Two weekends ago, our family sat through a message by Brad Huddleston, speaker and author of the books, The Dark Side of Technology, and Digital Cocaine. Some of his claims raised conflicting views and reactions from the audience because he presented a rather extreme view on technology and its effects on a person — child or adult.
Comparing the brain of a Cocaine addict to that of a person addicted to technology, namely video games, pornography, and social media, the conclusion of neuroscience is that the brain scans show similar results. What are the symptoms of someone who is addicted to technology?
2. Anxiety (often manifested in depression)
3. Anhedonia (or lack of feeling)
The other problem that Brad Huddleston identified was the way digital experiences hit the pleasure center of the brain in such a way that they created a dopamine-resistance effect. God designed the brain to produce dopamine in response to positive experiences. However, the reaction of the brain to digital stimulation is different.
Take for instance someone who is viewing pornography regularly. Over time, the same images no longer appeal to him or her. They move on to more graphic and perverse forms of visual stimulation in order to enjoy the highs they hope to. In extreme cases, the acts must be rolled played in real life to satisfy the hunger for sexual gratification. Sadly, in many marriages, there is an ability to perform due to a lack of stimulation afforded by one’s own spouse. For singles, there is an unrealistic expectation of the opposite sex that gets carried into marriage.
Edric and I have counseled couples who weren’t enjoying sex as God designed it because of pornography addiction. Or, they needed pornography to put themselves in the “mood” for intimacy with one another. Others admitted to having an extra-marital affair to enjoy sexual encounters that resembled what they saw on-line.
Therefore, the research that Huddleston presented made sense to explain the dysfunction that these couples are suffering from. There is a law of diminishing returns in effect when it comes to intoxicating oneself through the eyes. Job 31:1 says, “I have made a covenant with my eyes…”
Negative and excessive digital experiences in the form of gaming, pornography, and social media are like Cocaine through the eyes if we aren’t careful or aware of it’s effects. At the end of the day, it’s really sin begetting more sin beginning with a lack of self-control and discipline.
I am no neuroscientist but I have observed the symptoms of anger, anxiety, and Anhedonia in my own children as well as other people who are hooked on gadgets. Perhaps these haven’t been in as extreme degrees as Huddleston revealed during his talk, but I’ve seen manifestations of them nonetheless.
My five year old, Catalina, used to get upset when she wasn’t allowed to watch a Netflix cartoon she liked. My older kids would tell me they felt bored when they weren’t on their devices. As for my oldest son, Elijah, he was starting to develop an attachment and dependence on social media applications like Facebook messenger to stay connected to his high school friends, manifesting anxiety when he wasn’t able to respond right away or keep up with the thread.
To clarify things, my kids don’t use gadgets typically. They aren’t allowed to play random games on their gadgets. They share two tablets among the five of them because the other two are practically obsolete and malfunction too often to be useful. Only Elijah has a phone with a data plan. He needs a phone because he has swimming practice every day and schedules need to be coordinated, or he has activities with the high school leadership team, as well as other organizations and he is a part of and needs a means to communicate.
On average, the kids get about an hour of gadget time on days when they are allowed to be on a device. Usually, this means they will be playing an educational app (that still relates to their homeschool work), or they will message their friends, or maybe watch something appropriate and pre-approved on Netflix. Elijah is the exception because he builds websites and codes as a programmer to help the homeschool high schoolers, and he creates apps. Of all my kids, he’s the one who spends a lot more time online.
However, I never really considered my kids “addicted” to technology in the way Brad described. In fact, I thought that our family was doing pretty well in this area — everything was controlled and monitored, and, for the most part, purposeful. We weren’t the type of family who had gadgets at the table when sharing a meal together. Our older sons, by God’s grace, were made aware of the dangers of pornography when they were younger, before the hormones ever kicked in so they knew to avoid it. We also shared a lot of healthy bonding through exercise, playing board games, having family date nights, being outdoors, etc.
Therefore, it surprised me when our kids stood up as the church service ended to admit that they were addicted to technology and wanted to change. Each one of them gave their various reasons for their humble admittance. Even Edric said he was “addicted” to Netflix. There were a few occasions where he binged on some shows, but realistically, he didn’t have the luxury of a lot of idle time so this wasn’t a common problem.
After the message of Huddleston, we processed perspectives, and everyone was convicted to do something drastic, so Edric decided that we would go on the recommended six week digital detox that supposedly resets the brain. While Huddleston’s research showed the extent of the damage that digital addiction can have on the brain, God has also designed the brain with plasticity, which means it can be “healed.”
Admittedly, a part of me feared that this was going in the direction of legalism. I didn’t want our kids to think we had to be the type of family that lived under a rock and made choices that labeled us as irrelevant to the world today. I mean, was it realistic for kids to grow up without technology or with such stringent applications of it? What if a child desired to pursue computer programming? What if he or she had a bent for media and design? What if his business in the future depended on the frequent use of technology?
However, I parked these concerns and questions to be on board with Edric’s decision to commit to a family digital detox. After all, it would only be for six weeks. It wouldn’t kill the kids to go through this, although six weeks would probably feel a lot longer to them than it would to Edric and me since we still needed to use our devices for work and ministry-related commitments. Regardless, I was aligned with the intent of the decision. We wanted our family to experience freedom from any sort of addiction.
Technology isn’t evil or sinful. It may be used for the wrong purposes at times and in excess, but it can be a valuable tool as well. That’s my personal stand on it, as well as Edric’s. Yet, we get where Brad Huddleston is coming from as well. The spiritual principle behind it is this, “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify.” (1 Corinthians 10:23)
“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12)
Since the kids felt like they were being “mastered” by gadgets, these were the things we agreed to (and continue to do):
1. Edric and I go online to check email and social media three times a day, for just twenty minutes at a time. If we have to do work on our computers this doesn’t apply, but we avoid randomly defaulting to using WhatsApp, Viber, Instagram, Facebook and Facebook Messenger outside of these agreed upon time slots. (The time slots are morning, noon, and early evening, but preferably before dinner and not before bedtime.)
2. Our notifications are all turned off which means we don’t get distracted by them. This also means that when we do check our social media platforms they may be flooded with messages, but it makes us more purposeful about using the twenty-minute block to reply to what’s most important.
3. The kids have twenty minutes a day in total to check their own devices for updates from friends (for Elijah and Edan). Titus, Tiana, and Catalina are completely off gadgets, television, or Netflix for the next six weeks since the recommended age for screens is 12 and above only.
4. No games, even educational ones, for any of our kids. They can still work on their online courses for math or write their papers but that’s it for now. Microsoft Word or Pages is not addicting, especially if it’s done off-line!
5. We suspended watching movies as a family (one of our previous, favorite forms of entertainment), and will continue to do so for the duration of the six weeks. (Oh my, if Aquaman shows in cinemas during this period, we may have to make an exception!)
6. Gadget time is replaced with analog activities.
So far, Edric and I have seen the following positive results in our kids:
– They are playing together, something that was becoming less common. In fact, Titus very sweetly remarked, “I am happy we are off gadgets because my brothers play with me now.” He actually teared a little when he shared this.
– They are bickering less! This has been a miracle. Somehow, being off gadgets has made them less self-focused and preoccupied, resulting in more thoughtful and kind exchanges.
– They are having a whole lot of fun! As my daughter, Tiana, remarked this morning, “I don’t want to go back to gadgets because gadgets aren’t good for my brain, and I’m having a happier life.” They have not complained about being bored or having nothing to do. There’s a lot more noise and mess in our home, but that’s okay.
– They have better attentiveness and focus as they do their homeschool work, and better attitudes, too! What a blessing for me!
– Everyone tends to get tired by 9PM because there isn’t the temptation to be watching a tv series, movie, or respond to threads and conversations online, which is translating to better night-time routines and quality sleep.
– We are all enjoying more bonding moments together where everyone is engaged and present. I’ve gone back to reading to the kids in the evenings, something that was starting to get parked in favor of unwinding in front of a screen.
The key has been going through the detox as a family, and not forcing the kids to do it by themselves. Since we are all participating in this, especially Edric, the kids feel inspired to keep at it, too. Even Catalina has stopped asking to borrow my phone. She gets that this is a family commitment.
As for me, I feel a lot less stress because I don’t feel obligated to check my phone all the time. Friends, family, and people I work with know that I am doing this digital detox program with Edric and the kids, and they have been very understanding. I take longer to respond to messages, but the world goes on without me. No one is missing me. If something is urgent, a phone call works or a text message works best for now.
I don’t know what’s going to happen after this detox period, but the results and effects have been worth it so far. It’s hard to imagine shifting back into the mode where everyone can revert to their gadgets for easy entertainment. This time of purposeful pause from the online space has been one of the best decisions we made as a family this year. It’s probably hardest for Elijah because of his age and the way his peers are. (They don’t think it’s realistic or normal to be doing what we are doing.)
We’ve chosen not to care about how this appears to others because we are doing this for reasons that prioritize the health and well-being of our kids, and of ourselves. Furthermore, God has designed multitudinous options that give us the dopamine effect without compromising the brain, such as having face-to-face conversations, playing board games and strategy games, completing puzzles together as a family, listening to audio books, exercising, doing sports, being outside, building, creating, designing, developing talents, learning new skills, reading, writing, getting together with friends, participating in ministry activities, eating, cooking and baking, doing crafts and art, and the list goes on and on.
These may not be considered top of mind, “exciting” or fun when gadgets are an option. However, when there is no access to easy entertainment, the kids are amazingly inspired and inventive. They seek out other forms of positive amusement! They are more contented and joyful children, too.
Some time ago, I became a milk brand ambassador for Friso Four, and it compelled me to be a more involved and intentional mom because one of it’s values is being very engaged with your children. So, I used to think I was a pretty hands-on mom prior to Brad Huddleston’s talk, but this time of detoxing has revealed to me that there are more ways I can improve. I can get preoccupied with my own phone at the expense of quality moments with my kids.
This entry is not meant to make parents feel condemned if they choose not to apply the same things we are doing. Enforcing a digital detox program in the home has to come from a place of personal conviction. It’s not going to be easy, especially with older children and young adults. There will be resistance and even anger. While I can present the research and data from Huddleston, the better recourse for families is to prayerfully consult the Lord on what can and should be implemented.
I don’t doubt that most parents genuinely want what is best for their kids. Sometimes, we simply don’t think through the repercussions of the digital space on our children or even ourselves, and we make assumptions about its effects, whether negative or positive. Therefore, the resolution any parent comes up with ought to be hinged on certain important questions:
1. Do I see signs and symptoms of digital addiction in my kids – Anger, Anxiety, or Anhedonia?
2. Do I know what my kids are doing online? Am I aware if they are struggling with addiction to gaming, pornography, or social media?
3. Are there better ways for us to bond as a family and connect with one another?
4. Are my kids getting enough sleep at night, rest, exercise, and outdoor play?
5. Am I setting a bad example for my kids by being hooked on gadgets myself? How should I change my own behavior?
6. Is the digital world affecting my intimacy with the Lord, replacing Him, and becoming more important to me than growing in my own walk with Him?
The answers to these questions will determine whether a detox is necessary, and to what extent it should be done. In the meantime, I hope this gives you a little more courage—that it can be done, kids can survive just fine without hovering over devices, and the results are worth it for everyone in the family!