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Map for Parents in the Digital Technology Jungle

Last Updated: April 27, 2015

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by Dr. David Murray

As a pastor, I’ve come across many different parental approaches to the jungle of digital technology.

The ostrich parent sticks his head in the sand and hopes that the next time he pulls his head out, computers, cell phones, the Internet, and all the problems they cause will somehow have been vaporized. Ignorance is bliss.

The snake Dad slinks around the house creeping up on his teenage son at his iPad, hoping to catch him red-handed and red-faced. Snake Mom sneaks through her daughter’s Facebook pages, using an alias, hoping to find deadly evidence of a secret boyfriend.

Dad the lion roars in fury at the slightest infraction of cell phone usage limits, sometimes ripping it from its owner and smashing it against a wall.

The donkeys stubbornly refuse to move with the times. No matter how hard their children pull, they will not budge. They never had cell phones when they were young and they turned out all right!

The sheep family (yes, there are sheep in this jungle) just do what everyone else is doing, because that must be OK, mustn’t it?

The giraffes look down on everyone else with an air of superiority. After all, their children would never stoop so low as to even think about looking at porn. Would they?

The cheetah family is always out in front, moving as fast as the times, if not faster. They love Macs especially. Their one rule is, “Always be first.”

Pastor, Parent, and Sinner

I’m not just a pastor; I’m a parent too. I have two teenage boys and two younger girls. Although my wife and I have tried to encourage year-round outdoor play, the boys’ educational needs and growing interest in videography was putting increasing pressure on me to provide them with some access to the Internet. But how could I do that safely?

And I’m not just a pastor and a parent, I’m a sinner and I am temptable. In fact, maybe I am more susceptible than most. I am often working on my own in a study or office, using the Internet for research, e-mail, and news services. As a pastor, I am probably more of a target for the devil. And as someone who has always loved technology and its potential for ministry, I am constantly thinking about new ways of using these tools. Up until now, by God’s grace, I have never succumbed. But there have been opportunities, and there will be more. How do I care for and protect my own purity? And—a more subtle temptation—how do I prevent my love of technology from becoming an addiction?

All these questions were swirling in my own mind, when I was asked, a year ago, to prepare an address on “A Christian Response to the Digital Revolution.” I found some good books, but not much at a popular level. Many of them also lacked practical solutions for concerned parents. They flagged the problems, and gave some very general guidelines, but little by way of very concrete specifics. I also felt that few of the books approached the problem with a biblical framework.

Disciplined Discernment

Over a few weeks I pieced together an address that began with some biblical principles; principles that I then used to examine the different parental responses to the Internet, etc. Having shown the error of enthusiastic embrace (accepting everything without question) and strict separation (the Internet is of the devil and we’ll have nothing to do with it), I presented a case for disciplined discernment.

  • Discernment refers to the ability to distinguish between true and false, right and wrong, good and bad.
  • Disciplined discernment indicates that this is an ability that can be learned, and should be practiced daily. If we develop this discipline, we will be able to discern the good in technology and separate it from the bad and the harmful.

But how does that work itself out in our daily lives? What does disciplined discernment look like? How do I learn it, and how do I train my children to do it? That’s what I really wanted to help parents with.

So, I developed a graduated seven-step training program to guide the training of children in disciplined discernment. That included a recommendation of filter and accountability software. Having looked at what was available, and having experimented with a number of different products, Covenant Eyes became my number one recommendation. The three things I really liked about Covenant Eyes were:

  1. The emphasis on building relationships via accountability
  2. The readability of their weekly reports
  3. The effectiveness (but not over-sensitivity) of their filter system

God’s Technology

Gods TechnologyWhen I gave the address, I ran out of time. That meant I left out the last section of my address on how to apply these seven steps to Facebook. Afterward, many parents came up to me and thanked me for the practical nature of my address, and urged me to make the Facebook section available on the Internet, as that was the biggest area of conflict in their families.

Quite soon I began to get more invitations to speak on the subject, more than I could handle. So, I thought, why not make a film that will include the Facebook section as well, and then I can send the film instead of myself!

And that’s what we did. With the help of a gifted young film guy we put together a video called God’s Technology. We’ve also made a study guide available online to help families, churches, schools and other groups to think about these issues further. In the coming year, we plan to make a second film, this one geared specifically to teenagers. We hope both films, together with the great work being done by Covenant Eyes, will help more and more families use God’s technology for God’s glory.

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Dr. David Murray is Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He was a pastor in Scotland for 12 years before moving to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2007. He has a Doctor of Ministry degree for his work relating Old Testament Introduction studies to the pastoral ministry. He and his wife, Shona, have four children: Allan, Angus, Joni, and Amy. He blogs regularly at Head Heart Hand: Leadership for Servants.