Parenting in the Age of Binge-Watching

“Put the screens away!”

If you were a fly on the wall in my family, you would hear that sentence, again and again. And it only gets worse in the summer. Because of the lack of a school routine, boredom turns to binge-watching.

I feel like a class-A hypocrite writing an article on this topic, but we’re not the only ones struggling to get a handle on it, either. Over and over it comes up in counseling sessions, phone calls, messages, and discrete conversations in the halls of the church. What does it mean to rightly parent a child of the “on-demand” generation?

Do we have to choose between the luddite lifestyle of banning technology altogether, or is there a way to make “screen use” a shepherding opportunity?

The New Neighborhood

Everyone remembers the constant cries of “I’m bored!” It’s as much a part of summer as lemonade, barbeques, and beach trips. In times past, however, there were social systems that worked to help alleviate boredom. They were called your neighbors.

Neighborhoods were alive with children playing pick-up basketball, or riding their bikes, or doing anything they could to fight the specter of boredom together. It wasn’t a perfect system by any means, but it brought kids of various ages and abilities together to battle a common enemy.

These days, it seems impromptu play in neighborhoods has all but disappeared. The result is that a child’s entertainment and play needs — and yes these are needs for a child — fall to the parent rather than being distributed across a neighborhood of resources.

Eventually, parents get burnt out or their paychecks run out, so part of the easy solution is to park the child in front of a screen. Instantly, children are both contained and entertained. It’s almost too easy. And our hearts loves easy.

Our Appetite for Easy Pleasure

Whatever the sociological causes for increased media time, there’s always a heart issue at play. Between chapters 6–26, Proverbs addresses the “sluggard” fourteen times. In fact, laziness is one of the primary foils in the wisdom literature.

The human heart wants as much pleasure as it can get for the least amount of work it has to put into it. It’s called the “pleasure principle.” When our children pick up a screen, the pleasure principle starts paying in spades.

It pays off for them because they do not have to do the hard work of socializing with others, or learning to share, compromise, and play by the rules. Their world is their own, and it goes wherever Netflix, Amazon, or YouTube will take them. And it pays off for us too. We do not have to worry about the constant nag for entertainment, the coordination of schedules and events, or the disorder of a well played-in room.

Constantly, our sin sick world invites us to indulge our sin sick heart. But the good news is that the power of the ministry of the word enables us to reign in our appetites for ease (Hebrews 12:1).

The Goal in Entertainment

It’s important to create a goal. If you have no idea what objective you are trying to attain in your kids’ use of screens, then you are going to have an incredibly difficult time deciding what behavior is appropriate.

It may seem odd to talk about screen usage as a tool for developing positive character traits, but nearly all behaviors have the ability to be shaped into something God-honoring (Colossians 3:17). In this case, responsibility and self-control are my aim.

This means that if I want to shepherd my children toward responsibility and self-control in their screen usage, the content should be appropriate, the amount of time spent should be appropriate, and their emotional attachment should be appropriate. In other words, it is possible to shepherd kids to learn to guard their own eyes, appetites, and hearts in their usage of digital devices.

Eyes (Content)

This is one of the most difficult, and maybe one of the most dangerous, facets of the interconnected, on-demand devices that we use. It’s easy for kids to grab a phone, tablet, or computer and be in any area of the house watching on their own. In that context, kids can stumble upon, or look for, all types of inappropriate content.

I prefer children watch only when others are around. This means that they cannot hide the content, and they are less likely to find themselves in the vast expanse of inappropriate material.

However, even with this safeguard, it doesn’t take much to get somewhere bad. That’s where I expect my child to immediately stop watching and inform an adult if something approaching inappropriate comes on. Consequently, before I would allow my child to start selecting shows to watch, they must be able to demonstrate to me that they understand what is appropriate and inappropriate.

Appetite (Time)

My kids (and I) could sit and watch all day. But that’s not healthy (Proverbs 13:4). For years, the American Academy of Pediatricians has recommended no more than two hours of recreational screen time a day, but that seems to be on the verge of being scrapped in favor of a “well-balanced” approach, which emphasizes physical play and socialization to go alongside the present realities of a digital native generation (Brown, Shifrin, & Hill, 2015).

Whatever the limits, well-communicated boundaries help children to develop healthy habits. Letting them know that the morning or evening won’t be filled with endless videos helps them learn to manage their time and their appetites. Break the binge by setting a defined limit of sustained screen time.

Then it’s time to do something else: read, play, do chores, lay in bed and stare at the ceiling — I don’t care — but binge-watching teaches children to indulge their appetites, not control them.

Heart (Attachment)

Who hasn’t yearned to see the next episode of their favorite show? But when children’s emotions start being tied to the screen, it’s time to cut back.

Look for irritability, trouble sleeping, obsessive thoughts, decreased interest in other recreational activities, willingness to skip meals, and/or increased relational difficulties. You know your child — if you notice a withdrawal of their personality or decrease in their ability to regulate their personality, it may be time to turn the screen off and send the kid outside.

Redeem the Opportunity of Entertainment

In the end, screen usage, while it can be problematic, also has the potential to help children learn some basics about how to guard their eyes, their appetites, and their hearts. However, this requires parents who are willing to put in the thought, energy, and time to do the same for themselves. If a shepherd wants to help a child guard his soul, the shepherd should know something about guarding his own soul.

We’re prone to freak out over this, but we shouldn’t. In this regard, I agree with Kevin DeYoung in his piece “The Great Parental Freak Out.” It’s okay. The fact that you are willing to read an article about this issue in the first place is a good sign. Love your kids well. Try to be like Jesus to them, confess when you are not, and have fun.

Nevertheless, as we aim to love Jesus and our children more, we must strive to address the obsession for and usage of on-demand entertainment.

(@RevJASquires) serves as pastor of counseling and congregational care at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He and his wife have five children.