When my pre-teen son asked for a phone, I wondered if President David O. McKay had imagined the small devices we all carry around each day when he prophesied of scientific “discoveries latent with such potent power, either for the blessing or the destruction of human beings, as to make man’s responsibility in controlling them the most gigantic ever placed in human hands” (in Conference Report, Oct., 1966, 4). Could I hand my innocent son a little phone with more power than the first supercomputer, with all the knowledge of millions of books and world-class entertainment to put in his pocket? Would this bless him? It could. But it could also destroy him.
I became overwhelmed with fear about my children’s futures—would they become addicted to their smartphones? Would they be exposed to pornography? How would they learn to truly use their devices to share goodness? I looked for some sort of manual that would tell me exactly how to prepare my children for the digital world but couldn’t find anything. I dug in and began reading all the research on screen use and well-being I could find.
Fear and trepidation turned to hope and optimism as I realized that I could help them learn to cultivate righteous digital habits. I began to write down all the information I found so I could present something tangible to my children to help them navigate tech safely. I compiled a giant list of dos and don’ts on subjects ranging from texting to cyberbullying to pornography. I was pretty proud of my efforts until a thought from President Boyd K. Packer came to my mind repeatedly, “The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior.”
It dawned on me that if I was to be effective, I must do more than simply talk about behavior. I must teach my children the fundamental doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ to give them the why for the dos and don’ts on my list. I went back to my list, and from it I created eight gospel-centered tips, based on true doctrine, to help children cultivate righteous technology habits:
1) Remember Who You Are and Why It Matters
Before Moses led the children of Israel out of bondage, parted the Red Sea, and received the Ten Commandments, the Lord told him several times in a row, “I am the Lord Almighty . . . and, behold, thou art my son . . . and I have a work for thee” (Moses 1:3-6).
Teenagers try on lots of identities as they explore the world around them and form their own identities. Social media is replete with voices trying to tell them who they are. This is why it is crucial for each of them to understand their true identity: A child of God.
Knowing they are children of God with a divine purpose supersedes all other identities and puts everything else into context. As our children understand this basic truth, they will be better prepared to use technology in a way that enhances this knowledge. As I tuck my 8-year-old in bed each night and ask her, “Who are you?” I love to hear her sweet reply, “I am a child of God.”
2) Understand the Law of Opposition
Fundamental to God’s plan is the necessity of opposition. Our children need to understand that God’s goal is always our eternal happiness and Satan’s goal is always our eternal misery (2 Nephi 2:25,27). Satan seeks to restrict our freedom through clever tricks while God always seeks to help us be in control.
Tech use can lead people down slippery paths toward addictions and loss of control, so it is vital that they understand how to use their agency so that they remain in control instead of being controlled. Nobody, especially teenagers who are striving toward autonomy and independence, wants to let something else control them, so this concept should really resonate with them.
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3) Seek the Spirit
I love the mental image that comes to mind when I read about putting on the armor of God in Ephesians 6. Amongst all the equipment, the “sword of the Spirit” stands out because it is the only offensive piece of armor. Everything else is used for defense. Our children can learn to use the sword of the Spirit to cut through all of the deception and lies that are thrown at them.
We cannot be with them all the time and external controls and filters may not adequately keep everything out, but the Spirit can always be with them. We must teach them what it feels like to be warned of danger when they encounter inappropriate media. As they learn to listen to and follow the promptings of this internal filter, they will be protected from harm. President Nelson has counseled, “In coming days, it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost.”
To help our children learn to recognize the Spirit in their lives, our family keeps a family journal. Several times a month we take a few minutes as a family to write down experiences that we have each had with the Spirit. When any of us are having a hard time, we can go back and remember how we have been blessed by the companionship of the Holy Ghost.
4) Remember Your Purpose (in Life and on Your Phone)
God’s great purpose is for us to return to live with Him in eternal happiness. We live in a world where we are constantly distracted from our divine purpose. A million little notifications, chimes, and whistles clamor for our attention, and it’s easy to lose track of time when the lure of our phone pulls us into hours of unintended use. In ways both big and small, we can be led away from what really matters into the trivial, yet exciting world found inside our screens.
One simple way to avoid falling into this trap is to ask ourselves two important questions every time we pick up a device. First: “What is my purpose for using this device right now?” And second: “How much time will this take?” Asking these questions teaches accountability and ensures that we don’t wander down rabbit holes. As we teach our children to do this, they will learn to use technology as a tool instead of just as a way to pass time.
5) Team Up—“Be One” (Doctrine & Covenants 38:27)
Learning to use technology wisely is a team effort and requires that we all watch out for each other. There is strength and safety in numbers. That’s why, in our house, devices are used in public places where lots of eyes can see what is happening. Tech is not allowed in bedrooms or bathrooms because those are places where teammates cannot help. We all help each other follow the rules that we agreed upon as a family when we crafted our family technology plan. (Get one here: www.healthyscreenhabits.org.) My kids especially love asking me, “Mom, what’s your purpose and how long will it take?” whenever they see me on my phone. Everyone is accountable to each other.
6) “Be of Good Cheer” (John 16:33): What to Do When Feeling “Meh”
The scriptures are full of examples of people struggling with hard things. The Lord often responded by telling them to “be of good cheer.” Everyone has terrible, very bad days. One of the biggest lessons our children need to learn is how to deal with negative emotions. The omnipresent nature of devices means that it is easy for our children to soothe themselves with tech. But turning to tech to soothe or distract does not help solve the problem and can lead to bigger problems.
Someone is more likely to make poor choices while using technology when feeling low and these choices will not make it better. These poor choices can range from something as simple as soothing angry feelings after an argument by starting a hurtful group message about the other person to something as harmful as numbing those feelings by turning to pornography. Neither will make the situation better or help someone deal with negative emotions in a productive way.
By learning to acknowledge and deal with negative emotions in a healthy way, our kids can avoid many traps and pitfalls. To help my children learn to acknowledge their emotions, I compiled a list of 50 different emotions and wrote them on cards that I placed in a basket. Every Sunday at dinner time we pass around the feelings basket and define and discuss a few emotions and examples of when we’ve felt them. There are always groans before we do this, but I can tell my children have grown in their capacity to recognize and name a variety of emotions.
You might also help them write down a list of things they can turn to instead of tech when they are having a hard day. These activities can help our children to “be of good cheer” even during difficult times. Some broad categories include exercise, hugs, nature, hobbies, reaching out to friends and family, journaling, service, scripture study, and prayer. Each of my children has a list that looks very different from their siblings’ but that is effective for him or her. I remind them of their lists when they are having a bad day.
7) Everyone Needs to Make U-turns
Anyone who has a teenage driver knows that insurance premiums get exponentially larger when that teenager gets a license. That’s because, despite the best intentions, new drivers make mistakes. (In the first year of having my license I backed over my mailbox, got a ticket for running a stop sign, and ran into another car while crossing through lanes of traffic. Whoops!). Learning to be a wise technology user is like learning to drive a car. Mistakes will be made. We would do well to acknowledge this to our children and then assure them that we will be there when they make mistakes. By helping them feel like mistakes are a normal part of the learning experience we can mitigate shame and fear of parental disappointment. They will learn that we are a safe place to turn to when they need help to make a U-turn.
8) Share Goodness
As parents, it’s so easy to get caught up in worry over the flood of dangers that tech brings our way that we lose sight of all the good that can also come from its appropriate use. Let’s teach our children, through word and deed, that it can be a tool for good. Elder Bednar has counseled, “Social media channels are global tools that can personally and positively impact large numbers of individuals and families. And I believe the time has come for us as disciples of Christ to use these inspired tools appropriately and more effectively to testify of God the Eternal Father, His plan of happiness for His children, and His Son, Jesus Christ, as the Savior of the world; to proclaim the reality of the Restoration of the gospel in the latter days; and to accomplish the Lord’s work.” Our family sat down together and listed ways that we could follow this counsel and use tech for good. I am inspired by several young people I know who consistently post positive, spiritually-uplifting things on their social media feeds. As our children use tech to spread goodness, lives will be blessed and the work of salvation will be hastened.
I no longer fear the task in front of me. As I have worked to teach my children how to be wise users of technology in the context of the doctrines of the gospel, I have felt the Lord cheering me on and helping me. As parents, we have the wonderful privilege to be able to raise the next generation to rise up and use technology in a way that will benefit everyone.
Amy Adams is passionate about helping children and families navigate the digital world and establish healthy digital habits. She is the author of a faith-based workbook for kids, Screen Ed, Your Driver’s Education Manual for Smartphones. Amy is the co-founder of the non-profit, Healthy Screen Habits. She holds a master's and bachelor's degree in social work from UCLA and BYU, respectively, and is a credentialed school social worker in California where she resides with her husband and four children.