The one-eyed babysitter

Odds are good that you have heard the term “one-eyed babysitter” applied to television and, specifically, the use of television to entertain and occupy children. The amount of time children spend watching television and, now, occupied in front of other screens–computers, tablets, cell phones, etc.–is another serious side effect of the decline of marriage-based, two-parent families and the number of two-parent families in which both parents work. In January 2015, The Atlantic reported on a groundbreaking study conducted by researchers in Australia that calculated the total amount of time children were spending in front of screens of all kinds, as opposed to previous studies which focused on television or computers alone.

According to the article, “the study would suggest that many students worldwide are probably using technology much more than the recommended two-hours maximum every day.” That figure has long been the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which also recommends that children under three avoid screens completely. A March 2015 report on the BBC web site stated that children aged five to sixteen spend, on average, six and a half hours per day in front of screens, with teenage boys spending an average of eight hours per day. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ web site states, “Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. In addition, the Internet and cell phones can provide platforms for illicit and risky behaviors.” Therein lies the real problem.

Any internet-capable devise puts its user a matter of a few key strokes away from accessing just about anything–and that is both good and bad. The access that we enjoy to information today provides incredible benefit and convenience. Our lives have been transformed by the ability to push a button and find the answer to virtually any question. One could easily argue that that is not always a good thing. For example, the need to memorize anything has all but disappeared. Still, the advantages offered by technology cannot be discarded. Neither, however, can the disadvantages and risks.

In a December article in WORLD on sex trafficking, Opal Singleton, training and outreach coordinator for Riverside County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force, was quoted making an important observation about the risks associated with our worldwide connectedness. “Never before has there been this much competition of influences on our kids’ morals, spirituality, self-image, and sexuality,” Singleton said. “We have perfectly normal parents handing their child devices that provide access to hundreds of thousands of strangers around the globe.” Internet chat rooms, social media sites and myriad other tools, apps and web sites that make communication to easy and convenient also make it, when unfiltered, unmonitored and carelessly used, dangerous. Singleton went on, in the same article, to describe a high school senior with a 4.0 GPA who had been confronted by her mother just days before she planned to fly to Ireland to meet a 28-year-old man she met playing an Xbox game. That is just one example among thousands that could be shared.

In December 2015, Tim Challies authored a blog post entitled “Please Don’t Give Them Porn for Christmas,” which he started this way: “This Christmas a lot of children will receive porn from under the tree. It not what they wanted, and not what their parents intended for them to have. But they will get it anyway.” What did Challies have in mind? “[G]iving your children computers, iPods, tablets—any of these devices—gives them access to the major gateway to pornography,” Challies wrote, after citing these statisics: “According to recent research, 52% of pornography is now viewed through mobile devices, and 1 in 5 searches from a mobile device is for porn. The average age of first exposure to pornography is 12. Nine out of 10 boys and 6 out of 10 girls will be exposed to pornography before the age of 18. 71% of teens hide online behavior from their parents. 28% of 16-17 year olds have been unintentionally exposed to online pornography.”

When parents are absent or are too busy to spend time with their children, getting to know them, keeping an eye on how they use their time and what they do with their electronic devices, they are creating opportunities for children to seek the attention they are not receiving from their parents in very dangerous places. Parents who are too busy, too tired or simply not present cannot provide the supervision, the attention or the training essential to the development of discernment that children need. Parents need to remember that children are a gift from the Lord and with children comes great responsibility. Parents need to be wise as serpents when it comes to the devices they allow their children to have, the amount of time they allow the children to use them and the amount of supervision they will insist upon while they are being used. Technology is a wonderful thing and can be great fun. Never, though, will a parent forgive him- or herself if they flip and east response of “go watch the television” or “go play on your tablet” results in a child addicted to pornography or lured into sexual slavery. No one thinks that will happen to their child, but the risk is just not worth it.

The most important thing

Mattel has a brand new doll they want to sell your daughter. It’s called Hello Barbie, and it takes the classic American doll to a whole new level. This new Barbie uses WiFi and speech recognition, records the voice of the doll’s owner and then, using cloud servers and voice recognition software, sends responses back through the doll’s built-in speaker which allow little girls to have conversations with their Barbie. At a toy fair in New York a Mattel presenter said that the Hello Barbie can “have a unique relationship with each girl.” According to an article by Julie Borg, the doll will be able to “play interactive games, tell jokes, initiate storytelling, and listen and learn about each girl’s preferences and then adapt accordingly.”

A Washington Post article about the doll said, “a Mattel representative introduced the newest version of Barbie [at the New York toy fair] by saying: ‘Welcome to New York, Barbie.’ The doll, named Hello Barbie, responded: ‘I love New York! Don’t you? Tell me, what’s your favorite part about the city? The food, fashion or the sights?'” Not surprisingly then, the Washington Post article was titled, “Privacy advocates try to keep ‘creepy,’ ‘eavesdropping’ Hello Barbie from hitting the shelves.” A CNN story was headlined, “Talking Barbie is too ‘creepy’ for some parents.” Borg’s article in WORLD was subtitled “New interactive Barbie blurs privacy lines.”

This excerpt from the Post article explains where the “creepy” part comes in for most people: “Hello Barbie works by recording a child’s voice with an embedded microphone that is triggered by pressing a button on the doll. As the doll ‘listens,’ audio recordings travel over the Web to a server where the snippets of speech are recognized and processed. That information is used to help form Hello Barbie’s responses.”

The doll is not scheduled to be available for sale until the fall, and the companies involved with it–Mattel and ToyTalk, the company that manufactures the software in the doll–are planning to develop privacy policies before then. Already, though, a Mattel spokesperson says, “Mattel is committed to safety and security, and ‘Hello Barbie’ conforms to applicable government standards, including the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.” Interestingly enough, the technology in the doll could be used both by the toy company and by parents to “spy” on children. ToyTalk says, “Parents can choose to receive daily or weekly e-mails with access to the audio files of their children’s conversations with Hello Barbie.” Most parents do not listen in to every conversation their children have with their toys. Part of childhood’s wonder is the ability to pretend and talk to one’s toys–that, until now, have not been able to talk back. How will the ability to listen in to those conversations impact parent’s relationships with their children? This eavesdropping could have potentially positive results, but it is not difficult to imagine potentially dangerous ones, too. Then, too, there is the potential danger of someone other than the parent accessing the recordings, either by hacking the parents e-mail or the company web site, and using the information contained in the recordings to cultivate a relationship with the child.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has already created a petition demanding that Mattel scrap the doll because of the potential for using it to market directly to children. The doll could be used to plant the idea that children ask their parents for Barbie accessories, for example, the group claims. “Kids using ‘Hello Barbie’ aren’t only talking to a doll, they are talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial,” said Susan Linn, the group’s director.

Creepy though the technology and capabilities of the doll may be, it is not difficult to understand how we got to this point. “Sales of Barbie have plummeted recently, while demand for children’s apps and online games has exploded. Children are forging their digital footprint earlier than ever, forcing parents to make thorny decisions about what kinds of technology limits to put in place during playtime,” the Washington Post reported. With more and more parents giving their children virtually unlimited access to anything the Internet has to offer, through iPads, smart phones and more, one cannot fault Mattel for finding ways to combine the latest in technological capability with their best-selling toy for young girls. Still, that does not mean the doll is a good idea.

The concerns described above are legitimate and need to be taken seriously. Borg highlights another danger, though, when she emphasizes in her article the fact that the technology contained in the doll will serve only to further separate children from real-life interactions and relationships. She points out that in their touting of the doll’s benefits, Mattel claims that the doll can eventually become a girl’s best friend. Dipesh Navsaria, a pediatrician and board member of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said, “Computer algorithms can’t replace, and should not displace, the nuanced responsiveness of caring people interacting with one another. Children’s well-being and healthy development demand relationships and conversations with real people and real friends.” We live in a culture that is already celebrating the pseudo-relationships facilitated by the convenience of instant digital communication. People send text messages to teachers when their children will be late for school, teens ask their friends for relationship advice via Facebook messaging and they spread rumors and gossip via Facebook posts. Courts have ruled that divorce papers can be served via Facebook, too. There are real dangers in abandoning genuine interpersonal relationships in favor of those that exist only in the cyber realm. People say things through keyboards they would never say to someone’s face–but that is only one of the myriad dangers that exist when one interacts with the world almost exclusively through technology.

I do not fault Mattel or ToyTalk for pursuing the creation of Hello Barbie, and I am sure that other toy companies will soon have their own offerings that incorporate this interactive technology. Again, though, that does not mean it is a good idea, and, personally, I would strongly caution parents against buying this doll for their daughters. I will not be signing any petitions opposing the release of the toy, nor do I think banning its sale is necessary. Mattel is a company driven by profit. If the doll doesn’t sell well, they will quit selling it. If your daughter still plays with Barbie’s try buying her one that doesn’t talk back, then get down on the floor and play Barbies with her–letting her and you create the voices and conversations yourselves. No tech companies will listen in, no advertising with be slipped into the conversation, and the relationship between your daughter and you will be strengthened. That’s the most important thing of all.

“The point of stultification”

The August 23 issue of WORLD and the September 8-15 issue of TIME both contain commentaries on the obsession many people today seem to have with technology–particularly of the hand-held variety. I find it interesting that two completely different publications with completely different worldviews both took a similar approach to the same topic within such a small time frame.

In WORLD, Janie B. Cheaney’s column, entitled “Generation distraction,” starts off imagining what it would have been like if Pentecost had occurred only a year ago, in a culture so obsessed with digital technology. After this imagining she writes, “This corrupt generation is still corrupt–they all are. But this generation is also supremely, unprecedentedly, distracted. And that may be even worse.” Cheaney goes on to postulate on the possibility that this distraction “suspends the normal course of sin by disengaging desire.” That is an interesting idea, and one that could be fully explored. Later, she asks whether it might be possible that crime rates have fallen in the past ten years because “our many distractions consumed some of our evil desires.” More than likely, though, the reality is this assertion Cheaney makes: “If we lust after the latest in technology, it’s only so we can be distracted better. Smartphones allow us to carry our distractions everywhere we go. Google Glass, an ‘optical head-mounted display,’ allows us to wear them. Up next: live feeds embedded in the brain, a science-fiction fantasy that may not be far off.”

Ultimately, this level of distraction is not going to aid in anyone’s sanctification. Cheaney cites pornography as just one example, what she calls “the obvious example.” We have all heard the stories of the days of yesteryear when pornography was accessible only in photographs or magazines that were kept hidden in shops and hidden at home, often in a secret stash it was hoped no one would find. With the advent of videos, pornographic movies became available. Still, stores that sold or rented them generally had them in separate spaces that were not visible to the general public and were accessible only to adults. And there was still, in general, a desire to be discreet about the use such material. Then the internet made it possible for anyone with a computer and an internet connection to access pornography almost anytime. And that was not all that long ago; I never sent an e-mail until my freshman year of college. All of the portable devices that provide internet connectivity now, and the nearly ubiquitous availability of wireless connections, mean that anyone who wants to view pornography can access it almost anywhere.

While pornography may be the “obvious example” though, there are plenty of other things that digital technology tempt us with–even many that in and of themselves are not bad. E-mail is a wonderful communication tool, one that I use frequently and very much appreciate. However, having had a BlackBerry, I know that if I can access my e-mail anytime I am prone to do just that. Not only do I like the idea of not being accessible at every moment of every day to whoever may want me at that moment, I need to disconnect from the those demands from time to time. In other words, even if I wanted to have constant access to my e-mail, is that really healthy? Do I really need to get notified every time there is a status update on Facebook, or could it wait until next time I sign in on my computer? I’ve made the decision that I don’t need, or particularly want, that access, so I have, by choice the simplest, dumbest cell phone I can find. It doesn’t even have a camera. (Gasp!) I use it to make and receive phone calls and texts, and that’s it. I cannot even receive pictures sent by someone else. I am not suggesting that this disconnect from the digital world makes me any better than anyone else, or even that it is for everyone. I am well aware that there are some times when the ability to access the internet via my phone would be really convenient. I am simply making the point that it is entirely possible to live a full and content life without it.

That is the point that Patton Oswalt makes in his TIME column, entitled “Why I Quit Twitter–and Will Again.” He explains that on June 1 he decided to take a break from all social media, planning not to return until after Labor Day. Initially he jokes about all the incredible things he accomplished without the distraction of social media, only to come clean and say that none of those incredible things really happened. What did really happen though, was this: “A couple of times, in line at a grocery store or coffee shop, instead of taking out my phone to stiff-arm the creeping ennui, I’d look around instead. At the world. At the people around me.” Did you even realize that we arrived at a point in our culture where this kind of behavior is novel–worthy of an entire column in one of the nation’s preeminent news magazines? Oswalt may not have realized it until he was the one not checking his phone. What did he see when he resisted the phone and looked around him? “Most of them [were] looking at their phones. We now inhabit a planet where the majority of population is constantly staring downward, entranced, twiddling like carpenter ants. Do pickpockets know they’re living in a second renaissance?”

The TIME column also features to startling statistics about the current addiction to smartphones. “Millenials and Gen X-ers keep their smartphones handy 22 hours a day,” says one. “The first thing that 80% of Americans do after waking is check their smartphone,” says the other. You may think my use of the word “addiction” was too strong, but try naming any other activity someone could be involved in twenty-two hours a day or consistently do immediately upon waking and not have it be considered an addiction….

Toward the end of her column Cheaney, drawing on Neil Postman’s seminal work Amusing Ourselves to Death, writes, “As a society, we’re in danger of distracting ourselves to the point of stultification. Ominous events become last week’s news cycle. Enemies steal past our outer defenses while we’re looking elsewhere. Everything matters, so nothing does. Little by little, we insulate ourselves from desire, the longing at our core that makes us human, both for good and evil.”

Digital technology and social media can be wonderful tools, so long as we use them rather than letting them consume us. In Ephesians 5:18, in The Living Bible, Paul writes, “Don’t drink too much wine, for many evils lie along that path; be filled instead with the Holy Spirit and controlled by him.” I do not think it would be wrong to suggest that the exact same principle applies to digital technology. If I may so bold, “Don’t become obsessed with technology, for many evils lie along that path.”