar, was built at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1971, the first coin operated arcade video game, a version of Spacewar, came out. It immediately transitioned to desktop computers when those arrived. Currently, 66% of the America population plays video games. In 1977, the first commercially available home desktop computers were released by three different manufacturers, led by the Apple II. In 1983, the first commercially available cell phone was put on sale by Motorola. In 1989, the first company was launched to sell internet access to the general public. Previously, it had been limited to defense and university purposes. In 1996, the first cell phone with internet access was launched in Finland, the Nokia 9000. In 2005, the first video was uploaded to YouTube by Jawed Karim, Me at the Zoo. It is still up. Now five billion videos are watched every day just on that platform. In 2006, the first television livestream service, Justin.tv launched. Now, every minute, 97,000 hours of Netflix alone are streamed around the world. In 2007, the first iPhone appeared, with all of its ancillary world of apps. Now, approximately 2.5 billion smart phones are in use every day around the world.

          It is difficult to put into words just how revolutionary this paragraph is in world history, and how impactful it is sociologically speaking. To illustrate, I lived through the second half of the above paragraph. I remember the first desktop computers and their limited capabilities. My Dad had a RadioShack Tandy one that I played Connect Four on as a kid. We did not own a television as a child, but, of course, all of my friends did and watched theirs often. I remember the first time I saw a cell phone being used in public. It was at my college graduation in 1995. I remember the first time I logged onto the internet, listening while AOL tried to connect with that weird screeching sound. It was 1998. Email became a part of my life that year for the first time. I remember my first smart phone. I was in my mid-30s. Now then, not counting writing or sermon prep, I spend more hours a week on a screen than I care to admit.

          Screens have changed me. They have made me more efficient. They have educated me. They have allowed my ministry to expand exponentially. They have also stolen my time, tempted me, and addicted me. In none of this am I alone. Our entire society is in some real sense being radically shifted as a result of screens. Our politics, education, entertainment, work, dating, growing up, spending patterns, and a host of other things are being influenced by screens. Nor is our religion exempt. The whole concept of a church service and of church itself is being shifted.

          Is all of this use bad or wrong or wicked? Of course not. Is all of this use good and right and edifying? Of course not. Two things are factual, however. Screens occupy a larger and larger part of our life. And since they are not right or wrong intrinsically discernment in that usage is required, in some cases desperately required.

          God could, if He so chose, have listed everything that will ever be right or wrong in the Bible. For several reasons, He chose not to do so. He does list some specifics in the Word of God, but for the most part He offers us biblical principle and calls on us to use it to discern the specifics of right and wrong in each generation. For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word or righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil (Hebrews 5.12-14). In fact, as we mature, we are supposed to exercise this discernment in line with biblical principle so often that we actually become very good at it. Mature Christians use these muscles a lot.

          From time to time, I meet with those who insist if something is not spelled out in black and white in the Bible, I am not allowed to preach that it is right or wrong. That is utter nonsense. Paul told the Thessalonian church to prove all things; hold fast to that which is good (I Thessalonians 5.21). To prove here is to test something. It is to assay the ore in order to determine whether it is genuine or not. Why? Because with many things we do not automatically know. There is not a specific chapter or verse that speaks to it. So we must test it against biblical example and biblical principle, and carefully make a sound judgment call.

          In addition to this truth, just because something is not wrong does not mean it is good for you. A concept or practice may not be sinful but that does not necessarily mean it is edifying for the Christian. Paul instructs us in Philippians 1.10 to approve things that are excellent. This word “approve” is similar to his word “prove” above. It is to stamp “pass” on an idea or practice rather than “fail”. But the bar here is not ok or even good; the bar is raised to the standard of excellent.

          While I cannot deal with all of the issues at play here, between now and Thanksgiving on this blog I do intend to deal with some of the larger ones. I might also add that I found two books particularly helpful along this line. I will use some of their content in this series, though you would glean much more if you picked them up yourself. The first is a secular book by the experienced child psychologist Nicholas Kardaras. It is Glow Kids: Screen Addiction is Hijacking Our Kids and How to Break the Trance. The second is an evangelical Christian book, Tony Reinke’s 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You. To the illustrations and facts and thoughts I found here I will add some additional biblical principles, principles designed to help to prove all things, to help you discern both good and evil.

          I hope it will be a blessing and a practical help to you and your family. We will begin next week with nine questions to ask yourself in relation to your screen use.

          See you then.  

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Mingled

 Note: Thirty-four years ago, I began writing poetry. From time to time, generally between blog series, I like to share one with you. Today's poem I wrote my sophomore year of college. I was struggling a bit, remembering a painful period in high school, and associating that with my current arc. It speaks of how I would cry as I walked my paper route of an afternoon after school. We so often minimize/ignore pain. I believe/d that is unhealthy. One of the ways I've dealt with pain in my life is to write. Such was the case with this one, a meditation on tears.

Stay tuned; a new blog series launches next week
.

__________________________________________________________________


Mingled

How oft have I mingled my tears

With rain that came from the sky?

How oft through my highschool years

Did thunder drown out a cry?


The salt and the fresh on my cheek

As if they'd the perfect right

To merge into one angry streak

Stinging my face and the night?


How oft did a snowflake drift down

To melt at the touch of a tear?

On leaves all crumpled and brown

A darkening stain would appear.



How oft on a sweat-soaked face

Smudged with newspaper ink

Streaks from each eye would race

While eyelide rapidly blinked?


How oft would the bite of the wind

Whip a drop past my ear?

I'd glance, thinking to find

Rain, but be blurred with a tear.


Snowflakes, raindrops, and sweat,

Sunshine, night time, and dew,

Pine needles, gravel - I'll bet

Tears will still mingle with you.


-Tom Brennan

September 7, 1992


Sunday, October 10, 2021

Obtaining Peace: Love God's Word

Peace 14



          In this blog series, I have attempted to shine a light on that precious blessing known as peace. I have defined and described it, spoken of what accompanies it, discussed what prevents it, and given you eight specific means of obtaining it. With today’s post, I offer you the ninth and last scriptural method of obtaining God’s peace, peace of mind and heart and spirit. It is this: love God’s Word. Great peace have they which love thy law: and nothing shall offend them (Psalm 119.165).

          Loving God’s Word is mentioned several times in this psalm. O how love I thy law! It is my meditation all the day (Psalm 119.97). I hate vain thoughts: but thy law do I love (Psalm 119.113). I hate and abhor lying: but thy law do I love (Psalm 119.163). Plainly, this is a point of emphasis both in this psalm and with the Lord. Do you love the Bible? Do you love your Bible?

          It is relatively easy to quickly answer in the affirmative and move on. “Yes, Pastor Brennan, I do love God’s Word. Now, when will the peace arrive? Today or tomorrow?”  It is quite a different thing, however, to evidence that love for God’s Word. Do you have any evidence to back up your assertion that you love it? Is there any proof?

          Do not tell me you love it if you do not know it. A. W. Tozer used an unforgettable phrase as the title of his most well known book, “The Knowledge of the Holy.” The extent to which I love God is seen at least in this, the extent to which I know Him. Surely, I cannot claim to love a God I do not know much about. The same is true with God’s Word. I dare not claim I love it if I know little about it.

          Do you know the books of the Bible? Do you know the basic gist of each one? Do you know the great stories of Scripture? Do you know the main characters in the Old and New Testaments? Do you know the events of the life of Jesus Christ? Do you know where in the Word you might find the doctrines you hold as precious?

          Do not tell me you love the Bible if you do not study it. Jesus called us to search the Scriptures (John 5.39). Paul commended the Berean Christians because they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily (Acts 17.11). Paul instructs us to study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth (II Timothy 2.15).

          Do you merely listen to teaching and preaching, or does that listening drive you to study the content of it? Do you accept what your pastor says simply because he says it? Do you ever look up the references he cites later? Do you ever write down a question that comes to mind in order to search for the answer later? Would you recognize if he got off on some unscriptural tangent?

          Do you study what it has to say about your own needs? Yesterday, I sat with a child of God who is attempting to return to Him. We spoke at some length of their desire for God to work on their life. Do you have such a desire? Have you taken up the Word of God in order to find in it what you need to rebuild or grow your life?

          What do you do when you come across a word in the Bible you do not understand? Ignore the fact, or study it out? What about doctrines you do not understand? Ever study out one of those? What about a deep dive into some Bible character, tracing God’s hand at work in the arc of his or her life from beginning to end?

          Do not tell me you love the Word of God if you do not read it. Mandy and I exchange hundreds of texts a month. If I ignored them all, how could I maintain with a straight face that I love her? Why, it would be impossible. Read it at a scheduled time. Read it in an orderly manner. Read it when you are moved to, when your soul is hungry. Read it aloud with your family. Read it at work on break. Read it at school during lunch. Listen to it on CD or via a streaming app. Put it up as decoration all over your house.

          Do not tell me you love God’s Word if you do know think about it. God instructed Joshua, This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein (Joshua 1.8). Meditate on it by schedule. Meditate on when the Lord brings it to your mind. Meditate on it on purpose, to chew over what you read earlier. Meditate on how it applies to your life. Meditate on what it reveals to you about God.

          Do not tell me you love the Scripture if you do not speak about it. George Herbert said, “Love and a cough cannot be hid.” If you really love someone or something, it overflows all over your life like an unwatched pot of water boiling on the stove. People know you love the Michigan Wolverines. They know you love coffee. They know you love camping. They know you love Thai food. Yet somehow, you assert that you love the Word of God but no one in your life is aware of the fact?

          Do not tell me you love the Word if you do not sing it. Just this morning I read through Colossians and came again across the wonderful passage about singing God’s Word. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord (Colossians 3.16). We have a culture driven by music. Our celebrities are music celebrities. There is music playing in every store, during every commercial, and on most radio stations. Music tracks fill our databases. Our lives are best reflected by our self-chosen soundtrack. How much of that music is composed of what you claim to love, the Word of God?

          Do not tell me you love God’s Word if you do not memorize it. In this very psalm we are called to such precious work. Thy word have I hid in mine heart (Psalm 119.11). Can you quote by memory the verses for the plan of salvation? Do you know what it is like to lay awake at night on your bed, and softly whisper the words of Psalm 23 to quell your heart’s fear and worry? When subjects come up in discussion around you do Bible phrases and passages come often to mind?

          See? It is relatively easy to say you love God’s Word; it is rather more difficult to prove it with our lives.

          The word “great” is a terribly over-used adjective. Yet God never over-uses any word, including this one. In fact, he only defines peace as “great peace” one time in the entire Scripture record. What a priceless possession great peace must be. For such a thing, a man might give all the possessions of his house, yet it only comes one way. There is only one avenue in the entire record of Scripture to obtain great peace. We must love God’s Word.

          “I do, Pastor Brennan, I do.”

          If you know me personally, you know I have a great love for each of my children. I do not claim that; I live it. I know them. I study them, trying to figure out what makes them tick, why they do what they do, why they want what they want. I think of them often. I speak of them often. I have memorized numerous details about their life. I have even made up unique songs for each one of them. Why? Because I love them.

          So it ought to be with the Word of God in my life. And when it is, peace comes. Not just ordinary, everyday, run of the mill peace. But great peace.