Three rules to avoid getting sucked into your screens

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Daughter: “Mom?”

Mom (looking at iPhone): “Mmhmmm …”

Daughter: “Mom?!”

Mom (swiping finger): “Hang on. … just a minute.”

(Two minutes later …)

Daughter: “MOM!!!”

Mom (finally looking up): “What is it, honey?”

Daughter: “Can I play on the iPad?”

Mom: “No, Honey, no screen time for you right now. It’s not good for you. Go play.”  

How many of you have conversations like that with your children? I did this very morning. Despite repeatedly resolving not to, I still find myself getting sucked into my phone’s screen during family time. It’s so hard! Our devices are everywhere, and they’re so addictive and distracting. They reward our brains with little hits of dopamine. They drag our eyeballs to themselves.

However, even if we’re not perfect, it’s important to keep working at putting boundaries around our own device use and that of our children. It’s important for our marriage, and it’s crucial for our family life.

Pope Francis is open-minded about technology and social media — he’s on Twitter! He observes that there can be benefits to our devices. However, he cautions: “We know that sometimes they can keep people apart rather than together, as when at dinnertime everyone is surfing on a mobile phone, or when one spouse falls asleep waiting for the other who spends hours playing with an electronic device. This is also something that families have to discuss and resolve in ways which encourage interaction without imposing unrealistic prohibitions. In any event, we cannot ignore the risks that these new forms of communication pose for children and adolescents.” (Amoris Laetitia 278)

We can and we must set up reasonable boundaries to help nourish connection and love “IRL” in our homes and families. These can help us guard against the dangers lurking in our devices like “thieves in the night,” ready to sneak into our relationships and steal free time, or even to snatch away our children’s innocence. Here are some simple, practical ideas for rules to help create internet-healthy marriages and family lives.

  1. Make eye contact while speaking.

We should all keep striving to rip our eyeballs away from our devices and fix them on our loved ones when they are speaking to us, or vice versa. When we look at our phones instead of our husband, our wife, or our children, that sends them an instant message: “U R not as important as what I’m doing.”

  1. No phones at the table.

Make mealtime conversation time. Pope Francis notes: “Conviviality is a sure barometer for measuring the health of relationships. … A family that hardly ever eats together, or that does not talk at the table but watches television, or looks at a smartphone, is a ‘barely familial’ family. When children are engrossed with a computer at the table, or a mobile phone, and do not talk to each other, this is not a family, it is like a boarding house.”

  1. Recharge all the family’s phones overnight in a common area.

It’s important that the phone is not the last thing your children look at before sleep and the first thing they turn to in the morning. The trick here is that modeling is key, so Mom and Dad should also plug in their phones somewhere other than their bedside. After months of trying to figure out a good way to do this, we finally invested in a docking station for the kitchen counter that can charge and store all our household’s devices overnight.

Bonus nighttime rule: Create a tech curfew.

Creating screen time limits is another common-sense boundary. Checking and discussing browsing histories, installing apps like Moment, and setting up family internet management programs like Circle and CovenantEyes help monitor use. The eyeballs — and hearts — of all family members can indeed be trained with the help of these boundaries.

Northwest Catholic - January/February 2019

Sarah Bartel

Sarah Bartel, a member of St. Andrew Parish in Sumner, holds a doctorate in moral theology and ethics from The Catholic University of America, where she specialized in marriage, family, sexual ethics and bioethics. Her website is